Colorado lawmakers are trying to use coronavirus relief dollars as a way to persuade counties to follow Gov. Jared Polis’ COVID-19 restrictions.
A bipartisan bill that won preliminary approval on Monday, the first day of a special legislative session, would withhold direct-aid payments to small businesses and arts organizations in counties that refuse to comply with mandates issued by the state’s health department to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The legislation appears to target conservative Weld County, where commissioners have said they won’t enforce red-level coronavirus mandates imposed on the county Nov. 22, including a ban on indoor dining and a ban on all personal gatherings.
“This money was directed toward those businesses that have been most impacted by the public health orders,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is spearheading the legislation. “If your county is refusing to (enforce) public health orders, the impacts are different.”
One Democratic lawmaker suggested a similar test should apply to restaurants and bars that receive a temporary tax break under consideration in a separate bill.
The attempt to compel counties to comply with guidelines from the state Department of Public Health and Environment comes amid months of tension between Polis and Democratic lawmakers, who have pushed for the restrictions, and Republicans who generally want businesses to operate with minimal restrictions.
The measure — which includes two Republican sponsors — would allow counties to apply to tap into $37 million in relief provided by the legislature. The state would send the money to counties, which in turn would handle distributing up to $7,000 in one-time payments to eligible small businesses, like restaurants, bars, movie theaters and event venues. Counties under more severe coronavirus restrictions because of rising cases and hospitalizations would get priority in receiving the money.
“It’s not right. It’s blackmail on the governor’s part and Democrats’ part,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Weld County Republican, referring to the compliance clause. “It’s not fair at all.”
Cooke said he stands by the decision of Weld County’s commissioners. “They know what’s more important for Weld County than the governor does,” he said. “The governor hates Weld County.”
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said the compliance clause is akin to totalitarianism.
“This isn’t a bill intended to be a bill help small businesses as much as it is a bill to punish rebellious counties, to punish those that would challenge,” he said. “This bill doesn’t befit the state of Colorado. This bill befits the People’s Republic of China.”
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, criticized Republicans for objecting to the compliance clause. He said Gardner’s remarks were offensive.
“If you’re operating basically normally, you probably don’t need this money as much,” he said.
Tony Gagliardi, the Colorado state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said he’s concerned about businesses in Weld County being unfairly blocked from accessing the aid through no fault of their own.
“You’re penalizing the small businesses because of actions by the county commissioners that are out of their hands,” he said.
Weld County’s five commissioners did not respond to messages seeking comment on Monday.
Sen. Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican, worried during a committee hearing on the legislation that counties may impose more stringent restrictions on their businesses in order to access the direct payments. “Are we encouraging counties who are trying to chase money to keep their businesses afloat?” he asked.
Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican who is a sponsor of the direct-aid bill, said no.
“There’s not nearly enough money to encourage municipalities or businesses around the state to elevate (their restrictions) just for running after this,” Priola said.
Winter, the lead sponsor, said the plan is to offer an amendment providing a carveout for businesses located in cities that comply with public health guidelines, even if they are in a county that refuses to do so. Those cities would be able to ask the state, rather than their county, to distribute the direct-aid dollars to them.
Democrats are eyeing similar compliance clauses for other special-session coronavirus relief legislation.
Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, said a bill to provide a four-month tax break to restaurants and bars should include a provision that requires business owners wishing to to participate in the sales tax relief plan to certify that they were in compliance with state and local public health.
The state should “prioritize businesses that are doing the right thing and protect public health,” she said.