Spirited debates about tax increases and school-required vaccinations, and policies to end police brutality have dominated the final days of Colorado’s coronavirus legislative session, expected to soon reach its last gavel.
But lawmakers also decided on dozens of other proposals that will affect everything from their own salaries to whether Coloradans can keep ordering to-go martinis. They voted to prevent murder defendants from claiming they “panicked” upon finding out their victim was gay or transgender and to ask voters to decide in November whether to get rid of a complex constitutional amendment that limits property taxes.
The Democratic-controlled legislature is about to wrap up three weeks of lawmaking in what will go down as one of the strangest sessions in history: one where visitors faced temperature checks at the door, where more than half of lawmakers — mainly depending on their party affiliation — wore masks as they debated bills, and where protestors rallied almost daily for “Black Lives Matter” on the front steps.
The end of every legislative session in Colorado is hectic, but rarely are lawmakers taking up so many consequential bills so quickly. Part of the reason the finish has been so extraordinary is that lawmakers don’t have a set end date as they normally do.
The legislature is adjourning as fast as possible to protect legislators, staff and the public from catching coronavirus, even though lawmakers could technically meet for weeks longer. The lack of timeline has meant a wave of last-minute bills and the day of adjournment has been a moving target as a result.
“There’s an unusually high number of new bills,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “There’s no deadlines to build out a cadence that helps the system.”
Here are some of the most interesting and important pieces of legislation as lawmakers headed into their last 24 hours:
A popular pandemic policy: to-go alcohol
Liquor stores aren’t fans of this one, but a plan to let restaurants keep selling to-go cocktails for another year is popular with the general public.
Senate Bill 213 to extend take-out alcohol sales until July 2021 flew through the Senate with a near-unanimous vote and is now in the House.
Restaurant and bar owners say the coronavirus-related executive order from Gov. Jared Polis that allowed them to sell cocktails, wine and beer along with to-go food during the stay-at-home phase of the pandemic helped keep them in business. And it could help them in the months to come as many customers are likely to avoid in-person dining.
A poll by the Colorado Restaurant Association found that 85% of people want to keep to-go cocktails.
“Alcohol to unite the politicians!” joked Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo Democrat, before the House gave initial approval to the bill Friday afternoon. She suggested renaming it the “Freedom in Beer Act,” though that amendment was withdrawn.
The bill, with broad bipartisan support, still needs a final vote in the House to pass. Polis hasn’t directly commented on the legislation, but he did extend his executive order allowing to-go sales three times so far.
A bill giving child sex assault survivors unlimited time to sue dies in stunning fashion
Legislation that would have given future child sexual assault victims an unlimited time to sue their abusers — instead of only six years as allowed under current law — imploded Friday afternoon.
The bill’s own sponsor asked fellow lawmakers to kill it, vowing to bring it back next year and add a so-called “look-back window” so that prior victims of assault could also sue their abusers.
“I’m not willing to pass a bill that lets perpetrators off the hook,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “I will not settle for watered-down justice.”
An effort to extend eviction protections falls short
In the final days of the legislative session, Democrats and renter advocates were working to broker a deal to extend Gov. Jared Polis’ moratorium on evictions in response to the economic effects of coronavirus. The moratorium expires Saturday.
But by Thursday night, that deal had fallen apart.
Gonzales said in an hour-long speech on the Senate floor that she couldn’t secure enough votes from her Democratic colleagues to pass the moratorium legislation. She said that the “landlord lobby” was too powerful.
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“Ultimately, we couldn’t get there,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat who was also trying to broker the deal. “But I’m hopeful that our nonprofit community can step up to give folks the support they need.”
Zach Neumann, an attorney who helps people through evictions, said the impact of not passing the moratorium will be immense. “Over the next several weeks and into the fall, thousands of families will lose their homes,” he tweeted.
One housing measure that did pass and is headed to the governor’s desk is Senate Bill 224, which prohibits landlords from making a decision on whether to accept a renter based on their citizenship status. Landlords also, under the policy, cannot disclose a tenant’s citizenship status or even request that information.
Bill to eliminate gay and trans “panic” defenses comes back to life
When the legislature reconvened on May 26 after a pause of more than two months because of the pandemic, the plan was to quickly eliminate controversial and costly bills to get down to the most pressing businesses. Their first week back, the Capitol was a policy bloodbath.
One of the measures set aside was House Bill 1307, which would outlaw so called gay or transgender “panic” defenses in Colorado for defendants in cases of homicide or assault.
