A socially distanced, mostly masked Colorado legislature reconvened today for the first time since March, with a heap of new work to complete and a major budget crisis coloring nearly every decision.
The General Assembly was supposed to have adjourned for the year on May 6, but it paused its 120-day session on March 14, deeming it unsafe to meet. That has meant that one of three branches of the state government has been almost entirely inactive since well before Coloradans were ordered to stay at home. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has largely controlled the direction of state government during this time.
Having completed well over half the session earlier this year, lawmakers technically are allowed about 50 more days of work this year. But in the interest of limiting everyone’s time inside the Capitol, the Democrats who control both the House and Senate say they only plan to meet for about three weeks.
The building has been retrofitted with new plexiglass partitions, signage urging spacing and whole lot of hand sanitizer. During session the Capitol is usually buzzing with visitors and lobbyists, but the halls were almost empty Tuesday.
“It’s quiet,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R- Monument. “It’s unusual.”
On the docket for this coming stretch: passing a budget with billions in spending cuts; resolving, in one way or another, the roughly 350 bills that were still pending when the legislature took its recess in March; and passing about 20 new bills concerning coronavirus response.
“We are eager to return today and begin working together to find common-ground solutions,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, told reporters Tuesday morning. He said the legislature must “put politics and ideology aside to make sure we’re advancing what’s important for Coloradans.”
Lundeen said that he expects a “collegial effort” if lawmakers focus on COVID-19 response bills instead of trying to resurrect some of their pre-virus projects.
But politicians will certainly continue to be political.
In a press conference May 18, House Republican lawmakers called for a series of actions, including more checks on the governor’s vast emergency powers; waiving or reducing interest rates for commercial property taxes; capping unemployment insurance premiums; and allowing counties more authority over pandemic response. They also opposed some budget changes proposed by Democrats, including to the homestead exemption for seniors, a property tax exemption that allows property owners older than 65 or surviving spouses to qualify for a 50% deduction in the first $200,000 value of their primary home.
But Democrats have the final say on which new bills get introduced. They’ve already vowed to bring bills to provide a bit more sick leave to workers — not to be confused with a recently scuttled effort to provide paid family and medical leave statewide — and to provide some housing relief. The specifics of their new agenda should come into focus by mid-week.
Democratic lawmakers are preparing to pare down the bills they introduced earlier in the session, but they’re not prepared to get rid of all of them entirely. Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, for example, wants some of her education bills that she said will make processes run more smoothly to get a fair shake, in addition to new bills that are responsive to the crisis.
“My hope is that we are efficient and that we are diplomatic in terms of being able to move things as forward as we can,” she said.
Before either chamber gaveled back into action, partisan divisions already were visible: All Democrats wore masks, while many Republicans did not. GOP members pushed prior to the Capitol’s reopening for leniency; in talks earlier this month about masks and distancing guidelines for the remainder of the session, Republican lawmakers resisted words like “required” and “shall.”
The Denver Post asked Colorado House GOP spokesman Austin Hein if he might comment on why so many members declined to wear masks.
“No,” Hein responded.
Later, Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, explained his decision to not wear a mask: “My district doesn’t really buy the whole mask thing,” he said, adding that mask-wearing fogs up his glasses.
The rules for the public are much stricter. Anyone entering the building will be required to wear face masks and respect six-foot social distancing rules, according to legislative leaders. All visitors to the building will also undergo temperature checks, although they will be allowed to enter the building even if they are running fevers.
Lawmakers are working to adapt to a new normal, several referring to the changes as “awkward” and “eerie,” with Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, rating the feel of the Capitol an 11 on the “weird scale.”
The Capitol grounds had a more typical appearance Tuesday morning as protesters showed up with signs in favor of opening the state, against vaccine restrictions and supporting school funding.
Garcia, who served in the Marines, said lawmakers have discussed how to respond if people move their protests inside the Capitol without respecting the mask or distance rules.
“For every action there’s a counteraction,” he said. “We’ll have to see what actions are prompted. We’ve been clear we take this risk very seriously.”
Lawmakers will continue to take input from the public, though video testimony on bills will not be allowed, said Bella Combest, spokeswoman for the Senate Democrats.
“We aren’t doing any remote testimony. You’re allowed to testify in person,” she said. “We are encouraging people to submit written testimony if they’re not able to come in.”
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