Colorado lawmakers pass 10 bills aimed at COVID-19 pandemic relief in 2020 special session

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DENVER – Colorado lawmakers passed 10 bills in the three-day 2020 special session that adjourned Wednesday which allocate around $300 million in relief spending toward small business, housing, child care and other sectors deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The measures that passed include the priorities from Democratic leadership announced before the session started, as Democrats control both the House and Senate, but the Republican priorities, which included sending tax credits to families and limiting the governor’s authority during an emergency, failed.

The measures that passed will address some of the state’s needs: Targeted relief for small businesses and the arts, millions in housing relief money, utility assistance for low-income Coloradans, money for the disaster emergency fund, a sales tax reduction for restaurants and bars, millions in grant program funding for licensed child care providers, food pantry assistance and expanded internet access.

Democrats have lauded the measures passed despite some disappointment from minority Republicans that some of their measures were not more-seriously looked at. But Democrats also acknowledge that the roughly $300 million spent during the special session will not fully address all of Colorado’s budgetary issues, as the state cannot deficit-spend, and that more COVID-19 relief efforts would have to be put forth when the regular legislative session begins in January. The 10 bills passed with bipartisan support.

Colorado lawmakers pass 10 bills aimed at COVID-19 pandemic relief in 2020 special session

“I applaud the General Assembly for doing so much so quickly to help Coloradans get through a very challenging winter,” Polis said in a post-session news conference, praising the work by all 100 lawmakers to pass bipartisan bills in a quick fashion. “It speaks to the character of the men and women the people have elected on either side of the aisle.”

Polis, who has COVID-19 currently, said State Troopers would be delivering the bills to his home in envelopes. He will take them out, sign them, put them back in and spray the envelopes with Lysol before giving them back to the Troopers, he said.

The governor and the Democratic leadership from both chambers said they were pleased with the bipartisan support for most of the bills that passed, though they acknowledged in the news conference there is more work to do come January and that the spending allocated in the special session might not be able to reach everyone who needs the help.

“We have more work to do, but I’m very proud of the work we’ve accomplished together,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. Outgoing House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, said the special sessions was “a positive thing to go out on.”

Garcia and Speaker-elect Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said that December’s revenue forecast due out in coming weeks would have a large bearing on what lawmakers are able to do in terms of one-time help for some of the industries covered in the special session and others.

“I don’t think there are any of us who don’t want to do more. … We’ll look at every option and every tool at our disposal,” Garcia said.

Garnett said the December forecast and any possible packages from Congress over the next month would have a strong bearing on what state lawmakers are able to do more with come January.

Polis and the Democratic leaders also implored Congress to pass more relief to help aid the state in helping its small businesses, renters and homeowners, childcare providers and more that the state cannot do more with currently without more federal money.

Polis said he believed that the legislature’s actions “helped buy Colorado some time” and said he was encouraged by new bipartisan talks on Capitol Hill that got underway Wednesday but said that devastation lie ahead if Congress does not act.

“Congress needs to act … because that’s what Colorado needs and every other state needs as well,” Becker said.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, also discussed some of the language in Senate Bill 1 that could keep funding from going to businesses in counties whose commissioners have defied local and state public health orders, noting that businesses following the rules and under the most-severe restrictions would be prioritized for funds.

“If you’re a business operating in a county that’s telling you you don’t have to follow the law, you actually don’t have as much of a need as someone who is following the law because they’re doing the right thing and following the rules,” he said. “We want to be sure this money goes to businesses that are following the rules.”

He and the other leaders also reminded Coloradans that the only way to end the business restrictions and economic suffering is to stop the exponential spread of the coronavirus in the first place and that they should practice the common public health measures to take so restrictions do not have to continue.

“It hasn’t been a mystery to any of us for a long time now on how to privde relief to businesses and get them closer to normal, and that is to stop the spread of this virus in our communities,” Fenberg said. “There is a lot we can do to relieve the suffering, but in the end, the only-long term relief is if we beat this virus.”

Here are the bills that passed and what they will provide for Coloradans in the coming months:

Senate Bill 1: COVID-19 Relief Small and Minority Businesses Arts Organizations

Senate Bill 1 appropriates about $57.1 million in funding for small businesses, the arts, contact tracing and minority business payments, grants and loans.

The majority of the money — $37 million – will go toward direct payments to small businesses in counties that are both subject to and in compliance with public health orders, like Safer at Home Level Red, that restrict their capacities, including restaurants, bars, movie theaters, gyms and rec centers – which have been hit hardest by capacity restrictions during the pandemic.

Those businesses that are eligible would be able to receive up to $7,000 in direct relief.

There was a late amendment included in the bill that would allow businesses in cities that are in compliance with local and state health orders to still receive payments even if the county in question is not.

