Colorado GOP Wants to Use COVID-19 Shutdown to Block Democrats' Agenda

Colorado lawmakers adjourned the legislative session on March 14 and don't plan to return any time soon.
Colorado lawmakers adjourned the legislative session on March 14 and don't plan to return any time soon. Evan Semón
As they discussed whether to take the unprecedented step of adjourning the Colorado General Assembly for at least two weeks amid a spiraling public-health crisis, top lawmakers from both parties came together on March 13 for a meeting of the legislature's Executive Committee. Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker, struck a somber, conciliatory note as he acknowledged that suspending the legislature was the right thing to do.

"This is not a political discussion," Holbert said. "This is not about trying to run down the clock. This is not about trying to get to the 120th day and adjourning sine die [indefinitely] and things not getting done. This is about doing what's right for the people of Colorado."

Less than two weeks later, however, Holbert and other Republican lawmakers have asked the Colorado Supreme Court to issue a ruling that could drastically shorten the period of time that Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature, have to enact their agenda when and if the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

At issue is the meaning of the state constitution's requirement that the General Assembly's regular session "shall not exceed one hundred twenty calendar days." Does that mean 120 consecutive days, or can the session be suspended and resumed at a later date? To settle that question — and safeguard any potential legislation from future legal challenges — lawmakers agreed to ask the state's Supreme Court to rule on the issue before they voted to adjourn on March 14.

Four briefs received this week by the court, including one from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Governor Jared Polis, argue that the legislature's 120-day clock can be paused. But in an opposing brief filed on Tuesday, March 24, on behalf of all forty GOP members of the legislature, attorney Troy Eid argues that the "plain language" of the constitution requires that the 120 days be consecutive. That would mean that lawmakers face a hard deadline of May 6 to adjourn the current session.

If the Republicans' argument is successful, Democrats would face an agonizing choice: Abandon a wide range of critical legislation, including paid family leave, a state-administered health insurance option, stricter school immunization requirements and much more — or put public health at risk by reconvening the legislature to push those proposals through before the May 6 deadline. In any case, lawmakers would still have to return to the Capitol to finalize several must-pass items like the state budget, even though it's far from clear that the worst of the COVID-19 crisis will have passed by early May.

Republicans say that they're merely trying to uphold the state constitution. They point out that in emergency circumstances, the legislature can convene in a special session, though that requires either action by the governor or a vote of two-thirds of both chambers of the legislature.

"Doing what is right by the people of Colorado starts and ends with honoring the unique state constitution that they have given us and to which we legislators swore an oath to uphold," Holbert writes in an email to Westword. "Republicans are not trying to 'run out the clock,' we are honoring our unique state constitution."

In addition to the briefs filed by Weiser and Democratic legislators, a wide range of groups — including the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, the ACLU of Colorado, Club 20 and several local governments — also petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to allow the legislature to extend its adjournment deadline. And some Democrats had harsh words for the GOP lawmakers' decision to file their own brief.

"We are facing one of the worst public-health and economic crises we’ve seen in a generation, which makes this partisan gamesmanship all the more disappointing," Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said in a statement. "The argument that we cannot suspend a legislative session in the middle of a public-health disaster smells of putting politics over people’s lives. Coloradans will need us to get back to work when it’s safe so that we can pass legislation to help our state get through this incredibly difficult time."
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff