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Colorado businesses could be fined up to $250 if they refuse to accept cash for goods and services under a bill that cleared the state legislature on Tuesday and is headed to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.

The measure from state Rep. Alex Valdez and state Sen. Robert Rodriguez, who are both Denver Democrats, would make turning down cash a Class 2 petty offense. 

Valdez and Rodriguez introduced House Bill 1048 after a constituent came to Rodriguez after struggling to find a business that would accept their cash. 

“A large percentage — 19% of the state — is underbanked. Five percent to 7% is unbanked completely,” Valdez said. Underbanked refers to people with bank accounts that also tap into alternative financial services like short-term payday lenders and prepaid debit cards. Unbanked refers to people who don’t use banks or financial services at all. “And that doesn’t even count folks that are undocumented.”

Fears early on in the pandemic that COVID-19 could spread via paper money and coins led more Coloradans to shop with credit cards and more businesses to adopt contactless payment. Combined with a shift to digital transactions, some businesses might be reluctant to take paper money and change during a pandemic, Valdez said.

House Bill 1048 passed by a 47-18 vote in the state House and by 21-13 in the state Senate. Some Republican legislators opposed the bill, arguing that the fines are too onerous and that the state shouldn’t be interfering in the decisions of private businesses.  

State Sen. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, said he initially supported the bill under the “cash is king” mantra. But he changed his mind, pointing to the up to $250 fine per attempted transaction. 

“The fine is too great,” Liston said.

A masked Courtney Limmer pays general manager Ashley Magy in cash for her drink at Fika Coffee House in Parker. The Main Street business asked customers not to use cash earlier in the pandemic for safety reasons. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Sen. Rob Woodward, R-Larimer County, called the measure is “an attack on small business.”

“If you are a small business owner, it should be up to you how you want to take payment,” he said. “For some, they may want chicken or eggs or credit cards, what have you.”

Woodward added that retailers could incur health risks, pointing to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance saying cash could carry the coronavirus. 

Studies have shown that bills and coins in circulation can accumulate hundreds of varieties of microbes, bacteria and viruses. But the CDC has since said the primary mode of coronavirus transmission takes place “through exposure to respiratory droplets carrying infectious virus.”

A handful of groups including the Colorado Hotel and Lodging Association and National Federation of Independent Businesses opposed the measure.

“Businesses know which form of payment they want to accept, and they should be able to accept that,” said Tony Gagliardi, Colorado’s director at the National Federation of Independent Business. “They should not be dictated by government.” 

Valdez said the measure is meant to ensure cash remains a viable method of payment. The bill’s fiscal note expects very few violations of the new law and resulting fines. He added that he and his fellow legislators worked to reconcile issues that came from hesitant groups.

“We worked it out with the stakeholders that had concerns with the bill, like rental cars and hotels and folks that needed security deposits,” Valdez said. “They were really the only folks that had concerns.”

The bill allows exemptions for businesses that require that a security deposit be placed on a credit card. Businesses that have a machine that allows consumers to turn cash into a prepaid card are also exempt.

The Colorado Fiscal Institute was one of several organizations that backed the measure. Carol Hedges, who leads the group, testified in support. 

“So many Coloradans do not have access to credit cards, debit cards and gift cards,” she said.

Hedges added that people who rely on cash are often younger individuals, many of whom might not be old enough to open a bank account. She also said low-income individuals and people of color tend to use cash more than their white and wealthier counterparts.

It’s not clear if Polis will sign the bill into law. “The governor will review the final bill when it reaches his desk,” a spokesperson said.

Valdez said he didn’t have insight into Polis’ decision-making. The governor or his staff will often let lawmakers know if legislation is likely to be vetoed or signed into law.

“I don’t know what the governor is going to do, but I don’t see any reason for him not to (sign),” Valdez said.

If Polis signs the bill, it would go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns its 2021 lawmaking term, a date that would likely fall in early to mid-September.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:47 a.m. on Wednesday, April 21, 2021, to correct the final vote for House Bill 1048 in the Colorado House. It passed by a final vote of 47-18.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul