The Colorado legislature will delay its full return next year for at least a month because of the prevalence of coronavirus in the state.
The General Assembly was originally set to reconvene for the 2021 lawmaking term on Jan. 13 and work uninterrupted into May. Instead, lawmakers will “gavel in” on that date and address urgent business, including the swearing in new members, before “gaveling out” after a few days.
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The plan is to return in full on Feb. 16 to carry out the rest of the 120-day lawmaking term. Gov. Jared Polis’ State of the State address will be delayed until February as well, his office said.
Democrats, who are in control of both the state Senate and House, announced the delay on Monday, though it has been planned for more than a week. Republicans were not part of the rolling out the news.
“I was asked my opinion,” said Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert of Parker. Holbert said he wasn’t aware, however, that the delay had been finalized until he was reached by a Colorado Sun reporter on Monday.
Rep. Hugh McKean, the incoming House Republican leader, says he was consulted about the delay.
The move will allow the General Assembly to maintain its 120-day legislative session but push the term into the late spring and early summer when top lawmakers hope COVID-19 numbers in the state will have gone down.
Democratic leadership at the Capitol vowed to return to the Capitol earlier than Feb. 16 if there is a need for emergency legislation.
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“From the very beginning, we’ve worked hard to find ways to protect the health and safety of the public, legislative staff, and lawmakers while allowing for public participation,” Speaker-designate Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said in a written statement. “Recessing until mid-February will place us farther out from the holiday spike in COVID cases and will allow the bulk of our legislative work to take place when we hope it is safer and more Coloradans will have received the COVID vaccine. We’ll continue to look at the data and listen to public health experts to guide our decisions.”
House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, called the decision to delay the legislative session a “responsible and science-driven choice.”
Holbert said he is OK with the delay for public health reasons, but is concerned about violating the legislature’s rules dictating how long the General Assembly can temporarily adjourn for. He is also concerned about how the move will affect Colorado’s budgeting process since the next fiscal year begins in July and citizens’ ability to overturn laws through the use of a “petition clause.”
“It is frustrating, at least being in the minority, trying to understand what are the rules we have to play by,” Holbert said.
State lawmakers returned for a three-day special session in December called by Gov. Polis to pass coronavirus aid bills despite the disease being so prevalent in the state. Democrats and Republicans said they needed to take action in lieu of a congressional aid package, which was headed toward passage on Monday. Much of the special session lawmaking happened remotely.
Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Colorado are decreasing, but the disease is still spreading at a high rate, according to public health officials. Gov. Jared Polis on Friday estimated that about 1 out of every 59 Coloradans are currently contagious with coronavirus. That’s down from roughly 1 in 40 just a few weeks ago.
“As our state works to administer the vaccine over the next several months, we must remain cautious and do everything we can to limit large gatherings and potential super spreader events,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said in a written statement. “With that in mind, we have decided that the most responsible way to ensure the health of the public as well as our legislative staff is to delay session until we can more safely reconvene.”