In a bizarre, broken session, Colorado lawmakers make history

Marianne Goodland and Joey Bunch
Colorado Politics
Posted 6/21/20

The 71st Colorado General Assembly completed its abbreviated session on June 15, marked by masks, protests outside the building and angst over losing ground on programs and priorities.

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In a bizarre, broken session, Colorado lawmakers make history


The 71st Colorado General Assembly completed its abbreviated session on June 15, marked by masks, protests outside the building and angst over losing ground on programs and priorities.

Budgets were cut, tax breaks were eliminated, regulations were created, and paperwork was assured for parents who don't want to immunize their kids to send to them to public schools. Surprisingly, earned sick leave is here, but paid family leave isn't.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Back in January, flush with the cash that comes with one of the nation's best economies, lawmakers were expected to put more money into schools, lower the cost of health care and boost the state's lagging financial reserves to prepare for the next downturn.

But a pandemic put a fork in Colorado's prosperity road, leaving lawmakers to cut a quarter of the state's operating fund and look for the places to raid revenue to resist painful cuts to services Coloradans count on.

The session came and went with nary a dent in the state's $9 billion backlog for transportation, after the Polis administration released a 10-year plan in March that calls for an extra $500 million a year above the historic allotment for transportation for a decade. That's gone, baby, gone. 

Among the deepest cuts:

  • $621.4 million to K-12 education, which was added to the debt to K-12. It is now at $1.18 billion, the highest in state history
  • $598 million to higher education, a cut that represents 58% of the general fund support to public colleges and universities.
  • Putting off a $225 million payment intended to help shore up the unfunded liability of the state pension plan
  • Allowing the Colorado Department of Transportation to cover a $50 million payment for bonds out of existing revenues.
  • A $2.5 million cut in general fund that would pay for immunization outreach for the state department of public health, coming just as lawmakers approved a bill tightening the regulations around immunization waivers.
  • The state saved $72 million in general fund by eliminating a 3% raise for state employees. An additional $11 million in scheduled raises for correctional officers also won't happen. The Joint Budget Committee also swept $32.5 million in cash out of the state employee reserve fund, with plans to use $7 million of it to pay for a collective bargaining bill that Gov. Jared Polis signed June 16.
  • The JBC also tapped millions of dollars from marijuana tax and other related cash funds to help cover the budget shortfall.

Paying for priorities

"We still accomplished the majority of our goals that we set out, and we had challenges we never expected," said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder.

Despite all that came their way, the Democratic majorities were still able to keep some of their progressive promises from when they won the Senate majority two years ago.

“We passed the parts of our agenda we thought was most critical and wanted to get across the finish line,” Fenberg said of this session.

He acknowledged that more progressive members of the Democratic caucus were pushing hard to the left, to make deeper gains in paid family leave, immunization and taxes on corporations and the wealthy to preserve social programs.

“We passed bills we thought were most critical to helping Colorado families, helping small businesses and helping our state overall, and I think we succeeded in that,” he said, also acknowledging the complaints of businesses that will have to pay more now.

Paid sick leave for all employees: "That’s an incredibly big achievement, something Democrats have been working on for many years in Colorado," he said.

New laws around price gouging and protecting workers in the workplace, passed funding for housing assistance, for energy utilities assistance “for so many things that are not just important and part of values as a majority party, but simply the right thing to be doing in the middle of this crisis to get us out of it as soon as possible.”

“We also were able to pass a whole lot of critical legislation that we wanted to do from the beginning that aren’t totally in the moment of COVID crisis, but stuff we wanted to do, and we were still able to manage to kind of thread the needle.

House Speaker KC Becker, another Boulder Democrat, said the House and Senate made tough choices the best they could given the dire, historic circumstances.

“We rose to the challenge,” she said. “We were adults in the room. We addressed really hard problems. We didn’t just say what’s most popular right in this moment with the most politically connected people. “

'Nice to haves'

Legislation emblematic of the session was House Bill 1420, legislation to remove tax breaks for business that could steer millions of dollars annually into schools, housing and public health.

