The Colorado General Assembly gavels to a start Wednesday, but leaders are calling it a “soft open.”
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The timeout punts the bulk of the lawmaking down the road at least a month, but the Democratic-led chambers say they need to pass a handful of time-sensitive bills to address mistakes from prior terms.
Here’s what to expect this week — and a look ahead to the remainder of the 2021 term.
How the “soft open” concept will work at the Capitol this session
The legislative session typically starts with a bit of pomp. The mood is cheerful as lawmakers reunite with handshakes and hugs. The coronavirus pandemic will quash much of that sentiment, and some lawmakers may appear remotely from home.
The other big moments from opening week come when Democratic and Republican leaders in each chamber make speeches outlining their agendas and approach to the session, and Gov. Jared Polis makes his State of the State address the following day. The speechifying will now wait until February.
State Rep. Alec Garnett, the incoming House speaker, said the false start is “unfortunate but it’s the reality of the world we live in.”
The three-day session corresponds to how long it takes to pass a bill through both chambers under statutory deadlines.
The split start is highly unusual, but it echoes what happened in 2020 when COVID-19 cases began to spread in Colorado. The calendar matters because the state constitution states that lawmakers cannot meet for more than 120 days. But the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in April that the legislature can pause and restart the clock because the constitution is ambiguous enough to allow make-up days that come amid the public health emergency.
“We are going to stay as long as we need to stay to get the work done that is necessary this year,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “That could be 100 days, that could be 120 days. I think it’s less about how many days are we there, it’s more about what do we accomplish and how much time are we going to need to accomplish that.”
How the pandemic and security concerns will affect the start
In addition to schedule changes, the 2021 session will look and feel different because of COVID-19 protocols.
Lawmakers will have access to daily testing at the Capitol and must wear masks and practice social distancing, just as they did in the December special session. The lawmakers also will have early access to vaccines ahead of the restart in February.
At the start, the security presence at the Capitol also is expected to be enhanced because of an FBI warning about the nationwide threat of armed protests at state capitols ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
Democratic leaders acknowledged that security is a concern. “Nobody watches what we’ve been seeing on TV and doesn’t get concerned and doesn’t think about calls to action that are being put out there in all 50 states,” Fenberg said.
But Fenberg and other Democratic leaders expressed confidence in the security preparations, saying the mob scene at the U.S. Capitol won’t be repeated in Denver.
“At this point I think we feel pretty confident that the State Patrol is planning for worst-case scenarios hoping that it doesn’t happen,” Fenberg said. “And we don’t have any information that anything like what happened in D.C. is going to be happening in Colorado.”
Rep. Hugh McKean, the Republican leader in the House, said his GOP colleagues “feel safe and I don’t think anybody is asking for extra security.”
Here’s a look at the bills lawmakers will debate this week before taking a break
Legislative leaders said not to expect a robust policy agenda at the start of the session, but rather “minor things we need to get done that are time sensitive,” Garnett said.
So far, nine bill drafts are on the table. One of the first would allow lawmakers to participate remotely in legislative meetings and conduct certain committee hearings even while the General Assembly is temporarily adjourned. Democratic leaders said they plan to conduct oversight hearings — known as SMART Act reviews — for state departments and agencies before returning in February. The public would be allowed to participate remotely.
In addition, the Joint Budget Committee will continue to meet behind closed doors with the public not permitted to attend but allowed to listen online.
The other legislation being considered in the first days would:
- Change the requirements for a small business relief fund approved in December’s special session to apply to more than just minority-owned businesses, a move designed to nullify a lawsuit stating that the new law was unconstitutional and discriminatory.
- Extend the deadlines to continue to allow for electronic wills and further suspend debt collection due to the pandemic.
- Recreate regulations and licensing benchmarks on occupational therapists after lawmakers inadvertently repealed the requirements.
“While there’s a temporary adjournment from being in the building and doing the legislative work, I guarantee there’s not a legislator who is taking a month off,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo.
What’s next: The Democratic leadership’s priorities remain vague
In interviews this week, Democratic leaders said they are still tinkering with their broader agenda for the 2021 lawmaking term.
But the goals are expected to mirror the priorities the governor outlined in a recent email to his supporters. Those include “distributing the vaccines far and wide, helping families and businesses get back on their feet, addressing the unprecedented challenges our schools are facing, and fighting climate change.”
Garnett said addressing the economic effects of the pandemic will be paramount. “The defining issue for the 2021 session is going to be how the legislature prioritizes recovery during this very unique economic downturn that we find ourselves in,” he said.
Expanding health care access also is expected to take top billing. Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and the Senate president pro tem, said she and Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, will bring forth a bill to create a public health insurance option in Colorado. They offered a similar measure last year, but sidelined it when the pandemic hit.
“It will look different than last year’s bill,” Donovan said at a Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday, though she didn’t offer specifics. Republican leaders who spoke at the event said they oppose the idea.
Democrats are also planning to run bills that would:
- Create a new gas fee to raise money for transportation projects
- Add gun regulations to create waiting periods and other new requirements
- Limit personal information sharing between state government and federal immigration officials
- Eliminate current tax breaks for various interests to boost state revenues for education and other priority spending areas
Republicans and business groups are expected to fiercely oppose the repeal of any tax breaks. A similar effort pushed last year by Democrats in the legislature was watered down before passage. But after voters passed an income tax cut in November, eliminating an estimated $150 million annually from the state budget, the appetite to dig into the couch cushions and make up the difference has returned.
“That choice that the voters made in the fall will have a direct impact on a primary source of revenue for the general fund,” Donovan said. “When you remove a source of revenue, you have to figure out what we will cut from the budget or how we will address that gap. One way to address it is to modernize our tax credit system in Colorado.”