DENVER — The 2021 Colorado legislative session is already off to an abnormal start. After convening for three days to swear in new members and pass several COVID-19 relief bills last month, lawmakers put the brakes on their work for nearly a month.
Next week, the legislature will gavel in once again for what most are considering the real start to the session.
The legislative priorities this time around revolve around the state’s economic recovery and helping families and businesses bounce back from the pandemic. Denver7 spoke with Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate about their priorities.
At the top of mind for both Democrats and Republicans is the state’s economic recovery. A recent study by the Leeds Business Research Division at CU Boulder found that the state’s economy is slowly improving but that it may have stalled toward the end of last year.
House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, says a big part of his focus will be on looking at how to distribute state money to areas where the federal stimulus money is not reaching.
“We know the hospitality industry has been shocked by this economic downturn, that a lot of those workers have been unemployed for a very long period of time. Is there a way that we can work with the restaurant industry to incentivize restaurant owners to hire back employees faster?” said Garnett.
He is also asking his members to look for opportunities for one-time cash infusions that can help stimulate the economy rather than long-term programs that require ongoing sources of funding, which he says could hamstring the government.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, would like to see legislation aimed at helping families cope with their own economic hardships.
“We would really need to be able to respond to the urgent needs that Coloradans are facing, whether that’s housing or utility assistance, helping the unemployment,” Garcia said.
For Republicans, meanwhile, addressing economic recovery means finding common sense solutions and easing the burdens on businesses.
Getting people back to work and bringing down the state’s overall unemployment rate will be a big part of that recovery.
Senate Minority Whip Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, is concerned about making sure all businesses are treated equally and that bigger stores aren’t given more freedoms to operate than the smaller neighborhood stores.
He’s also a proponent of making some of the regulatory relief lawmakers offered businesses during the pandemic permanent. He said he is concerned with how Colorado chooses to use the federal money allocated to the state.
“There’s about a half a billion dollars in stimulus money and I think we need to be really careful that, in fact, that money is not being spent on Democrat pet projects and it’s being spent on things that will, in fact, provide an economic multiplier,” Lundeen said.
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, says he is also focused on the state’s economic recovery this session and, in particular, ways to help rural communities affected by policies passed in the Front Range.
“We’ve really seen a war on rural Colorado in the last few years, where a lot of decisions get made here because this is where a lot of the people live that aren’t necessarily really practical solutions for people in Alamosa,” McKean said.
He would like to see legislation passed this session that offers a tax holiday for tipped workers, a 125% tax credit for charitable donations and a state tax deduction for home offices, among other things.
“I look forward to what can we do for the families of Colorado not just to grow out of COVID, but to make sure that whatever solutions to issues we see, whether that be education or transportation, what we’re looking at or what are the common sense of solutions,” he said.
Another major issue state lawmakers will attempt to tackle once again this year is transportation funding.
“We have not fixed our transportation funding system in nearly 25 years, so we’re far behind other states and Coloradans know that,” Garnett said. “We don’t have to try to go in and accomplish the Colorado Department of Transportation’s entire 10-year plan in one bite, but how can we be thoughtful and responsible in reacting to this?”
While the legislature was in recess over the past several weeks, lawmakers were holding virtual meetings with stakeholders to discuss possible legislation.
Nearly all of the business groups Garnett has spoken with have pointed to transportation as a major priority.
Whenever the issue of transportation infrastructure comes up, the question that inevitably follow is where the money will come from.
Republicans are hesitant about the use of fees to make up for the fact that voters have rejected tax increases time and again on a state level.
“We’ve kind of had the status quo for a long time that we’ve just kind of given up that ability to answer that challenge, and so I think right now the discussion is what does the answer look like? Is it adding a fee to the gas tax? I think the voters just 90 days ago just told us that they’re not fans of just adding more taxes and calling them fees,” said McKean.
If more federal money is sent to the state, Lundeen says he would like to see a portion of it go to transportation infrastructure as a way to stimulate the economy.
Education funding and helping students and schools succeed during an unprecedented time is also at the top of mind for Democrats and Republicans alike this legislative session.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and classes started going virtual, districts struggled to adapt to the new demands from students and staff.
Many of those districts have now found a way to make their new realities work, but the fear of learning loss is real.
The calls for more education funding have been growing at the state legislature for years. How the money can be best used to address school needs depends on the district.
“There’s 64 counties, a lot of different school districts, a lot of different challenges — some for broadband, others with mental health concerns, others with free and reduced lunch. When we talk about Democratic priorities, including food pantries, we have to look at it from a holistic approach and not just say it’s about funding here or funding there,” Garcia said.
For Lundeen, that means sending the money to the areas where students are finding success. He’s heard from many families who have started to migrate their students into charter schools.
Republicans argue that the school funding formula is outdated and that the money should go where the students go.
In the final days of the previous legislative session, as protesters rallied outside the state Capitol to demand police accountability, lawmakers passed the most comprehensive law enforcement reform bill the state has seen in recent history.
This time around, legislators say they are once again looking to build on that momentum to pass meaningful reform.
McKean is planning on introducing a bill this session that will provide grant funding to law enforcement agencies to bring on mental health professionals to respond to calls.
“It’s not always just a response by law enforcement. A lot of times, it is a mental health professional or a social worker, someone who has a set of skills, that are needed on that scene,” he said.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, is also expected to introduce legislation to reform so-called Brady Lists, which are lists of the disciplinary records of officers. The bill would lay out clear standards for how the list should be compiled and who should be added to it.
“For too long those systems weren’t working for Coloradans. Those systems require, at the highest levels, accountability transparency integrity and honor,” said Garcia. “We need to ensure that there’s integrity in that process and that’s why we took those bold initiatives and steps forward. I think with that said, we understand that there are some areas for improvement.”
Reducing health care costs, judicial reforms, addressing wildfire dangers in the state and more are also on the radar for the legislative session.
However, with the pandemic and economy once again dominating the direction of the legislative session, some topics might have to be placed on the backburner until the state gets on more stable ground.