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The Rest is History: Legislators Respond to Pandemic and Protests in Final Days of Session

Nearly three months ago, Colorado lawmakers halted the 2020 legislative session out of concern for the COVID-19 pandemic. They returned May 26 to govern a state that felt much different than when they left.

Less than two weeks later, Speaker of the House K.C. Becker (D-Boulder) announced that this Friday would be the final day, or sine die, of the session. As legislators work to quickly finalize bills, it is worth reflecting on events both inside and outside the Capitol during the past two weeks.  

Things have not been easy under the Gold Dome.

COVID-19 has left its mark on the legislature in more ways than one. The Joint Budget Committee had to traverse a $3 billion budget shortfall (read more in CHI’s latest blog here). The Capitol has been revamped to allow legislators and staff to socially distance and, through resolutions passed mostly on party lines in both chambers, lawmakers can now vote on bills remotely during a public health emergency. Not all are in favor of these extra precautions, and it is not uncommon for conservative legislators to go mask-less at the Capitol.

Bills that would normally be heard in topic-specific House and Senate committees have been funneled instead to both chambers’ State, Veterans, and Military Affairs committees to reduce the number of legislators at the Capitol hearing bills before they get to the floor.

Life for many Coloradans has changed dramatically since the legislature paused on March 14, too.

COVID-19 has caused economic devastation, with a record high 11.3% of Coloradans out of work. This spike has drained Colorado’s unemployment fund and induced hemorrhaging in the state budget through the loss of income and sales tax revenues.

More recently, Coloradans have been advocating for racial justice and police reform following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protests, which started on May 28, have been powerful demonstrations that at times were marred by clashes between the police and some groups of demonstrators. Legislators put their budget deliberations on hold on Friday, May 29, and Saturday, May 30, while the protests flared.

A session that was much different than expected has not deterred Democratic leaders from introducing bills in response to the pandemic and the protests.

  • Sick leave. Senate Bill (SB) 205, sponsored by Reps. Becker and Yadira Caraveo (D-Thornton) and Sens. Stephen Fenberg (D-Boulder) and Jeff Bridges (D-Greenwood Village), seeks to provide something many working Coloradans lacked as COVID-19 spread throughout the state — the ability to take time off. The bill would mandate that all employers provide at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, allowing employees to accrue up to 48 hours per year. When a public health emergency is declared, the limit for full-time and part-time employees is increased to allow for extra precaution. It is estimated that nearly half of all Coloradans, 42.6%, do not have access to paid sick time, which is not mandated by the state. The concept of a paid leave program might sound familiar. An earlier effort to establish paid family leave for working Coloradans was discussed at length this session but was never introduced. Supporters are now collecting signatures for a November ballot initiative.
  • Police accountability. Another notable bill, SB 217, was announced by Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) and Sen. Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) in front of hundreds of demonstrators outside the Capitol on Tuesday, June 2, before being introduced the following day. The bill is in direct response to the national movement to end police brutality, particularly against black Americans. SB 217 seeks to improve accountability for police officers’ actions and reduce incidents of unnecessary police force by requiring the use of body cameras, limiting when deadly force can be used, and removing qualified immunity, along with other requirements. The sweeping measure passed the Senate on a 32-1 vote and is headed to the House for its first reading. It is expected to pass.
  • Telehealth. A final important bill is SB 212. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Colorado and reduced access to in-person health care, the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing temporarily expanded Medicaid providers’ ability to deliver and be reimbursed for telehealth visits. SB 212 would codify the broader use of telehealth through Medicaid and other insurers by allowing additional modes of service delivery and additional sites and services that are eligible for reimbursement. Learn more about telemedicine in Colorado from CHI’s recent publication on the subject.

As for the rest of the bills, 247 of the 640 introduced bills have been killed. The remaining 392 bills are likely to pass if they are “fast, friendly, and free” — meaning that they can move through chambers within the little remaining time of the session, have bipartisan support to evade major debate, and cost the state little to no money from the already stricken budget.

One exception to the “fast and friendly” rule is SB 163, which requires parents to fill out a form or take a short online class if they want to exempt their children from vaccines for nonmedical reasons. Although large majorities of the public support vaccinations, the bill has drawn energetic opposition, and House Republicans are using delay tactics to try to derail the bill.  

It’s clear that legislators aren’t shying away from tackling some more difficult measures in the final stretch of this session before they conclude for the summer. They have a lot of work ahead in the next three days.

 

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