Vulnerable Coloradans should be special session’s priority

People who are struggling to remain housed most need the state’s help

Colorado House of Representatives Speaker KC Becker stands at the chamber's lectern on June 12, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

The Legislature will convene for a special session on Monday as part of the state’s response to the damage the pandemic is inflicting throughout Colorado.

Gov. Jared Polis called the special session, as the state Constitution permits the governor to do. The constitutional provision that accords this power stipulates that the reason for the session must be “extraordinary” — it certainly is — and that lawmakers conduct only the business the governor specifies in the special session proclamation.

Polis in his proclamation outlined seven areas on which lawmakers should focus relief efforts. But, while lawmakers might infer some manner of prioritization from the governor’s list of areas, the proclamation assigns no rank to the topics other than the order in which they’re listed, which is inconsistent even within the executive order that issued proclamation.

Lawmakers should go into the session with priorities in mind. And their priorities should be ranked according to what will serve Coloradans who are the most vulnerable and what will address the most urgent needs.

Sounds straightforward, but it’s not clear legislators will proceed this way.

Make a tax-deductible donation.

For example, every indication is that protections for small businesses are the Legislature’s No. 1 priority. To be sure, struggling businesses need the state’s help. They are the heart of local economies. Their survival ensures long-term economic health. They provide wages for staff and are often the life’s work of owners. Small business relief is the first item mentioned in Polis’ proclamation, and it was the subject of a recent executive order tied to the special session. The order, issued last week, provides up to $2,000 in tax relief to qualifying bars and restaurants for sales made this month. The governor asked the Legislature to consider a similar tax relief mechanism, and lawmakers could extend it into future months. They’re also expected to consider forms of “direct support and emergency tax relief” for small businesses.

These are worthy measures. But more vulnerable even than small businesses are individuals and families who due to pandemic-related furloughs and layoffs are struggling to remain housed. As recently reported in Newsline, more than 40% of Colorado adults are behind on rent or mortgage payments with eviction or foreclosure in the next two months very likely or somewhat likely. “Though the anticipated tsunami of coronavirus-related evictions has yet to hit the state, housing advocates stress that it’s only a matter of time as coronavirus cases soar and threaten more shutdowns, state and federal eviction moratoriums wind down and current assistance programs dry up,” Moe Clark reported.

A business closure down the street is terrible. A family kicked to the street is tragic.

The Legislature does plan to consider housing and rental assistance to individuals and families who have been affected by the pandemic. But lawmakers should make such assistance their priority, particularly in the proportion of funds they assign to it. They should also find ways to support homeless services. This is omitted from the governor’s proclamation except as it concerns homeless youth. Yet homeless shelters are experiencing unprecedented demand due to the coronavirus-caused economic crisis while they’re simultaneously reducing capacity to allow for social distancing. No need is more urgent than adequate shelter, and no Coloradan is more vulnerable than a person living on the street in winter weather.

Winter survival gear distributed by aid groups as Colorado homeless shelters grapple with limited space

Other topics the special session will consider include support for child care providers, expansion of Wi-Fi services for educational purposes, support for food banks, utility cost assistance, and funds for COVID-related public health expenses. None of these areas can be ignored. Not all can take priority. Internet access for remote learning is necessary, but an empty stomach is not an option.

Lawmakers must also ensure that their proceedings don’t get bogged down by distractions. Republican state Sen. Jack Tate, for example, plans to introduce a bill that would give businesses and nonprofits immunity from lawsuits if they make good-faith attempts to follow coronavirus safety guidelines, reported Denver Business Journal. Business advocates say such a provision is needed to protect against claims from employees or customers who contract COVID-19 and allege the business was at fault. Immunity from coronavirus lawsuits is also a priority for congressional Republicans, while Democrats have argued that it could give cover to employers who ignore safety precautions and put staff at risk for the sake of profit. Whatever the merits of either side of the debate, it has no place in the special session, which to be effective must concentrate energy on helping the most vulnerable members of the community and addressing the most urgent needs.

Federal lawmakers have neglected their duty to aid Americans in a time of great peril. Were Congress to have fulfilled its responsibility to provide desperately needed assistance, the Colorado special session would likely never have been required. Now that state lawmakers must act in Congress’s absence, their success will be measured by their attention to the Coloradans who most need their help.

Subscribe now.