Colorado legislators convened on Nov. 30 for the first day of a special session ordered by Gov. Jared Polis on coronavirus relief. They aimed to pass eight bills championed by Democrats — the majority party in the House, Senate and governor’s office — within just a few days, minimizing the chance of spreading COVID-19 during a time when about 1 in 41 Coloradans are contagious.
Those bills have all garnered bipartisan support, but party lines emerged over coronavirus safety. First, despite efforts by leadership to maintain public health protocols at the Capitol, several House and Senate Republicans drew condemnation on social media for not wearing masks on the floor.
“Not wearing a mask us one thing, mocking it like this or coming across the aisle maskless to greet your colleagues is just offensive,” Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, wrote on Twitter with a photo of Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, wearing his mask atop his head like a hat.
— Cathy_Kipp (@Cathy_Kipp) November 30, 2020
And House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, released a statement about a Republican House staffer whom Becker claimed showed up at the Capitol days after testing positive for COVID-19.
“This afternoon we learned that a House Minority staffer tested positive for COVID-19 last week and was on the House Floor this morning,” Becker wrote. “The staffer has been sent home and is not permitted to return through the special session and until she tests negative.”
“This was a reckless breach of the House’s safety protocols, and it will not be tolerated,” she added. “The minority’s dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections and this staffer’s presence on the floor has placed the health of every lawmaker and member of staff at risk.”
However, in a statement provided to Newsline, incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, challenged Becker’s assertions.
“This afternoon a House Aide was asked to work remotely after concerns with a positive COVID test,” McKean wrote. “The test was not performed at the Capitol today, in fact it was a positive test on November 17th. That Aide sought the advice of their physician and was given permission to return to work in person on the 24th of this month.”
“These concerns arose after a Facebook post that mentioned the positive test,” he added.
On the House floor, McKean called Becker’s press release “spiteful and factually incorrect.”
Housing assistance, small business relief bills move forward with amendments
A late night at the Capitol allowed Democrats to make significant progress toward their goal of passing bills at maximum speed. Meanwhile, Republican bills failed to garner enough support to move forward — though their sponsors hope to bring back the same concepts, such as local control over health orders and civil immunity for businesses, for the regular session in January.
One bill aimed at tackling Coloradans’ housing needs during the pandemic got an infusion of cash, thanks to an amendment approved in the Senate Finance Committee.
Senate Bill 20B-2, which passed the Senate on second reading, would provide $54 million for grants to help individuals pay housing costs and emergency needs, plus an additional $1 million for legal assistance to people facing eviction. An extra $10 million was added to the bill through an amendment from Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, who is sponsoring the bill along with Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. Reps. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, are SB-2’s House sponsors.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Holbert said the bill provides needed housing assistance and would allow renters and landlords to apply for aid together. “(The landlords) don’t go bankrupt, and the tenants get to stay in their apartments.”
“SB2 truly does ensure that both landlords and tenants have a voice,” said Sarah Mercer, a Denver-based lawyer and pro bono lobbyist for Colorado Legal Services, who testified in support of the bill.
Senate Bill 20B-1, which would provide $57 million in assistance for businesses affected by coronavirus capacity restrictions, also passed the Senate on second reading Nov. 30. The bill — sponsored by Sens. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, along with Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver — will get one more vote before it can move to the House.
Sponsors introduced several amendments to the bill in the Senate Finance Committee. One set aside a portion of the bill’s $37 million for direct assistance to businesses for a reserve fund.
While most of that direct assistance money would be allocated to counties by population, and then distributed to businesses that apply for relief through the county, the reserve fund would provide some extra money for areas of the state that are “highly impacted” by coronavirus capacity restrictions. Those could include communities that are highly dependent on tourism, Winter said.
Another change: In the original version of SB-1, craft brewers, distillers and wineries weren’t eligible for direct assistance. The amended bill would allow those businesses to apply for funding if they have a tasting room where capacity restrictions could have hurt profits.
Likewise, Senate Bill 20B-4 was approved on third reading in the Senate Tuesday morning and moves to the House. The bill would transfer $100 million from the general fund to the controlled maintenance trust fund — making that money available for Polis to allocate to the state’s disaster emergency fund, as long as the governor’s COVID-19 emergency declaration is in effect.
“Given the situation that we find ourselves in — we have an emergency that has lasted for some time now — and the need to address some cash flow issues that we are experiencing, that essentially is what Senate Bill 4 seeks to do,” Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said during the Finance hearing.
Moreno sponsored SB-4, along with Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, in the House.
The bill drew some opposition from Republicans, including Sen. Larry Crowder, who called it a “slush fund” for the use of the governor. Crowder told Newsline that SB-4 is the single high-priority Democratic-led bill that he expects he might not support in the special session.
Still, Democrats have a solid majority in both chambers and will almost certainly be able to push through their priorities without necessarily getting bipartisan support.
Rule changes allow public testimony via video
As the first order of business Nov. 30, lawmakers in both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly passed a rule change allowing people to testify on bills remotely. Despite some technical difficulties, a handful of people submitted comments this way on the first day of the special session.
For committee hearings on Dec. 1 and any subsequent days, people can register online to testify remotely on a given bill after the bill is scheduled for a committee hearing. They can also submit written comments or physically show up to testify at a hearing.
The Colorado General Assembly has more details on its website about how to testify remotely or in person during the special session.