DENVER — The Colorado state legislature adjourned on Monday for the summer after an unprecedented session.
What started as a session focused on things like school safety and funding education quickly shifted to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Balancing the budget and helping the state’s economy recover from the pandemic became the top priority of legislators.
Democrats said the legislation introduced in the final few weeks would be fast, friendly and free. Within the first few days after returning to work, numerous bills that carried fiscal notes were postponed indefinitely.
Toward the last week of the session, however, several controversial bills were added, including one to close tax loopholes for some businesses.
“I think they saw an opportunity, especially if you take a look at some of these business tax bills they put forward and some of these other anti-business bills they put forward. They realized that the lobby wasn’t here actively lobbying against those, citizens weren’t here to come up and testify,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, the house minority leader.
House Bill 1420 would have ended the tax exemptions in nine different areas for some businesses. After long debates and several amendments by the senate, the bill was pared down. It is now expected to raise about $113 million for education during the next fiscal year.
“One of the things that was most important is that we’re seeing big cuts to K-12 education because of the big declines in our state budget, and so last minute we were trying to find a new revenue to help sure up the coming years our K-12 system,” said Rep. KC Becker, the speaker of the house.
While some of the exemptions were cut from the bill, the portion that expanded the earned income tax credit for low and middle-income families was left in. The bill also allowed for non-U.S. citizens, legal and undocumented, to qualify for that earned income tax credit, something that republicans fought right up until the bill’s final vote.
“I don’t think the changes made make it a good bill by any stretch,” Rep. Neville said. “The biggest problem I have with it is we are adding red tape to a lot of businesses that, quite frankly don’t have a lawyer or an attorney they can hire to go through and comply with all of these different regulations and we just added more red tape to them.”
Another bill to raise the nicotine tax to help fund schools also passed on the final day of the legislative session. However, under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, voters must approve any tax increases so once the governor signs the bill it will appear on the November ballot for voters to decide.
“If the nicotine tax passes with voters, in November it will mean about $450 million over the next 2 1/2 years, increased funding for K-12 education and then it eventually will go to pre-K,” said Rep. Becker.
A few final COVID-19 bills also passed before the session adjourned Monday, including a whistleblower protection bill and one that would require employers to offer workers accrued, paid sick leave.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to create a working group on school safety over the summer to continue their discussions from last summer.
Despite several long debates and controversial bills, Sen. Chris Holbert said democrats and republicans were able to have better conversations throughout the legislative session that led to a more cooperative session than the previous year.
“It’s been a little more collaborative and not as tense as last year. There were tense moments in different aspects, but they did come and work with us,” Sen. John Cooke.
Despite being in the minority in all three chambers, there were some things republicans say they were proud to be able to achieve.
“I think the biggest thing we were able to truly accomplish is making sure that the homestead exemption wasn’t actually taken away from our seniors and are 100 percent disabled veterans,” said Rep. Neville.
Rep. Neville says he’s worried that next year’s budget will be even tighter than this year and even tougher decisions lie ahead for many state programs.
Along with marking the end of the legislative session, Monday also marked the last day for some state lawmakers, including Speaker Becker. She says she’s planning on spending some time relaxing with her kids before deciding what to do next
With the legislative work wrapped up, the focus is now shifting to the November election.
“As soon as we end here, there will be folks in the legislature who are campaigning and then there are going to be a lot of folks working on ballot measures, continuing to collect signatures,” said Rep. Becker.
If even half of proposed the measures collect enough signatures, November’s ballot could be a crowded one.
Republicans say they are hoping to win back control of the senate and are paying attention to six district races in particular to do that.
“We’ve got several months of hard work and campaigns. Our appeal to the people of Colorado is that split chambers work really well,” said Sen. Holbert. “We’re really only two seats or two districts from having control back in the state government.”
Governor Polis still has to give his final approval on many of the bills that were approved in the final weeks by the state legislature.