The Colorado Capitol was mostly empty as the state legislature took a two-month coronavirus pause this spring. The work, though, didn’t actually stop.
Behind the scenes, mostly via video calls on Zoom, lawmakers were figuring out how to deal with a host of new issues related to the pandemic, chief among them: how to balance a multibillion-dollar hole in the budget caused by the economic collapse and how to help hundreds of thousands of residents who were newly out of work.
And while the legislature was on a break that lasted more than two months, finding solutions in that timeframe proved difficult. Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, of Colorado Springs, joked that the 120-day lawmaking term turned into a 160-day marathon that ended Monday.
A flurry of legislation to address the pandemic arrived in the final days of an abbreviated, three-week session. It was a self-imposed deadline — lawmakers could have continued working for several more weeks — aimed at reducing exposure to the coronavirus for lawmakers and the public. Legislators also had to contend with addressing social unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
“This is the most challenging legislative environment I’ve ever been in,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat.
“Sometimes we make history in this building and sometimes history makes us,” he said.
In the end, compromise was the word of the final days of an unprecedented legislative session.
Democrats — who control the House and Senate — reached deals with Republicans, the business community and Gov. Jared Polis to pass pared-back versions of legislation to repeal tax breaks, ask voters in November to raise taxes on nicotine products, ensure workers have paid sick leave and seek to raise Colorado’s worst-in-the-nation vaccine rates.
The changes didn’t come without consternation from some progressive Democrats, who were pushing for more on education funding, relief for renters and protections for workers during the coronavirus crisis.
“There will come a time when we will want to talk about that,” Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat whose bill slashing tax breaks was gutted during negotiations with the business community and governor, said Monday. “But I don’t think it’s going to be today.”
Still, others chalked it up to the way good policy is created and say Democrats still were able to get most of what they wanted.
“Compromise is always hard and I definitely experienced that through my vaccine bill,” said Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat, who called the legislative session “chaos.” “But it’s also the job that you got sent down here to do. The job is not to just put your head down and just put through what you think is right. The job is to make sure that you come up with solutions that can work for Colorado.”
Democrats watered down some of their bold ideas
There are few more unlikely partners in the Colorado legislature than Mullica and Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican and perennial thorn in Democrats’ side.
Mullica has faced threats because of his work on legislation to increase vaccination rates, and Williams has stoked the anti-vaccine fire.
But on Saturday, the two appeared side-by-side on the House floor to announce to their colleagues that they had reached a deal to pass Senate Bill 163, which makes it harder for parents to get vaccine exemptions for their kids. It was a perfect symbol of how the final days of the lawmaking term brought disparate groups together.
“That’s definitely a great example of where we were able to make some headway,” Williams said.
In the case of the vaccine bill, the compromise was relatively minor. Democrats agreed to exempt home-schooled children in exchange for assurances that Republicans wouldn’t filibuster the measure and opponents wouldn’t be able to try to repeal it at the ballot box.
“We felt like we were still accomplishing our goal with vaccines even if we eliminated that home school part,” he said. “That’s why we were willing to make that move. Our overall goal is to improve the immunization rates here in Colorado and looking at the data we still feel like we can do that with the compromise we made.”
But the compromises were more extensive on other big-ticket policies. And more controversial.
On June 8, Democrats unveiled House Bill 1420, a 16-page measure seeking to eliminate nine tax breaks and pump $1.6 billion into the state’s depleted coffers over the next four fiscal years.
Business groups and Republicans balked — “I absolutely detest this bill,” summed up Rep. Richard Champion, a Republican from Columbine Valley — as did the governor, who said he didn’t think there was a way he could sign it into law. But the legislation’s sponsors moved forward hoping to help steer the money toward education.
The bill passed the House mostly unchanged, but it was gutted in the Senate. Democrats reached a deal with business lobbyists and Polis that stripped the policy to its studs. Most of the tax breaks were kept in place.
Instead of sending some $750 million to education over the next four years, House Bill 1420, which is on its way to the governor’s desk, now sends only $138 million to education over the next two years.
“Thank you, Gov. Polis,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “I didn’t vote for him, but for him to come out and make it pretty clear that he was not comfortable with that bill” was pivotal.
The prime sponsors of the bill in the House, Gray and Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, weren’t happy with the alterations. But the lawmakers who backed the bill in the Senate saw the compromise as OK.
“Not upset,” Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, said of the deal. “I think what was important is given the historic shortfalls in revenue that we’re seeing that we did something to make sure that we can bring in additional revenue and therefore avoid additional cuts to really important programs next year.”
There was also friction among Democrats over housing policy. Some wanted to outlaw evictions during the pandemic, but there weren’t enough votes to pass a bill.
Another tax bill — House Bill 1427 — will ask voters in November to gradually raise the taxes on a pack of cigarettes to $2.64 in July 2027 from 84 cents now. It also would gradually impose a new tax on nicotine products — like vaping devices and fuel — over the next seven years.
Revenue generated by the new taxes will help backfill the state’s budget and then be directed toward providing preschool.
The tobacco tax bill was another result of compromise worked out between lawmakers, the tobacco industry and anti-tobacco groups. The legislation originally called for a more immediate tax hike on nicotine products, but that was negotiated down.
