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Colorado Democrats unveil plan for $70 million in federal coronavirus aid, including small business loans and renter help

Republicans say they were not consulted on the state’s CARES Act spending once again.

Speaker of the House KC Becker addresses the House as the second regular session of the 72nd Colorado General Assembly convenes at the Colorado State Capitol on January 8, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)
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Democrats in the Colorado legislature announced a slate of initiatives Thursday to spend $70 million in federal coronavirus aid, including a grant program to help small businesses recover from the pandemic and funds for mental health, domestic violence and renter assistance.

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The money is a portion of the $1.67 billion Colorado received through the federal CARES Act. Most of those funds already were allocated to schools and higher education by Gov. Jared Polis, but he left a small portion for lawmakers to spend.

Democrats, who control the state Senate and House, said they will spend $20 million on the newly created “Energize Colorado Fund,” which will provide grants to small businesses with fewer than 25 employees. Businesses owned by veterans, women and minorities will have preference among the applicants, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said. 

The fund, created in the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade, is intended for small businesses that either did not qualify or were unsuccessful in receiving forgivable loans offered by the federal government because of the pandemic. The grants will go to those businesses in industries hardest hit by the economic shutdown, including restaurants and tourism, the senator said.

The state is required to spend the CARES Act money by the end of the year. 

“It’s a lot of money,” said Fenberg, D-Boulder. “It’s also a drop in the bucket for the amount of money that a lot of these small businesses need to be anywhere close to where they were before this crisis. That’s not the goal, obviously. That’s not going to happen. Everybody is going to suffer through this a little bit, but the plan is to get money out the door.”

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, right, talks to Senate GOP leader Chris Holbert on the floor May 28, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A related measure — not funded through CARES Act dollars — would set up a $250 million small business recovery loan program in Colorado. The legislation from Democratic Reps. Shannon Bird and Lisa Cutter would use $50 million in seed money from the state, generated through the sale of life insurance premium tax credits, and $200 million from private lenders. 

Bird, who is from Westminster, said the program would jumpstart loans for small businesses throughout Colorado, particularly in rural areas. The loans would be available for the next two years.

Democrats also proposed spending $15 million of the federal money on mental health and substance abuse treatment, $20 million in rental and mortgage assistance and $500,000 to help those who experienced domestic violence “as a result of spending more time at home with their abusers” while Colorado was in a stay-at-home phase and social distancing. The rental assistance includes $350,000 in legal aid for those facing eviction. 

Republican lawmakers, who were already angered that Polis allocated most of the federal money without bipartisan input, said they were not consulted on how to spend the legislature’s share of the relief funds. 

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, said he’s upset that Republicans were once again left out of discussions about the dollars. 

“Well, that’s interesting. I have no idea. I would be pleased to learn that,” said Rankin when asked about the Democratic legislation. “It violates trust.”

Rankin said the governor called him at “the exact time” he released the executive order allocating the bulk of the money earlier this month. The senator said he told Polis, “Governor, you promised that this would go through the legislative process,” and that the governor responded that he needed to act fast.

“I was hoping we would look at the $70 million, talk about how it would be spent. Any amount that could not be legitimately spent on COVID, we know we can put into unemployment insurance,” he said. 

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker, said leaving GOP lawmakers out of the conversation is “frustrating on a personal level.” He also would have liked some of the funds to go toward unemployment insurance because the state’s fund was depleted by the coronavirus outbreak, meaning business owners are likely to face higher premiums. An amendment to the budget in the House earlier this week added language encouraging the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment not to increase unemployment insurance premiums in January 2021.

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, said that whatever funds are not allocated as part of the Democratic proposals will go toward Colorado’s unemployment insurance fund.

The $15 million for mental health would go to the state health department and state human services department for various programs, including to help youth who have suffered from isolation while schools were closed to in-person learning. 

The funds will go to mental health centers, toward substance abuse treatment and to fund co-responders who accompany law enforcement in the field, said Robert Werthwein, director of the state Office of Behavioral Health. Calls to the state’s crisis hotline have gone up 30% since the coronavirus pandemic, he said. 

“The need for behavioral health services are compounded by the challenges associated with COVID-19 and the more than half a million individuals who have filed for unemployment in Colorado,” Democrats said in an emailed statement. 

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Other proposals include $10 million to help people who are at risk of having their utilities shut off due to unpaid bills. Most utilities did not disconnect utilities during the pandemic, but those moratoriums eventually will lift. 

Another bill would provide $500,000 for food banks and create new markets for agricultural products. 

Democrats also touted new legislation that would not use CARES Act money but is aimed at helping people affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including one bill intended to guard against price gouging and another to protect whistleblowers who raise concerns about working conditions. 

The package of bills will be introduced Thursday and Friday, Democratic leaders said. 

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