The administration of Governor Jared Polis and Democratic leaders in the state House and Senate have framed the session as a necessary stopgap after coronavirus relief talks between Republicans and Democrats in Congress fell apart.
“We had all been expecting and hoping for greater federal action, which hasn’t materialized,” House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, told reporters during a virtual news conference November 29.
Becker added that lawmakers will be provided with KN95 masks and asked to get diagnostic COVID-19 tests before the session starts. Rapid surveillance tests will be available for legislators, staff and reporters each day of the special session, which is expected to last a few days.
House and Senate leadership told reporters they didn’t know of any lawmakers who had been in close contact with Polis before his COVID-19 diagnosis, which the governor announced November 28. Representative Meg Froelich, D-Greenwood Village, tested positive November 18. Becker said Froelich was expected to come out of quarantine soon.
As the first order of business on Monday, Democratic leaders said they plan to pass new rules allowing the public to provide remote testimony on bills under discussion.
“Our action has to be, especially in a time of need, the willingness to move forward despite where the federal government is,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said. “That’s why we’re using every tool within our power to deliver support to families and businesses to get them through the next couple of months, which we know will not be easy.”
Senators Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, along with Representative Leslie Herod, D-Denver, will sponsor a bill providing $57 million in assistance for businesses affected by capacity restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus.
“There will be a process set up to ensure that the money can get out the door as fast as possible to go to the communities that are most in need,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said.
With more than twenty Colorado counties currently under red-level — or “severe risk” — restrictions imposed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, indoor dining is closed in much of the state, putting severe financial pressure on restaurants. Retail businesses must stay below 50 percent of normal capacity, and gyms at 10 percent. Under the state’s COVID-19 dial system, CDPHE also prohibits indoor events of all sizes in red-level counties. Venues are suffering.
The proposed bill would:
• Provide $37 million for direct payments of up to $7,000 to small businesses in counties that are subject to — and complying with — “severe,” or red-level, capacity restrictions. It’s unclear whether these payments will be allocated through a competitive grant application process or are expected to be distributed to any business that requests the money and demonstrates eligibility.
• Provide $7.5 million for direct payments to certain arts, culture and entertainment organizations, artists and crew members. The payments would be allocated by the Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s creative industries division.
• Waive annual licensing fees for bars and restaurants.
• Provide $4 million to OEDIT’s Minority Business Office for direct payments, grants, loans, technical assistance and consulting support to minority-owned businesses.
Extending Polis-ordered tax relief
Representatives Alex Valdez, D-Denver, and Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, along with Senators Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, and Jack Tate, R-Centennial, will sponsor a bill extending sales tax relief for businesses.
On November 25, Polis issued an executive order providing up to $2,030 in temporary tax relief to Colorado bars and restaurants for sales made in November.
The order deferred sales tax payments for restaurants and bars in November.
The proposed bill would forgive payments that were merely delayed by Polis’s executive order and would extend the same sales tax forgiveness through February 2021. Under the bill, a business could apply the sales tax relief to as many as five locations a month, making the maximum monthly relief $10,150 — if a business had five restaurant or bar locations that were each making at least $70,000 in taxable sales.
Given that sales have been slow this year, many Colorado bars and restaurants probably won’t receive the maximum amount of tax relief.
Funds for Colorado child care
Representatives Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, along with Senators Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, will sponsor a bill providing $45 million in relief for the child-care industry through two separate grant programs in the Department of Human Services.
“Child-care facilities are facing — with safety precautions and extra cleaning — a lot of them have reached out and said that they’re on the brink of financial collapse,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, told reporters during the briefing.
One program would provide grants for existing child-care providers, ranging from $500 to $35,000. The grants would be aimed at providing relief for businesses suffering due to the pandemic.
A separate grant program for new or emerging providers would award grants from $3,000 to $50,000. Those grants would help cover the costs of staff training, background checks, supplies and facilities.
Emergency housing assistance, but no eviction moratorium
Senators Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, and Chris Holbert, R-Parker, along with Representatives Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Kerry Tipper, D-Lakewood, will sponsor a bill that would provide $45 million for grants to help individual Coloradans who are struggling to make their rent or mortgage payments due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“This will be for renters, for landlords, etc. — folks who are showing that they are in a vulnerable position for eviction or foreclosure in the coming months,” Fenberg said.
The bill also provides $500,000 for a legal defense fund for those facing eviction.
Lawmakers will not address an eviction moratorium during the special session, Democratic lawmakers said. Currently, state and federal eviction moratoriums prevent people from losing their homes due to financial difficulties, but they only last through the end of the year.
Broadband, food pantries, utilities assistance and public health
Four more bills slated for introduction November 30 take additional action on pandemic response.
Representative Mary Young, D-Greeley, and Senator Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, will sponsor a bill that would provide $20 million in grant funding for schools to improve broadband access so their students can learn remotely.
Representative Lisa Cutter, D-Dakota Ridge, and Senator Tammy Story, D-Conifer, will sponsor a bill that would expand a grant program for food banks, appropriating $3 million toward the program.
Senators Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, along with Representatives Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, and Landgraf, will sponsor a bill that would provide an additional $5 million to a fund that low-income Coloradans can access to help pay their energy bills.
Senator Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Representative Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, will sponsor a bill making $100 million available for the governor to transfer to the state’s disaster emergency fund for public health response during the pandemic.
Republicans are expected to bring some of their own, additional coronavirus-related bills to the special session, but they’ll need to garner the support of the majority party in both chambers to pass any GOP legislation.
“Everything’s going to get a fair hearing,” Becker said.
Faith Miller is a reporter with Colorado Newsline, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Read more at coloradonewsline.com; follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.