With a few tweaks and a fair amount of bipartisan support, a slate of Democratic-led bills aimed at helping Coloradans and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic raced across the finish line — allowing lawmakers to conclude a special legislative session within three days.
“I’m proud as governor that the men and women of our Legislature have risen to the occasion … helping small businesses and individuals through the very challenging and dark winter months as we await the vaccine and the end of the pandemic,” Gov. Jared Polis said during a news briefing Dec. 2, after the state House and Senate adjourned until January.
One bill providing direct assistance to Colorado restaurants, bars, venues, arts programs and minority-owned businesses passed with an amendment to provide some leeway for people in counties that aren’t complying with public health restrictions.
Senate Bill 20B-1, sponsored by Sens. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, along with Reps. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, and Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs, passed the House on Dec. 2 by a final vote of 46-17. The House-amended version passed the Senate by a vote of 30-4.
The original bill stipulated that only businesses located in counties that are complying with the state’s COVID-19 restrictions under the so-called “red level” would be eligible for relief. That would have made businesses in Weld County — where commissioners have said they won’t enforce capacity restrictions and an indoor dining ban — ineligible for financial assistance of up to $7,000 cash.
The bill was changed first to allow compliant cities within non-compliant counties to still receive aid for businesses, and then on the House floor, sponsor Herod introduced an amendment extending that exemption to certain businesses in unincorporated areas of non-compliant counties. To qualify, they must be within a mile of a city or town that’s complying with the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Local government compliance means “good-faith efforts to enforce or promote” COVID-19 orders from the governor and the state Department of Public Health and Environment, within the scope of a city or county’s authority and “in consideration of available resources, including engaging law enforcement,” the bill says.
“If you are not complying with public health orders and you are staying open, you don’t get to get the money,” Herod said. “You’re doing fine. You’re open. But if you’re doing everything you can to comply, you need help.”
That amendment wasn’t enough to earn the support of most House Republicans, including Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, incoming Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland, and Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone, who worked with Herod on the amendment.
Saine said she was grateful for Herod’s work on the bill but also respected Weld County’s “compassionate choice” to allow businesses to stay open if they chose. Saine didn’t support the legislation because it wouldn’t help those businesses that weren’t complying with the state’s restrictions.
Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, also voted against SB-1. He said legislators should have worked during the special session on increasing capacity at businesses and “empowering people to get back to work.”
“We’re in a situation that’s untenable,” Williams told Newsline. “People can’t go on not being able to work or run their businesses. They’re going to end up losing everything that they’ve risked just to stay afloat.”
SB-1 also stipulates that aid can go only to businesses in counties that are under red-level restrictions — which ban in-person dining and indoor events — between Dec. 10 and Dec. 31.
So, if the state moves any counties from red to orange before Dec. 10, their businesses might not be able to receive the assistance. Orange-level restrictions require restaurants and indoor events to operate at 25% capacity with no more than 50 people.
Counties or cities must apply for funding under SB-1 through the Department of Local Affairs by Jan. 8. On or before Jan. 15, DOLA must allocate the money proportionally, based on population, to those eligible governments that have applied. Restaurants, bars and venues will have at least three weeks to apply through a county or city.
In addition to the $37 million it dedicates to grant funding for business assistance, SB-1 also provides $7.5 million for arts and culture-related grants to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The office can distribute the money for the purchase of public works of art; cash for people involved in the music, theater, movie, television, dance or visual arts industries; and relief for nonprofits or companies involved in those industries, including venues at risk of closing.
The bill also waives certain licensing and application fees for restaurants and bars in 2021 and provides funding to offset that lost state revenue. Additionally, it provides $4 million for grants and loans for small businesses owned by Black people, Indigenous people and people of color — assistance targeted for business owners who lacked meaningful access to federal coronavirus relief through the Payment Protection Program. DOLA will determine application guidelines and funding amounts.
Black and Brown business owners are “disproportionately impacted by lack of stimulus dollars coming into our communities,” Herod said.
Lawmakers allocate $60 million toward housing, emergency needs
On Dec. 3, the House also passed Senate Bill 20B-2, by a similar vote of 48-16. The bill provides $54 million for grants to help people in need pay their rent or mortgage bills, $5 million for emergency needs of people who may be ineligible for unemployment insurance or food assistance, and an additional $1 million for legal assistance to people facing eviction.
The bill was sponsored by Sens. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Chris Holbert, R-Parker, along with Reps. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood. SB-2 passed the Senate by a vote of 34-0.
Supporters saw the assistance as crucial, given that the Census Bureau’s latest Household Pulse Survey found that 40.4% of Colorado adults are behind on their rent or mortgage payments with eviction or foreclosure in the next two months very likely or somewhat likely.
“Thousands of Coloradans are struggling to pay their rent or mortgage and are facing agonizing decisions every day about which bills to pay and how to avoid being thrown out of their homes,” Exum said in a statement. “There is an astounding need for housing assistance to help Coloradans bridge the gap and avoid eviction or foreclosure.”
Food pantries get a $5 million boost
A bill providing financial assistance to food pantries also got an extra $2 million through a Senate amendment.
The final version of House Bill 20B-1003, which includes $5 million for grants to be used for food banks, food pantries and associated food delivery, passed 34-0 in the Senate and on a vote of 62-2 in the House, with Neville and Williams opposed.
Reps. Lisa Cutter, D-Dakota Ridge, and Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, along with Sens. Tammy Story, D-Conifer, and Dennis Hisey, R-Fountain, sponsored HB-1003.
“Across our state and our nation, hunger and food insecurity have only been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic,” Cutter said in a statement Dec. 1. “This direct support to food pantries builds on the work we did earlier in the year to bring us closer to a hunger-free Colorado.”
Nonprofit to distribute $5 million for energy assistance
Senate Bill 20B-5 passed 34-0 in the Senate and by a vote of 59-5 in the House. The bill — sponsored by Sens. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, along with Reps. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain — provides $5 million for direct assistance on utility bills.
An executive order first issued by Polis in June, which he’s renewed monthly since then, directs the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to work with utilities to waive utility reconnection fees and suspend fees for late payments. However, a moratorium on utility shut-offs for customers who can’t pay their energy bills expired in June when the governor declined to renew it.
The $5 million from SB-5 will be allocated to the Colorado Energy Office, which must give it to a nonprofit, Energy Outreach Colorado, for distribution.
“We’re moving into a season right now where many families are having to pay more for their energy,” Fields said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing Nov. 30.
Polis can direct $100 million to COVID-19 public health costs
Senate Bill 20B-4 passed the House on Dec. 2 by a vote of 46-18, and the Senate by 33-0. The bill provides $100 million for the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund, which Polis will be able transfer to the Disaster Emergency Fund. He can only use the money only for public health or emergency response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, who sponsored the bill along with Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, has said that he expects the federal government to reimburse the money at some point next year.
Lawmakers agree that much work remains ahead during the regular session in January. But House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder who is term-limited, won’t be returning. Under normal circumstances, the last session she presided over as speaker would have been the 2020 session that ended in June.
“I certainly hadn’t expected to have another few days up at the dais,” Becker said during Polis’ news briefing, “but there was, I think, a really strong sense of bipartisanship and camaraderie that we really wanted to do what was right for Colorado — and what’s right for Colorado right now is passing the assistance they need.”