COVID aid on agenda as Colorado lawmakers begin 2021 session
DENVER (AP) — Colorado’s Democrat-led Legislature launched on Wednesday a brief three-day session by swearing in new members and adjusting several pandemic relief laws before it adjourns until February because of safety concerns over the coronavirus.
The 2021 session began amid FBI warnings of possible protests at state capitols in the run-up to Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration Jan. 20. Those warnings were issued after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was confirming Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6.
The Colorado State Patrol, entrusted with Capitol security, says it is prepared for any demonstrations by supporters of President Donald Trump. Other law enforcement agencies, including Denver police and the FBI, are assessing security threats.
“We feel pretty confident the state patrol is planning for worst-case scenarios, hoping it doesn’t happen,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg told reporters this week.
Colorado’s Capitol building was damaged last year during protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Public access has been limited to lawmaking sessions because of coronavirus restrictions.
It takes at least three days for the House and Senate to pass bills. Legislators this week are considering a handful related to pandemic relief and remote participation in legislative committee hearings.
Senate lawmakers on Wednesday quickly dispensed with procedural business and advanced a bipartisan bill that would modify a new pandemic relief law in an effort to ensure that $4 million in aid goes to minority-owned small businesses. A Colorado Springs business owner filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the law’s race-based requirement from qualifying for the aid, which is part of a larger $57 million package passed in December during a special legislative session designated for small businesses and arts organizations.
Another bill advancing in the Senate would extend certain debt collection protections for those suffering hardships under the pandemic until June 1. Those protections were set to expire Feb. 1.
The Senate, where Democrats hold a 20-15 majority, quickly approved a resolution designed in part to provide flexibility in legislative scheduling during a public disaster such as the COVID state of emergency declared and repeatedly extended by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.
The House, where Democrats hold a 41-24 majority, spent hours debating the resolution Wednesday, with many Republicans — who have long challenged Polis’ authority to declare the emergency — demanding a greater say for the Legislature in such declarations and urging immediate work on the public health crisis. They argued that any reconvening of the General Assembly allow plenty of time to notify the public. The resolution, with amendments, ultimately was adopted.
That lengthy debate followed earnest pledges of bipartisan cooperation by the new House speaker, Rep. Alec Garnett of Denver, and the new House minority leader, Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland, to confront the twin emergencies of the pandemic and social unrest over the U.S. presidential election. And it presaged debates to come when the Legislature is set to reconvene in earnest on Feb. 16.
Among other issues, lawmakers plan this session to tackle school funding, bolster short-term relief for businesses and the unemployed, map strategies for long-term economic recovery from the pandemic and consider health care affordability programs long touted by Polis. The governor has proposed a $35 billion budget that would restore $3 billion in cuts to the state’s discretionary general fund and make up for drastic cuts to education by seeking $621 million in K-12 funding and $852 million in higher education funding.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert said Sen. Paul Lundeen plans a bill to bolster the legislature’s authority over state emergency declarations. Holbert rejected a longstanding Democratic goal of creating a public healthcare option in the state but said Republicans would work with Democrats to reduce prescription drug costs and increase health care pricing transparency.
Roughly 365,000 Colorado residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and more than 5,200 people who tested positive have died, the state health department says.