A bipartisan group of Colorado lawmakers joined Democratic Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday to unveil their plan for a sweeping economic stimulus package at the state level. The yet-to-be-introduced legislation would pump money into areas ranging from restaurants to roads.
“This product that is being presented today is the work of long hours, many sleepless nights, that our legislative leaders, their staff, my staff worked hard on to help Colorado build back quicker and stronger,” Polis said to kick off a news conference at the Governor’s Mansion.
The $700 million COVID-19 recovery plan includes several elements of a stimulus proposal Polis released in the fall — housing assistance; shovel-ready infrastructure projects; workforce and economic development; rural broadband investments; and additional relief for small businesses.
Over the past year, Colorado’s economy fared better than legislators on the Joint Budget Committee expected last June when they cut $3 billion in state spending. So legislators from both parties and the governor’s office want to use some of the extra general fund money to help the state recover from the pandemic-driven economic downturn.
Nothing is finalized yet — each element of the proposal will have to be passed by the Colorado General Assembly during the 2021 legislative session.
“The Legislature is doing a lot of great work this year, but this is the main event,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. “This is what people expect us to be doing in a bipartisan way, and I’m proud to be standing with everybody: the Joint Budget Committee and our Republican colleagues.”
State leaders announced the stimulus plan mere minutes after the House of Representatives voted to approve a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that will provide $350 billion for state and local aid. Colorado is expected to receive $6.1 billion. That package was “by and large unpaid for,” Polis pointed out, while the state must pass a balanced budget each year without going into debt, as the federal government can.
Polis said the projects identified in the state proposal will use one-time state funding and will be completely paid for within 12 to 18 months after they are authorized through state legislation.
With Democrats holding the majority in the state House and Senate, the legislation is all but guaranteed to pass in some form, though some of the plans will surely undergo changes.
Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert said his caucus planned to support bills focused on three priorities: “getting people back to work, getting students back to school, and roads and bridges.” If a stimulus bill falls outside of that realm, he said, Republicans will recommend that “we take whatever dollars are allocated to that and probably focus on those three priorities” instead.
Meanwhile, Democrats repeated the phrase “build back stronger” to describe how they plan to approach the stimulus package. They see the extra general fund revenue as an opportunity to revamp the state’s economy and expand into new sectors.
“Between unique threats like wildfires and rapidly changing market forces, rural Colorado has been hit hard over the last year,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat. “But these challenges present a great opportunity for us to create new jobs and build back stronger.”
Elements of the plan address five goals: strengthening small businesses, revitalizing infrastructure, supporting Colorado families, investing in rural Colorado and developing the state’s workforce. Below are some of the top-dollar items.
• $170 million for shovel-ready infrastructure projects. This would fund Colorado Department of Transportation-led improvements to tourism corridors and scenic byways, wildlife migration corridors, Denver Metro West Interstate 70 bridges and the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnels.
• $60 to $80 million for urban affordable housing and community spaces. The state would provide matching funds for local proposals to add “innovative” affordable housing in urban areas, as well as “safe community spaces,” according to the stimulus proposal.
• $50 to $75 million for broadband investments. This would help pay for “middle and last mile” broadband internet infrastructure in the state. The details are unclear, but the program would build on a 2020 bill that provided $20 million for grants to education providers seeking to improve internet access in their communities.
• $40 to $50 million in sales tax relief for small restaurants and bars. This would extend sales tax relief that passed during the Legislature’s December 2020 special session focused on COVID-19 response. Under that legislation, a business could apply up to $2,030 in sales tax relief to as many as five locations a month, making the maximum monthly relief $10,150. That relief lasted through February.
• $30 to $40 million for clean energy programs. This money would go toward existing entities in the Colorado Energy Office that support renewable energy such as wind and solar power infrastructure. For example, the nonprofit Colorado Clean Energy Fund uses government funds and private investment to help finance utility-scale and distributed generation projects, energy efficiency projects, and electric vehicle charging stations.
• $20 to $35 million for agriculture infrastructure. Through a competitive grant program, the state would award this funding to projects such as processing plants, storage facilities and distribution centers. The goal: “To help diversify the supply chain for traditional agriculture products and promote Colorado’s emerging crops like hemp.”
• $20 to $30 million to help finance underserved Colorado entrepreneurs. This money would go to Community Development Financial Institutions, also known as CDFIs, which are federally-certified lenders serving entrepreneurs historically left out of the traditional banking system.
• $15 to $25 million for local workforce centers. This would fund two-year grants to help provide training and support workers in attaining credentials for high-demand jobs. The proposal refers to the “top jobs” in growing employment sectors as defined in Colorado’s 2020 Talent Pipeline Report.
• $15 million for cash incentives awarded to businesses that provide new jobs in Colorado. This money would be allocated to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s Strategic Fund Incentive, and was already included in budget legislation. That legislation passed the Senate on March 9 with House amendments, and Polis is expected to sign it into law.
• $10 to $25 million for wildfire mitigation and recovery. These funds would go toward forest restoration projects as well as mitigation efforts to reduce the risks that future wildfires pose to communities and properties in the state’s “wildland-urban interface.”
• $10 to $15 million for one-time grants to small businesses. The Energize Colorado Gap Fund was created during the Legislature’s December special session, and it has already announced the 2,060 recipients of a total of $25 million in grants, each worth up to $15,000. The additional stimulus money would provide more grant funding for businesses with fewer than 25 employees.
• $10 to $15 million for hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. Local governments would be able to use this money to rent rooms in or purchase hotels or motels.
• $10 to $15 million for displaced workers. A program launched by the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative in May helps fund higher education for people who were laid off or had earnings decrease due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through that program, this funding would provide scholarships and support for displaced workers with some college but no degree. It would also help expand high-demand programs at community colleges.
• $10 million for school construction projects. The Colorado Department of Education runs a competitive grant program, called Building Excellent Schools Today or BEST, that provides grants to school districts and charter schools for building new schools and renovating existing buildings. This money would pay for school construction projects that did not receive BEST grants in the last funding cycle.