Legislature in Limbo: 5 Questions for What Remains of the Session

On Saturday, March 14, Colorado state legislators took the unprecedented step of suspending the legislative session amid the worsening COVID-19 pandemic. Citing the importance of social distancing, Speaker of the House K.C. Becker (D-Boulder) said lawmakers “must lead by example to protect vulnerable populations.” The session is tentatively scheduled to resume on March 30, but such a quick return looks increasingly unlikely.

In the meantime, legislators and policy organizations are awaiting a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court that will heavily impact their remaining work. At issue is a question around the constitutional interpretation of the state’s 120-day session length. If the court rules that those days must be consecutive, then the legislature will still need to adjourn on May 6 — no matter how long lawmakers are out. If the justices decide the session can last for 120 non-consecutive days, there would still be 53 days remaining whenever work starts up again.

Much is in limbo during the legislative recess. In addition to uncertainty and fear over the trajectory of the illness, hundreds of bills are frozen in the legislative process. Of the 563 bills introduced before legislators hit the pause button, 101 have failed and 32 have been signed by Gov. Jared Polis. That leaves 430 bills in progress and still more that have yet to be introduced.

CHI is keeping a close eye on developments at the Capitol as we wait for news on next steps. Here are five big questions we’re considering as we look ahead to the remainder of the legislative session:

Will COVID sink the Colorado Health Insurance Option (formerly known as the public option)? The battle over creating a new state insurance option began more than a year ago, and it ramped up with the introduction of House Bill (HB) 1349 earlier this month. Polis and a coalition of Democratic legislators made it clear that passing the bill is a top priority for them, saying that a state-designed insurance option will improve access and lower costs for Coloradans who shop on the individual market. Hospitals and insurance carriers cite government overreach and the cost to hospitals as the reasons for their firm opposition to the plan. Given the emergence of a pandemic that is pushing hospitals’ resources to the brink, the opposing narrative has grown stronger. HB 1349 faces an uncertain future and a steep uphill climb to convince legislators to override hospitals’ wishes and financial concerns at a time when their situation suddenly looks dire.

Will COVID get paid family leave across the finish line? Advocates for family and medical leave insurance (FAMLI) were sure 2020 would finally be the year Colorado passed a bill to create a statewide paid leave program. But following longstanding challenges and several bumps in the road — especially concerns over the program’s cost and the loss of two of the plan’s four legislative sponsors — it looked increasingly unlikely that FAMLI would make it across the finish line. The bill, which has yet to be introduced, still faces many obstacles, but the current crisis shines a light on the state’s lack of various social supports, including paid leave for employees. Will broad recognition of the hardships faced by workers in these extraordinary times be enough to get it to the governor’s desk? Perhaps. If there’s adequate time for debate, this situation could bring FAMLI back from the brink.

How will the economic situation affect Colorado’s new state budget? Will members of the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) even have the information they need to put together a budget? With a rapidly shifting disaster response and economic consequences that are impossible to predict, writing the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget may feel like an exercise in futility. The COVID outbreak has overwhelmed Colorado at a challenging time for the state’s budget: It had been set for introduction this week, and it was already facing constraints from declining revenues. That meant very few funds would be available for new priorities. Legislators waited to see the March revenue forecast to make final decisions, but now that forecast seems obsolete, and the JBC will need to decide on the fly how to put together a responsible and complex budget that will take effect on July 1. In Colorado, the one thing legislators are constitutionally required to do each year is pass a balanced budget.

Do some current health reform topics and bills still make sense? The conversation around the pandemic has changed everything, and legislators will need to wrestle with whether it feels wise to continue current discussions while preparing for a post-COVID world. How relevant are arguments around the amount of reinsurance funding, for instance, and what will happen to the amount available in that fund in the months ahead? Is the private insurance system the right place to be focusing so much attention? At a time when people are reeling and many are calling for massive reforms, how much will legislators want to tinker with existing policy — or even push for fairly big changes — when the health care system may not exist in the same form when we emerge on the other side? There has already been criticism of so-called “Band-Aid solutions” at the Capitol, and the crisis will likely strengthen the call for system overhauls.

What should legislators be prepared to do when they return to the Capitol this session? In addition to preparing to change course on bills that are already in progress, state legislators may need to be ready to introduce bills or devote their time to efforts that no one could have predicted two weeks ago. Does the state need to review the list of essential health benefits covered by insurers? What changes might Colorado need to make to its social safety net, which is already strained, or to behavioral health services that will be sorely needed after a long period of social isolation and a sharp uptick in unemployment? If we receive federal funds through a stimulus package, how should those dollars be distributed? We will need creative solutions, and quickly.

So much is at stake. CHI will continue to monitor the latest developments and contribute to the conversation, including offering our assistance with data needs, strategic planning, or facilitating convenings as Coloradans work to identify a way forward. It’s a scary time, but we have an opportunity to collaborate and lead together. In the meantime, don’t forget to responsibly enjoy the sunshine.

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