Colorado lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Tuesday to revive the legislative session after the spread of the coronavirus led to a 10-week intermission. But the lawmaking won’t look the same.
In the time since lawmakers hit pause, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything — including the priorities for the Democratic-led General Assembly. The disease immobilized the state’s economy for months and the fallout is expected to endure for years. The top priority for lawmakers is crafting a state budget for the next fiscal year that closes a $3 billion deficit and preserves core government services.
To get a sense for what to expect, The Colorado Sun’s political reporters John Frank and Jesse Paul sat down (remotely, of course) to talk about the big storylines, what lawmaking will look like and how the budget factors into the picture.
The conversation below is edited for clarity and length.
John Frank: The legislature adjourned March 14 for two weeks. Now here we are two months later — after three more delays — and lawmakers are preparing to finally return Tuesday. What do you expect it to look like?
Jesse Paul: I’m not expecting the session to look much like it did two months ago. Big policy items have been axed, lawmakers aren’t exactly excited to be at the Capitol because they’re fearful of getting sick and there’s no money. So what’s left on the table?
John Frank: That’s the big question. The budget for one, but let’s put a pin in that topic for the moment. In terms of legislation, there’s a whole lot in the mix and the bills fit into two main categories: The old and the new.
Remember, when the session came to a halt, lawmakers were just over the halfway mark. So there are more than 300 bills still outstanding that need committee hearings and votes. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, told me Friday that he expects only about 100 of those bills — or less than a third — to make it across the finish line.
Jesse Paul: What’s interesting about the bills that won’t make it across the finish line: They aren’t going to fail because lawmakers can’t agree on the policies. It’s because legislators want to keep their time in the Capitol limited — and the budget has been so depleted that there isn’t money to enact new programs.
I’ll be watching to see if any tension arises as lawmakers are forced to set aside their big ideas. I’m already hearing from some that they may not be so willing to let go. House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, said that’s been one of her toughest jobs lately — breaking the news to her members that they must kill their darlings.
Here’s what we know is dead:
- An effort to create a public health insurance option
- A bill creating a statewide paid family and parental leave program
- A push to increase oversight over law enforcement-involved deaths
- School safety measures
I’ve also heard that a push to tighten gun legislation may be sidelined.
What legislation do you hear will stay on the table?
John Frank: Well, as our colleague Sandra Fish reported for The Unaffiliated back in April, the new mantra from the House speaker is “fast, friendly and free” — so that doesn’t leave much. Moreover, I talked to a Senate Democrat last week who expressed concern about tackling topics unrelated to the pandemic at the risk of sounding tone deaf.
But as you pointed out, just about all the priorities lawmakers identified in January are no longer priorities. Looking back at that list shows how much has changed.
So that brings us to the second category of legislation — new bills. And it could be a lengthy list. What new legislation are you tracking?
Jesse Paul: I’m interested to see what legislation arises around price gouging, workers compensation and potentially even aid for people living in the U.S. illegally. While Republicans I’ve spoken with say they don’t plan to challenge Gov. Jared Polis’ executive powers, I wouldn’t rule out a measure that sends a clear message from the GOP that they don’t approve of his pandemic response.
John Frank: Given the rhetoric from Republicans, I would expect them to make a statement. House Republican leader Patrick Neville sent a fundraising email to supporters saying Polis was “drunk with power.”
It’s interesting because much of the legislation expected from Democrats — the majority party — will seek to extend or codify the executive orders from Polis when it comes to protecting workers in essential jobs, helping people pay rent and extending unemployment to people who work only part-time, what’s known as work-share.
Jesse Paul: Right, like allowing restaurants to sell takeout alcohol and allowing their servers to work as delivery drivers. It will be really interesting to see how long these extend these for, because they are policies that have been fought over at the legislature for years.
John Frank: The most limiting factor is probably time. Democratic legislative leaders suggest they plan to return for only three weeks, and the budget will consume the better part of a week in each chamber.
Now, lawmakers plan to maximize their time. The House is talking about working this Saturday to conduct debate and final votes on the budget.