House Bill 1427 was also sent to the governor after the deal was reached. It was introduced on Thursday and passed on Monday.
Finally, Democrats also found a compromise on Senate Bill 205, which would offer up to six paid sick leave days for all workers in Colorado, accumulated based on the number of days they work. Business groups were upset by the policy, especially with how it would affect small businesses struggling with the pandemic’s economic fallout.
To ease some of those concerns, the bill won’t affect businesses that employ 15 or fewer people until 2022. Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat who served as a prime sponsor of the measure, said he’s OK with the change, saying the legislation still marks landmark change.
Originally, business groups sought to exempt companies with 15 or fewer employees and place more stringent rules on seasonal workers, such as those who serve as the backbone of Colorado’s ski industry. But those provisions were ultimately stripped in dealmaking.
“Bottom lime: Our earned sick leave policy guarantees that no matter what industry you work, no matter the size of the business you work for, you will get 48 hours of earned sick leave each year,” he said.
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Much of the Democratic agenda passed mostly unscathed
While Democrats were forced to make some concessions to pass some of their biggest policies, they were also able to push through some major pieces of legislation without giving up much in return.
One of the most memorable moments came in the final days when the legislature sent a sweeping police accountability bill to the governor’s desk in the wake of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. It was legislation to represent the times, on point and passed with a sense of urgency.
Senate Bill 217 bans chokeholds and carotid holds, requires law enforcement to document each time they unholster their weapon, and changes the way officers can use deadly force and how that use of force is investigated. It also requires every law enforcement agency in Colorado to provide their officers with body cameras and allows officers to be sued in their individual capacity.
“If I didn’t get anything (else) accomplished this year, this was the one,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and black lawmaker.
Senate Bill 217 was brought by Democrats, but it picked up Republican support along the way. “They wanted bipartisanship, so they were willing to work with us,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and former Weld County sheriff.
While there were changes made — including some that gave law enforcement more leeway and protected officers from facing financial ruin — the measure still has significant teeth and is among the first policy changes made by any state after Floyd’s killing. The measure is awaiting Polis’ signature.
Democrats, pointing namely to the police accountability bill, deemed the abbreviated lawmaking term a success. That’s despite the fact they were forced to abandon hundreds of measures — including signature policies on paid family and parental leave and health insurance — either because they required money that was no longer available or because they were too controversial to pass in such a short time period.
“We still accomplished the majority of the goals that we set out,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.
Democrats pushed through measures to provide assistance to renters, set up a small business loan program, and extend to-go alcohol sales by restaurants and bars until July 2021. They passed a bill that would make price-gouging during a pandemic a crime, despite objections from GOP lawmakers who argued the economy was best left to supply and demand.
And they voted to put a measure on the ballot in November that will let voters decide whether to finally do away with a constitutional amendment — the Gallagher Amendment — that caps the amount state and local governments in Colorado can generate in property taxes.
Democrats have wanted to get rid of the amendment for years in order to better fund education.
Democrats touted, too, legislation to create a secure savings program. Senate Bill 200 would set up a state-administered retirement plan to help workers whose employers do not offer retirement accounts.
“It’s a big win and particularly because we had to find other funding sources for it,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat who championed the measure.
Even in the final moments of the 2020 legislative session, Democrats were achieving big policy wins. House Bill 1424 allows people with a criminal record to work in Colorado’s marijuana industry, as long as they haven’t been convicted of a felony in the past three years.
The measure aims to ensure more people of color — who are overrepresented in criminal convictions for marijuana — can reap the benefits of the state’s pot boom. It also opens up the possibility of gubernatorial pardons for people who were convicted of marijuana possession.
“It was organizations of color within the industry actually crafting the language and doing all of the work to bring this to fruition,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who also brought the bill.
The work isn’t really over
The end of every legislative session in Colorado means the immediate start of work for the next one. And that’s even more true this year.
Almost before the cases of Corona beer and bottles of whiskey wheeled into the Capitol on Monday to celebrate the end of the lawmaking term were consumed, legislators had to get back to work.
That’s because the budget remains a big question mark as the coronavirus crisis continues to rock the economy.
“While everyone is going home after today, the Joint Budget Committee will be back to work on Friday to get an updated revenue forecast,” said Moreno, the state senator and a budget writer. “That will provide a little bit of a picture into the decision that we made to balance the budget — were they on target or not.”
And there are fears the news isn’t going to be good.
“For those of you who haven’t heard the news flash,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who chairs the JBC, “next year is gonna be worse.”
Democrats concede that they’re not sure what the future holds for the state’s coffers. House Speaker KC Becker warned that school districts could face a $500 million shortfall, which the state would have to cover.
“There are just no easy answers,” said Becker, who is term limited.
And then there are questions about spending around the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not clear how much more money Colorado will have to dole out to respond. Members of the Joint Budget Committee passed a bill giving them more authority to oversee the governor’s emergency spending to try to keep watch over how much money is going out the door.
“I think the question will be: How big is the second wave?” said Garnett, who is in line to become House speaker in 2021.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, also acknowledged the problems Democrats face. “It’s a dynamic, changing environment,” he said. “We don’t know what the situation will be like when we come back in early January.”