The defense strategy essentially allows defendants to ask jurors to find that their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity — if someone is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer — prompted their actions, such as a serious assault or homicide. The strategy has recently been outlawed in a number of states, including California, New York and New Jersey.
The death of the bill raised eyebrows: It was neither costly nor controversial, given that it has bipartisan support. After an outcry, the policy reappeared in the form of Senate Bill 221. The resurrected measure cleared the legislature and is now heading to the governor’s desk.
“This is an antiquated and cruel legal defense strategy that should have been abolished a long time ago,” said Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat and the first transgender member of Colorado’s legislature.
Lawmakers freeze their own pay — but not without some pushback
Colorado lawmakers have had to slash billions of dollars from the state’s budget as a result of the economic impacts of the coronavirus crisis, including for some maintenance workers and staff at the Capitol.
As a result, a group of Republican lawmakers in the Senate began pushing for the legislature’s 100 lawmakers to put off their scheduled pay raises of about $1,200 next year. Eventually some Democrats joined the effort as well, resulting in House Bill 1423.
“Legislators should not be getting raises,” said Sen. Rob Woodward, a Republican from Loveland. “The people of Colorado are facing huge financial struggles as a result of the shutdown.”
The legislation delays the raise — to $41,449 from $40,242 — until the 2022 legislative session, saving the state budget about $120,000 in the next two fiscal years. The measure is heading to the governor’s desk after passing out of the Senate on Friday.
Not everyone was on board with the change, however. In the Senate, four Democrats — Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder, Julie Gonzales of Denver, Faith Winter of Westminster and Chris Hansen of Denver — voted against the bill.
“I believe that democracy works best when we have a diversity of ideas, when we have a diversity of backgrounds,” Winter said in arguing against the bill on the Senate floor. “Unfortunately, the way we have this job set up — to work for a very long time, very long hours for four months — doesn’t exactly make it accessible.”
Failing to provide adequate pay, Winter says, cuts working people out of the picture.
“We are overrepresented by folks who are retired,” she said. “We are overrepresented by folks who do things like real estate part time or are lawyers part time.”
A companion measure, Senate Bill 220, would freeze per diem increases for lawmakers who live outside the Denver metro area. The change would save the state budget more than $81,000 in the next fiscal year.
Senate Bill 220 is heading to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Repealing the Gallagher Amendment
For years, Democratic lawmakers have talked about asking voters to repeal the Gallagher Amendment, a constitutional provision that limits how much property tax state and local governments can collect.
This was the year, as the state faces a combined $3 billion budget shortfall this year and next, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday a House supermajority passed a Senate resolution that will put the question of whether to repeal the Gallagher Amendment on the November ballot. The resolution had bipartisan support — and even bipartisan sponsorship in Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta and Republican Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial.
Still, many GOP lawmakers were against the measure.
Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican from Akron, said a statewide vote to repeal Gallagher would hurt rural Colorado. The cities will carry the vote, and the opinions of Coloradans who live “where the corn grows” won’t count, he said.
“We don’t get a fair shake,” he said. “Our voices will not be heard.”
And Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, a Republican from Watkins, said he was concerned that repeating the tax limits would disproportionately harm senior citizens. “Join me and do the right thing,” he said, urging the House to kill it.
Gallagher has provided an estimated $35 billion in tax relief to Colorado homeowners since 1993.
Democrats argued that local fire, law enforcement, library and other districts are starved for funds to keep operating.
“This isn’t a money grab,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat. “This is freezing things where we are today. We’re stopping until we can find a solution.”
Two tax proposals in the final days shocked fellow lawmakers, business community
Democrats surprised GOP lawmakers with two tax increase measures that were introduced in the final week of the session.
One asks voters to decide in November whether to up the tax on nicotine and apply the tax to vaping products. If approved, the measure would generate $86 million in its first year. The money initially would go into the state’s general fund to help Colorado recover from the coronavirus pandemic but eventually would go toward supporting free preschool statewide.
A second piece of legislation would do away with or change nine tax breaks, generating $1.3 billion. House Bill 1420 excludes the state from continuing some of the tax breaks put in place by the U.S. Congress in its coronavirus relief package and 2017 tax cuts.
Most of the money would go toward education after first backfilling the state’s depleted budget.