The bill also includes criteria for the state about adopting the five-star variance program being piloted in Mesa County, for which guidance is out now and the state is seeking feedback. Polis said Wednesday that the program would still be optional.

“We are doing everything we can to boost small businesses and help them through the winter months ahead until we have a vaccine and Congress passes additional relief. Cultural venues, artists and minority-owned businesses have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic. This assistance will help the small businesses that have been hit hardest so that they don’t permanently shutter,” said bill sponsor Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver.

Senate Bill 2: Housing and Direct COVID Emergency Assistance

Senate Bill 2 will facilitate the transfer of $44.5 million from the state’s General Fund to the House Development Grant Fund to provide housing assistance to those who are most vulnerable and in financial need caused by the pandemic, including landlords whose tenants are struggling to pay rent.

It also creates a $5 million direct assistance grant program that will allocate the grant money for people who are ineligible for other housing assistance, including undocumented immigrants.

The measure also will transfer $500,000 from the General Fund into the Eviction Legal Defense Fund to provide legal representation to people being evicted or facing other civil matters who could not otherwise afford counsel.

The money will have to be used by June 30 of next year, and the emergency direct assistance grant program fund will be repealed effective June 30, 2022.

Senate Bill 3: Money for Energy Utility Bill Payment Assistance

Senate Bill 3 will send $5 million from the General Fund to a low-income energy assistance fund that will help people with low incomes cover their utility bills – money which must be spent by June 30, 2021.

Energy companies will receive the money directly and will have to use it to help people struggling to make, or who have fallen behind, on their energy-use utilities.

Energy Outreach Colorado will have to report the amount of money distributed for assistance and the amount returned to the state by mid-July.

“Helping Coloradans heat their homes and keep the lights on will go a long way towards supporting hardworking families across the state. The end of this pandemic is in sight, and this assistance will make an important difference for those who need it most,” said sponsor Rep. Monicao Duran, D-Wheat Ridge.

Senate Bill 4: Transfer to make money available for COVID-19 emergency

SB 4 requires the state to transfer $100 million from the general fund to the controlled maintenance fund. This money will be available to Gov. Polis to transfer to the state’s disaster emergency fund for COVID-19 response, when necessary. Polis has already transferred money out of the maintenance fund twice during the pandemic.

House Bill 1001: Grants to improve internet access in P-12 education

House Bill 1001 creates a grant program to provide school districts with grants for improving and increasing broadband service and other technology needed for internet access. The state education department will award the grants, which must be distributed by Feb. 1. With remote learning more widespread amid COVID-19, Polis made expanded internet access a priority for the special session.

House Bill 1002: Emergency Relief Programs for Child Care Sector

House Bill 1002 creates two emergency relief grant programs, allowing the state to allocate and distribute money to existing childcare providers. The childcare sustainability program will provide grants of $500-$35,000, determined on the capacity of the childcare facility. The state’s Department of Human Services will determine who receives the grant money by Jan. 31, distributing the money by the end of February.

The bill also creates an emerging and expanding childcare grant program, providing grants of $3,000-$50,000. The expansion program is aimed at helping childcare providers expand — or new providers start their business — to provide more childcare options. The state will begin the grant awarding process on Jan. 31.

House Bill 1003: Food Pantry Assistance Grant Program

House Bill 1003 expands and extends provisions for the current food pantry assistance grant program, allowing grants for food banks and pantries, including faith-based organizations. The current program offers grants up to $35,000 but HB 1003 takes away the $35,000 cap and increases the amount able to be used for expenses from 10% to 20%.

House Bill 1004: Qualified retailers retain sales tax for assistance

House Bill 1004 will temporarily reduce state sales tax for restaurants, bars and food trucks, allowing those businesses to keep some of the sales tax that would normally be collected by the state for November, December, January and February.

The bill will allow those businesses to retain up to $2,000 per month, per location, up to four locations.

House Bill 1005: Local control to impose food delivery fee restrictions

House Bill 1005 gives local governments control to limit fees that food-delivery services can charge a restaurant. This applies to restaurants in counties or cities where indoor dining is limited to 50% or less, which would include Denver and other large counties in Level Red of the state’s COVID-19 dial.

The bill also gives local governments the ability to restrict food-delivery services from reducing drivers’ pay or tips to offset any lost revenue from the limit on fees.

House Bill 1006: Insurance premium tax payments and credits

House Bill 1006 adjusts how calendar quarter estimates of the tax on insurance premiums are calculated and also allows payments for the first quarter of the year to be adjusted. The bill also modifies how credits against tax payments can be claimed or transferred and allows companies to claim a refund for overpayments of the estimated premium tax liability.