Colorado lawmakers to tackle small business relief, child care, housing in special session

State initiatives target gaps in federal coronavirus response

The Colorado State Capitol Building. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

Lawmakers will meet Nov. 30 for a special session on relief for small businesses and individual Coloradans, which state leaders have said is necessitated by the urgency of pandemic-related needs ahead of their regular session in January.

“Colorado families, restaurants, bars and small businesses can’t wait any longer for help — they need relief to get through the challenging months ahead,” Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said in a Nov. 19 statement from the governor’s office about the special session. Garnett was recently elected House speaker by his Democratic colleagues.

“We are going to pass targeted legislation that helps families avoid eviction and small businesses stay open to sustain our recovery and help Coloradans who have been hit hardest by the pandemic,” Garnett said.

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In a Nov. 19 executive order, Gov. Jared Polis laid out his priorities for the special session, which parallel some of those he described for lawmakers in a proposed stimulus package that would require general fund money and cash fund transfers. The stimulus package would require $1.3 billion in adjustments to the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, and includes a list of measures aimed at helping Colorado’s economy recover from the pandemic.

Sen. Leroy Garcia
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, speaks at a press conference on Nov. 17, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Lawmakers won’t tackle all of the proposed components of the stimulus package during the special session. Polis has said that legislation providing for shovel-ready transportation projects, for example, could wait until 2021. Still, the portion of Polis’ Nov. 2 budget letter that discusses the stimulus provides a window into new initiatives lawmakers will be discussing in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But the situation looks brighter than legislators thought in June, when they approved the budget for fiscal year 2020-2021, said Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon.

“The good news is that while we had forecast a $3.3 billion shortfall, our September forecast indicates that we had received much more in income tax revenue than we had anticipated,” McCluskie told Newsline. “These dollars are dollars that are available to us now for maybe one-time investments, but … investing these one-time dollars in an economic stimulus and relief package feels like a smart and responsible move in this moment when the federal government has not delivered that support.”

First on the agenda for the special session: relief for small businesses. Polis’ proposed stimulus includes $105 million in sales tax relief and direct aid for restaurants, bars and other small businesses affected by public health capacity restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The money would be transferred from the state’s general fund to a yet-to-be-determined cash fund and doled out by the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

“The General Assembly should … consider providing tax and administrative relief, including sales tax retention, for certain small businesses, including restaurants and bars,” the governor wrote in his executive order. “The General Assembly should consider allowing these certain small businesses to retain up to $2,000 per month of the 2.9% gross state sales tax collections they already collect and should allow for the waiver of certain fees associated with the sale of liquor and enforcement and the operation of a restaurant, including retail food establishment licensing fees.”

The governor issued an executive order on Wednesday to provide up to $2,000 in temporary tax relief to Colorado bars and restaurants for sales made in November, with the expectation that the relief will be extended by the General Assembly.

Child care is another priority for the special session. Polis’ stimulus proposal included $35 million for grants to help existing providers to remain open, $5 million for grants to employers to remodel facility space so they can create on-site child care for their workers, and $10 million for one-time start-up funding and mentorship for new child care providers.

The $50 million for child care would be appropriated from the general fund to the Department of Human Services.

Next on the list: direct housing and rental assistance. “Because of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for small businesses, enhanced unemployment benefits, and direct payments to Americans, we avoided a significant wave of housing evictions and foreclosures,” the governor’s office said in the Nov. 19 statement about the special session. “Now, though, the expiration of these programs leaves vulnerable Coloradans at risk of eviction or foreclosure in the coming months.”

The governor’s stimulus proposal included $45 million for eviction prevention in the Department of Local Affairs.

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Lawmakers will also tackle food insecurity. In the governor’s stimulus proposal, he set aside $5 million in direct cash assistance for people ineligible for unemployment, food assistance and federal stimulus payments.

The cash assistance would help cover needs such as food, health care, education and transportation “that are not being met by other programs,” the governor wrote in his budget letter.

The money would be appropriated from the general fund to the Department of Local Affairs.

“As dollars available to hunger relief through the CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFRCA) end in December 2020, no new federal funding is currently available to replace these funds,” the Nov. 19 statement said.

The special session could increase broadband access in Colorado — with a big price tag. Polis’ stimulus proposal would allocate $160 million to various government bodies, including the Department of Local Affairs and Public Utilities Commission, for the purpose.

“While the majority of school districts are learning in person, the most recent increase in cases has forced many school districts, including many Denver metro area school districts, to switch to remote learning,” the Nov. 19 statement from the governor’s office said. “Without broadband or wi-fi, these students will face significant learning loss that will have implications for their future academic careers and lifetime earnings.”

The special session adds utility assistance to the menu of priorities.

While utility assistance wasn’t specifically addressed in the governor’s stimulus proposal, the governor’s executive order lists it as a prerogative to benefit “Coloradans experiencing financial hardship” due to COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our community — draining our resources, isolating us from the people we love, and destroying our businesses that took years to create,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said in the Nov. 19 statement. “We need a stimulus package to carry us through the winter and alleviate the unimaginable burden weighing on so many Coloradans.”

Lawmakers also want to set aside funds for public health. The COVID-19 situation has grown more dire in Colorado since the governor sent his budget letter at the beginning of November, and money might be needed for pandemic-related response.

“As the pandemic has entered its third wave in Colorado, additional funds are needed immediately to continue the State’s robust public health response,” the Nov. 19 statement said. “The call includes a request for funds to ensure the State can continue to protect public health while we await additional federal stimulus and reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

The governor’s stimulus proposal includes $20 million for increasing telehealth services, $10 million for data systems for reporting disease, and $8 million aimed at ending health disparities for disproportionately affected Coloradans. That last $8 million provides funding for body cameras in local jurisdictions, $4 million to the Minority Business Office to increase programming and grants, and $1 million to address health inequities among Medicaid recipients.