The 71st Colorado General Assembly completed its abbreviated session a week ago, 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 depend on.
The session came and went without a dent in the state’s $9 billion backlog for transportation projects, this 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 proposal is 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 to 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 the 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 Tuesday.
Lawmakers 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.
Fenberg acknowledged the complaints of businesses that will have to pay more now, including paid sick leave for all employees.
“That’s an incredibly big achievement,” he said, “something Democrats have been working on for many years in Colorado.”
New laws around price gouging and protecting workers in the workplace passed, as did funding for housing assistance, for energy utilities assistance, “for so many things that are not just important and part of (our) 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.”
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 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 included House Bill 1420, a tax policy shift that could steer millions of dollars annually into schools, housing and public health.
The lower chamber last Monday, the final day of the session, concurred with the upper chamber’s amendments to House Bill 1420, 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 education advocate, was skeptical, forcing the bill’s sponsors to water down the measure 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, said 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, ask 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, was not convinced. She 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. She said putting more of a burden on business was to fund “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 gained final approval the House in a last-minute party-line vote.
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.”
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, 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 Monday.
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.”
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.
“There was a lot of legislation that businesses didn’t like that didn’t go anywhere,” Becker said. “There were some things they were very happy to see we moved away from.”
The House and Senate, for example, unanimously passed House 1421 to give county commissioners, with their county treasurers, the authority to reduce, waive or suspend penalties on late payments of property tax payments due June 15th.
The governor signed it into law on Monday. It was quietly backed 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 important to the energy sector, with some tax payments ain the tens of millions of dollars, and allows some businesses to hold onto their cash to pay salaries and other operating costs.
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 immediately 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 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
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.
McKean added, “We all have endured something over the last couple of weeks,” said Rep. Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland. “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 on the last 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 Monday afternoon, Republican leader Patrick Neville 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 content was originally published here.