While many Republicans supported the nicotine tax measure, the minority party fought hard, though unsuccessfully, to amend or kill the bill to repeal tax credits. The business community also battled against the tax credit measure, which sent lobbyists who had stayed away from the Capitol during the coronavirus session back into the hallways.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jared Polis is threatening to veto House Bill 1420. Lawmakers were working late into Friday night to reach a deal with him on getting it to a point where he would sign it into law.
By Saturday, an agreement was reached that dramatically pared back House Bill 1420.
A major police accountability bill in response to the death of George Floyd
Lawmakers said this bill was 400 years in the making.
A sweeping police accountability bill that would ban chokeholds and carotid holds, which cut off blood supply to the brain, went from introduction to bipartisan passage in both the House and the Senate in a matter of days.
George Floyd died May 25, after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
House Speaker KC Becker, crying and pausing to get a tissue, gave an emotional speech just before the chamber gave final approval to the measure Friday afternoon. “This body met the moment and rose to the occasion,” she said. The bill represents lawmakers’ “sadness, empathy and rage” at Floyd’s death, she said.
“2020 is truly an unprecedented year.”
Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat who is African American, described to fellow lawmakers how she taught her son what to do if he was ever pulled over by a police officer. Put your hands on the steering wheel, she told him. Ask for permission to take your driver’s license out of your pocket, or to open the compartment to find your registration.
“Have any of you ever had to tell your child that?” she asked. “It’s called driving while black.”
“Let’s do this,” she said in support of the landmark bill, “and know that you are doing the right thing.”
Lawmakers sent the bill to the governor at about 1 p.m. Saturday.
A bill to increase vaccination rates
Legislation aimed at boosting vaccination rates, especially for kindergartens, was a fight that continued through the final hours.
The House passed the Democratic bill earlier this week, after days of filibustering and debate led by Republicans, who read numerous letters from parents who are against vaccinating their children. But the Senate had yet to take it up by Friday afternoon.
The key question was whether the Senate would keep an amendment approved by the House that had somewhat appeased GOP lawmakers
The amendment added a “petition clause,” meaning opponents of vaccines can try to repeal the legislation at the ballot box. They would have to collect more than 124,000 signatures in the next 90 days to get the question on the ballot in 2022.
On Saturday, lawmakers reached a deal to remove the petition clause but insert an exemption for children who are homeschooled so that they won’t have to adhere to provisions in the measure.
Both the House and Senate agreed to the changes and sent the bill to Polis.
Another bill related to vaccinations is also advancing through the legislature and is expected to pass. House Bill 1297, which has bipartisan support, clarifies that refusing an immunization for a child does not constitute child abuse or neglect.
Hospitals should examine their no-visitor coronavirus policies, bill says
Emotional testimony on a bill aimed at scrutinizing hospital visitor restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic centered on one question: How many Coloradans have died alone this spring?
The legislation from Rep. Tim Geitner came about after the Republican from Falcon read a Colorado Sun story about the death of one of his constituents, a mother of two boys who died in a hospital room without seeing her family for 21 days.
Elizabeth Reiter, who had lupus and heart and lung problems, died last month at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, which had a strict no-visitor policy to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Despite her husband’s many requests, Steve Reiter and the couple’s teenage boys were prohibited from seeing her.
The closest they got was waving from the parking lot, several stories below, as she peered through a window.
The original draft of the bill said that hospitals would have to allow patients at least one visitor. But after objections from the Colorado Hospital Association, House Bill 1425 was amended as more of a declaration of support for families of patients.
After tear-jerking testimony from Reiter about his wife’s death, Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, announced in a committee hearing that she had just gotten a message from UCHealth — and the hospital system’s executives wanted to meet with Reiter.
“Our values are that your family needs to be heard,” Michaelson Jenet told Reiter.
The legislation basically puts Colorado hospitals on alert that they need to reconsider their no-visitor policies as the pandemic continues, or if it worsens in the fall. The mostly symbolic legislation passed the House on Friday and was headed to the Senate.
“I’ve been married for 13 years,” said Geitner, choking back tears as he explained the bill. “I can’t imagine.”
The bill passed the legislature on Monday and was sent to the governor.
Updated at 10:23 a.m. on Monday, June 15, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect that House Bill 1425 has been sent to Gov. Jared Polis.
Updated at 8:44 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect that Senate Bill 163 has been sent to Gov. Jared Polis and that a deal was reached on House Bill 1420.
Updated at 1:04 p.m. on Saturday, June 13, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect that Senate Bill 217 has been sent to Gov. Jared Polis.