But one of the major unknowns about their return is when they will adjourn. Democratic leaders have refused for weeks to set a certain end date. And the ruling from the Colorado Supreme Court that allowed session to extend beyond the original May 6 adjournment date allows them to meet for the full 120 days with breaks as long as the state remains under a public health emergency. So the lawmakers could go beyond the three weeks, or recess to a later date, or adjourn for good with the prospect of a special session later in the year.
Keep in mind, it’s an election year — and the primary is June 30 — so that will complicate the schedule because lawmakers will feel pressure to hit the (virtual) campaign trail.
But beyond how long lawmakers return, one major question for me is what the lawmaking actually looks like.
Jesse Paul: The Capitol will be open to the public, but people entering will undergo a temperature check. Visitors are also asked to stay away if they have symptoms, but won’t be forced to leave.
In the House and Senate, there will be new spacing to ensure that lawmakers are at least six feet away from each other. Some may be seated in the galleries now as a result. Mask-wearing has been a point of contention, with Republicans objecting to a directive that they cover their faces. There isn’t a requirement for legislators as a result, and I would expect to see some tension there.
The Capitol press corps has reached an agreement that will enable one reporter on the House and Senate floor at any given time who can be the eyes and ears of all of us. There will also be some limited, designated seating for reporters in the galleries that overlook the chambers.
The corridors and lobbies are small, so I’m fully expecting there to be some awkward dances in the hallways as people try to keep their distance from one another.
John Frank: The mask policy is a major point of contention. The legislative leaders only came to agreement on what they called “informal guidance” for the Capitol when it comes to face coverings, social distancing and more that stops well short of most best practices from federal, state and local public health officials.
But — get this — I recently learned that Senate Democratic leaders who said they plan to amend the rules to require masks on the floor. If this happens in the Senate, I’d expect the same in the House. So yes, there could be tension. As one Republican leader put it, mandates don’t work.
The two sides also couldn’t agree on remote participation for some lawmakers — but Democratic leaders say they will move ahead to allow it in a limited form because some lawmakers fit into vulnerable categories in terms of health.
Jesse Paul: OK, so you mentioned that the budget is going to be the big-ticket item when lawmakers return. I’m bad at math, so can you explain?
John Frank: The first number you need to know: $3 billion. This is the approximate size of the budget deficit for the current and next fiscal years, and it loomed over the budget deliberations for three weeks as lawmakers looked to cut 25% from the state’s spending plan.
I followed the Joint Budget Committee deliberations the entire time and wrote a lengthy story about how the budget came together. The too long; didn’t read version: It was painful and not much was spared.
Jesse Paul: Lawmakers always fight for their priorities in the budget. Do you think that will happen this year? Is there going to be patience for that kind of pushback?
John Frank: One of the most profound impacts of the budget shortfall is how it led to the repeal of significant elements of the big Democratic agenda from the 2019 legislative session. For the cuts, it was a last-in, first-out policy, and that really set back the majority’s policy agenda after it won complete control of the lawmaking process in the 2018 election.
In terms of the budget moving forward, you raise a good question. In better times, lawmakers can win votes to make a handful of major changes to the budget. This year, it may be harder to pass amendments because it’s hard to find money to cover the cost. But Republicans have made clear that they plan to strongly fight one element — the suspension of the senior homestead exemption, which gives older Coloradans and disabled military veterans a property tax break on their homes.
Jesse Paul: In The Unaffiliated, our politics newsletter, on Friday you talked about some big looming questions with the budget. What should I and our readers be looking for?
John Frank: The budget bill is drafted — and set for introduction this week — but plenty of mysteries are tucked inside the pages, as I mentioned in the newsletter. One is the impact of the 5% cut to the line item for state employee salaries in each agency. We’re still not sure what this will mean for government workers because budget writers left it up to Gov. Jared Polis to determine how to make the $111 million in cuts.
One big unknown is a placeholder in the budget for future legislation. The Sun’s confirmed that a portion of the $260 million placeholder is related to repealing tax breaks. Which ones? We don’t know. But this is sure to be a major point of contention that will amplify the debate when lawmakers return. So stay tuned.
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