Colorado lawmakers kick off special session aimed at COVID-19 relief

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The Colorado state legislature convened for a special session Monday to address the COVID-19 pandemic and try to provide some economic relief to businesses and families.

“We’re here to really help us get COVID relief out to Colorado small businesses across the state. We’ve been expecting and hoping that Congress would act with more relief and that hasn’t happened, so we’re doing what we can with revenue that came in above expectations,” said outgoing House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder.

More than 30 bills were introduced Monday and already began making their way through the committee process.

Over the weekend, Democrats laid out their priorities in a remote press conference. The eight priority bills are focused on small business relief, housing and rental assistance, utility assistance, broadband access and more.

All of the bills include a clause that allows them to go into effect immediately upon being signed by the governor.

Lawmakers are expecting to have between $200 and $350 million to spend on legislation this special session.

“It’s not going to solve the problem, but the idea is that this is going to provide a little bit of a stopgap to provide some relief to those who are most in need over these next couple of months,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Many of the priority bills do have bipartisan support and Sen. Fenberg says they have been in the works for weeks before the special session began.

Republicans have also introduced a series of bills ranging from limiting the governor’s executive authority to helping schools.

Incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, is hoping that there is still some room to debate and possibly pass some Republican-backed legislation in a House and Senate controlled by Democrats.

“There’s always wiggle room and I think that’s why we come together. If we didn’t need to talk about it and figure out where they should go, then there’s absolutely no reason to bring the legislature back in the middle of the highest spike in COVID,” Rep. McKean said. “If there’s no wiggle room, there’s no reason for us to be here.”

Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, proposed two measures: One to limit the liability of businesses during the pandemic and protect from frivolous lawsuits and another to allow businesses to not have to pay sales taxes through February.

However, Sen. Tate admits the Republicans have their work cut out for them.

“I think we just have a lot of good ideas and sometimes, in the brevity of a special session, when you’re coming from the out-of-power political party, your ideas don’t necessarily get as much traction,” he said.

He hopes some of the Republican bills will be folded into ones Democrats proposed and passed or that they will be incorporated into the overall agenda for the next session in January.

“Every one of those bills will get a hearing. Every one of those bills will go to committee and get a discussion,” Becker said.

The challenge McKean sees Republicans facing is time, since many of the bills were drafted quickly. He’s also unsure about exactly how much money the legislature realistically has to spend.

Republicans also introduced a few bills to try to limit the powers of the governor, allow counties to disregard emergency orders and roll back some of the tax changes made last legislative session.

With Democrats controlling the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, there’s little chance of these bills passing.

“I think many of the bills that were introduced that weren’t bipartisan are largely political statements,” Fenberg said. “We don’t have time for grandstanding. Many of these bills, I would actually argue, are unconstitutional because they’re not in the governor’s call. So, if they were to somehow pass, he would likely veto them. Or if he didn’t veto of them, they would be taken to court.”

McKean disagrees and says these bills are discussions that lawmakers need to have.

“We have to have a discussion about in an unprecedented disaster emergency where there are bureaucratic reasons to maintain a series of emergency or disaster declarations. We have to find a way to give the people of this state of voice,” he said.

Several Republicans declined to wear masks on the chamber floors Monday, including Rep. Larry Liston, R-El Paso County, who was photographed wearing one atop his head. Becker, in a statement regarding a GOP staffer’s previous positive COVID-19 test who was present Monday, said Republicans were exhibiting a “dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections.”

The staffer and McKean both said the staffer had been cleared to return to work by her doctor.

More than a dozen bills that were introduced Monday have already died in committee. Lawmakers are hoping the special session will last for only three days to offer some short-term relief until either the federal government helps or until the January session begins.