Democrats detail special session plans to help Coloradans during pandemic

Legislation would provide direct payments for small businesses

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

One day ahead of a special session on coronavirus relief, Democratic lawmakers provided more details about their plans for helping Colorado families, communities and small businesses in the final weeks of 2020.

The administration of Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate have framed the session as a necessary stopgap after coronavirus relief talks between Republicans and Democrats in Congress fell apart.

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“We had all been expecting and hoping for greater federal action, which hasn’t materialized,” House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, told reporters during a virtual news conference Nov. 29.

Becker added that lawmakers will be provided with KN95 masks and asked to get diagnostic COVID-19 tests before Nov. 30. Rapid surveillance tests will be available for legislators, staff and reporters each day of the special session, which is expected to last a few days.

House and Senate leadership told reporters they didn’t know of any lawmakers who had been in close contact with Polis before his COVID-19 diagnosis, which the governor announced Nov. 28. Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Greenwood Village, tested positive Nov. 18. Becker said Froelich was expected to come out of quarantine soon.

As the first order of business on Monday, Democratic leaders said they plan to pass new rules allowing the public to provide remote testimony on bills under discussion.

“Our action has to be, especially in a time of need, the willingness to move forward despite where the federal government is,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said. “That’s why we’re using every tool within our power to deliver support to families and businesses to get them through the next couple of months, which we know will not be easy.”

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

Direct payments for businesses

Sens. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, along with Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, will sponsor a bill providing $57 million in assistance for businesses affected by capacity restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus.

“There will be a process set up to ensure that the money can get out the door as fast as possible to go to the communities that are most in need,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said.

With more than 20 Colorado counties currently under red-level — or “severe risk” — restrictions imposed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, indoor dining is closed in much of the state, putting severe financial pressure on restaurants. Retail businesses must stay below 50% of normal capacity, and gyms at 10%. Under the state’s COVID-19 dial system, CDPHE also prohibits indoor events of all sizes in red-level counties. Venues are suffering.

The proposed bill would:

• Provide $37 million for direct payments of up to $7,000 to small businesses in counties that are subject to — and complying with — “severe,” or red-level, capacity restrictions. It’s unclear whether these payments will be allocated through a competitive grant application process or are expected to be distributed to any business that requests the money and demonstrates eligibility.

• Provide $7.5 million for direct payments to certain arts, culture and entertainment organizations, artists and crew members. The payments would be allocated by the Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s creative industries division.

• Waive annual licensing fees for bars and restaurants.

The electronic board recording lawmakers’ votes reflects from plexiglass installed on the floor of the Colorado House of Representatives as Rep. Donald Valdez listens to other legislators on June 11, 2020. The state installed the plastic barriers to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

• Provide $4 million to OEDIT’s Minority Business Office for direct payments, grants, loans, technical assistance and consulting support to minority-owned businesses.

Extending Polis-ordered tax relief

Reps. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, along with Sens. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, and Jack Tate, R-Centennial, will sponsor a bill extending sales tax relief for businesses.

Gov. Jared Polis on Nov. 25 issued an executive order providing up to $2,030 in temporary tax relief to Colorado bars and restaurants for sales made in November.

The order deferred sales tax payments for restaurants and bars in November.

The proposed bill would forgive payments that were merely delayed by Polis’ executive order and would extend the same sales tax forgiveness through February 2021. Under the bill, a business could apply the sales tax relief to as many as as five locations a month, making the maximum monthly relief $10,150 — if a business had five restaurant or bar locations that were each making at least $70,000 in taxable sales.

Given that sales have been slow this year, many Colorado bars and restaurants probably won’t receive the maximum amount of tax relief.

Funds for Colorado child care

Reps. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, along with Sens. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, will sponsor a bill providing $45 million in relief for the child care industry through two separate grant programs in the Department of Human Services.

“Child care facilities are facing — with safety precautions and extra cleaning — a lot of them have reached out and said that they’re on the brink of financial collapse,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, told reporters during the briefing.

One program would provide grants for existing child care providers, ranging from $500 to $35,000. The grants would be aimed at providing relief for businesses suffering due to the pandemic.

A separate grant program for new or emerging providers would award grants from $3,000 to $50,000. Those grants would help cover the costs of staff training, background checks, supplies and facilities.

Emergency housing assistance, but no eviction moratorium

Sens. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Chris Holbert, R-Parker, along with Reps. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, will sponsor a bill that would provide $45 million for grants to help individual Coloradans who are struggling to make their rent or mortgage payments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This will be for renters, for landlords, etc. — folks who are showing that they are in a vulnerable position for eviction or foreclosure in the coming months,” Fenberg said.

The bill also provides $500,000 for a legal defense fund for those facing eviction.

Lawmakers will not address an eviction moratorium during the special session, Democratic lawmakers said. Currently, state and federal eviction moratoriums prevent people from losing their homes due to financial difficulties, but they only last through the end of the year.

Broadband, food pantries, utilities assistance and public health

Four more bills slated for introduction Nov. 30 take additional action on pandemic response.

Republicans are expected to bring some of their own, additional coronavirus-related bills to the special session, but they’ll need to garner the support of the majority party in both chambers to pass any GOP legislation.

“Everything’s going to get a fair hearing,” Becker said.

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