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Budget cuts, police accountability, coronavirus top Colorado legislature session

The Associated Press
Published 4:29 PM EDT Jun 16, 2020
Colorado Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, left, and Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, are pictured in the Senate chambers as lawmakers try to wrap up the session in the State Capitol on Monday in Denver.
David Zalubowski, AP

DENVER — In a fitting manner, Colorado’s legislature arranged for coronavirus nasal swab testing outside the Capitol building for lawmakers and staff heading home after finishing their pandemic-shortened 2020 session on Monday.

The virus shortened the scheduled 120-day session by nearly 40 days and forced a 10-week hiatus. Lawmakers returned to hurriedly pass a major initiative on police accountability, a budget that drastically cuts education funding, and allocate $70 million in federal relief to businesses and workers struggling in the recession.

All in three weeks. And not without further challenges, such as riots over the death of George Floyd that marred the Capitol with graffiti and broken windows, heavily damaged the Senate president’s truck and exposed lawmakers to tear gas.

Monday’s business consisted of both chambers accepting amendments on outstanding bills to extend a state reinsurance program, pass a scaled-back bill to direct certain business tax credits to education, and refer a nicotine product tax hike to voters in November.

Lawmakers agreed Monday on a bill to allow part-time workers to earn paid sick leave to care for themselves and others. 

It’s one of several bills responding to the virus’ impact on Colorado’s economy. More than half a million workers have sought unemployment benefits.

Lawmakers approved a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that cut $3.3 billion from the $13 billion general fund. The budget cuts K-12 funding by $621 million and $598 million from higher education. It also eliminates a $225 million payment into the state employee retirement fund. 

Higher education: Colorado State University board approves tuition freeze amid $17 million budget cuts

Democratic sponsors of a bill to suspend or reduce business tax credits to help make up the hit being taken by public schools scaled back those changes to the tax code after Gov. Jared Polis asked for a “business friendly” version. If signed into law, the bill will direct millions of dollars from those credits to low-income families and public education.

To help residents affected by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers passed bills drawing from the $70 million in federal relief at their disposal to address mental health and substance abuse treatment, small business grants, rent and mortgage assistance, a fund to prevent utility shutoffs and a new public-private fund to support loans to small businesses. 

A signature accomplishment by both parties is a police accountability and transparency bill that drew bipartisan support and endorsements from Colorado police, sheriffs and district attorneys’ associations. 

It addresses use of force practices, mandates use of body cameras starting in 2023, requires public release of body cam footage in instances of misconduct complaints, and removes, in some instances, officers’ qualified immunity from civil lawsuits. The Senate sent the bill to the governor on Saturday. 

K-12: Poudre School District declares fiscal emergency to allow layoffs of classified employees

Majority Democrats passed a bill designed to lift child vaccination rates that are among the lowest in the nation. The bill adds new requirements for most parents who choose to opt out of routine vaccinations on religious or personal grounds.

They also extended a new health insurance program that lowers premiums for about 180,000 people on Colorado’s individual insurance market by covering part of the cost of insurers’ highest-cost cases.

For November’s state initiatives ballot, lawmakers referred a measure to ease property tax burdens on business and another to raise cigarette taxes and tax nicotine products such as e-cigarettes and vaping products and direct most of that money to education.

Lawmakers will return in January to again confront yawning deficits in education funding and other essential priorities amid uncertainty about the economy and the pandemic’s toll.

This content was originally published here.