The lower chamber on June 15 concurred with the upper chamber's amendments to House Bill 1420, legislation to remove tax breaks from businesses and the wealthy to backfill money for education and expand the state's earned income tax credit.

Polis, a Democrat and schools advocate, was skeptical, forcing the bill's sponsors to water down the bill Saturday night to avert a veto.

Though Democrats cast it as removing loopholes, businesses called it a tax hike, occurring outside the requirements of the state constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

"It's still a tax, it really is," said Rep. Richard Champion, a freshman Republican from Littleton. "This is not the businesses' fault. It's the fault of the legislature for spending so much money on so many other things besides education. I don't understand how we can tax small business, or large business, when we're trying to recover from the economic debacle we have going on right now."

Rep. Daneya Esgar, the Pueblo Democrat who chairs the legislative budget-writing committee, noted on the floor that the panel of six legislators from both parties and both chambers spent more than 100 hours working with analysts to find solutions to the spending quagmire.

"To stand here and say government felt no pain, as some of these (state) departments about some of the services they provide your constituents about the pain your constituents are going to feel because of the work we had to do."

She provided a prediction.

"Next year is going to be worse," she said.

Esgar said lawmakers have tried for years to get the votes to pass new, better ways of funding education, only to hit roadblocks.

"Do I think this is the perfect solution? No," she said of taking tax breaks from employers. "Do I think there's value in attempting to do something in this state to make sure we can afford to educate kids? Yes."

Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Dacono, seized on the JBC's 100 hours of deliberations, saying that's about how much time a person starting a small business puts in a week.

"I've helped start a lot of small businesses, and I can tell you it's like having a newborn. You don't sleep much," she said to the chamber on the last day of the session. "And some of these business owners put everything into it."

She characterized many of the cuts in the state budget this year as "nice to haves."

"Nobody does that at home," she said of preserving extras in tough times. "You pay for the 'need to haves' and you cut the 'nice to haves.' But this bill doesn't represent that. Government doesn't produce anything, our businesses do, and the first thing we need to do is stop the bleeding."

The bill repassed in the House on a party-line vote the afternoon of June 15.

Scott Wasserman, the president of the left-leaning Bell Policy Center economic think tank, in Denver called the bill, also called the Tax Fairness Act, an overdue conversation.

"I believe the bill that passed is the best we could hope for under all of the extraordinary circumstances that happened this session," he said. "The work to better fund our state and create a fair tax code continues, and I’m confident it’s not going to slow down anytime soon."

New leave

Advocates for paid time off scored a victory, but not the one they expected.

When the session began, it looked certain that Democratic majorities would deliver a paid family leave bill to the governor, which would allow people to take time off for maternity or paternity, tend to long-term illness or care for a loved one.

For the second year in a row, however, they couldn't marshal their votes to get it done.

But once the pandemic hit, accrued paid sick leave became a possibility for the estimated 40% of the Colorado workforce that doesn't have it. The federal relief package made it possible to earn one hour of time off for every 30 worked to be used to go to the doctor or stay home sick. The state will continue that, thanks to Senate Bill 205, which passed June 15. 

Called the Healthy Families and Workplaces Act, the bill had plenty of legislative muscle this time. The sponsors were Becker, Fenberg, Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village and Rep. Yadira Caraveo of Thornton, the General Assembly's only physician.

“Passing this bill is an important win for Colorado families and critical to helping us combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, said in a statement. “When people are forced to choose between their health and their income we all lose. This bill will help us protect the wellbeing of our communities and ensure our economy can stand resilient against our current and any future public health crisis."

Business breaks

Wins were hard to come by for businesses this year, but some of the victories were a matter of negotiating and compromising, both sides said.

"At the end of the day we have to do what's right for all of Colorado," Becker said. “There was a lot of legislation that businesses didn’t like that didn’t go anywhere. There were some things they were very happy to see we moved away from. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be no impact, because at the end of the day we’re really trying to do what’s right for the entire state.”

The House and Senate, for instance, unanimously passed House 1421 to give county commissioners, with their county treasurers, the authority to reduce, waive or suspend penalties on late payments of their June 15th property tax payment.  

The governor signed it into law on June 15, assuring relief on penalties for late payment of property taxes so businesses could temporarily hold cash past its first hurdle, a measure quietly supported by the oil and gas industry, which laid low on the bill so as not to spook progressive Democrats opposed to the industry.

It was a hugely important bill to the energy sector as some of those tax payments are in the tens of millions of dollars. Having liquidity now will help many survive until the oil prices bounce back.

The effect of which is to give taxpayers permission to not make their payment so they can hold onto their cash to pay for other things like salaries and other operating costs and not have penalties building up. 

Legislative analysts warned of a downside, however. "By allowing boards of county commissioners or city councils to reduce, waive or suspend the collection of delinquent property tax interest payments, this bill may result in less property tax revenue to the impacted county or municipality," states the fiscal note. 

Oil-rich Weld County passed a resolution the same day as the bill became law to put it into effect.

The legislation stemmed from the tourism and energy sectors that have had more pronounced economic impacts from the COVID-19 response due to their higher property tax valuations.  Collections in Weld, Gilpin and Routt counties, for instance, are off more than 10% but all counties can provide this relief to all property taxpayers, regardless of business sector or size.

“Common Sense prevailed in many cases and that is good news for Colorado and the prospect of our economic recovery,” said Kristin Strohm, president and CEO of the Common Sense Institute, a Colorado business policy think tank. “Unfortunately, in many other cases, businesses were dealt a hand that will hinder job creation, slow our recovery and hurt Colorado families.”

The first two months really happened

One might be excused for forgetting what happened in the session's first two months, but one measure stood out from all the others: the repeal of the death penalty, Senate Bill 100. That's been a fight between the parties as well as within the Democratic caucuses of the House and Senate, which have rejected several past attempts. But this year, gaining three votes from Senate Republicans put it over the top in the upper chamber by one vote, with two Democrats, including Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora voting against. Polis signed the bill on March 23. 

Also making it to the governor's desk before the pandemic shut things down: a law banning discrimination based on hairstyles tied to race, and a law that replaces Columbus Day with Frances X. Cabrini Day, which will be the first Monday in October.

Long, strange session

Lawmakers noted the strangeness of the session and the dizzying pace of bills, hearings, changes and votes, often when nobody other than the legislature — not reporters, not lobbyists and, often, not even legislative staff and official record keepers — could keep it all straight.

Senate President Leroy Garcia and the JBC's Esgar sent on congratulatory statements, for example, about passing a bill to set aside money from infrastructure at Fisher's Peak, the newest state park in two of the most powerful lawmakers figurative backyard.

Left out of those statements was that the funding was reduced from $10 million to $6 million to $1 million, though the legislative website with the changes to the bill wasn't made until two days later, on June 15. 

"In April we want to get out of it," noted Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland. "Let's say in June we really want to get out of it. In August we want to see each other again."

McKean added, "We all have endured something over the last couple of weeks. We have endured a rise in our consciousness about issues in our society we ought to talk about. Actually, we've endured an assault in a way, and some of that was a physical assault."

The Capitol was vandalized during the racial protests in Denver.  McKean thanked the State Patrol for their protection. "Come and have your voice," he said. "Do not destroy what is here for others."

The session was not without its lighter, enjoyable moments.

Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, had a typical Don Coram flourish Saturday night.

“Some of the best years of my life, I spent in the arms of another man’s wife,” he said, to stunned silence in the chamber on a bill about tobacco taxes. “That lady would be 102 years old today, my mother. My mother was a strong woman. She taught me to stand for what you believe in.”

As the session wound down the afternoon of June 15, Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock stepped to the microphone one last time.

"I think this might be the best resolution all year," he said of the resolution to adjourn. "Please vote yes."

This story is from Colorado Politics, a statewide political and public policy news journal. Used by permission. For more, visit coloradopolitics.com.


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