With the number of coronavirus cases climbing, there's increasing discussion about taking the unprecedented step of temporarily closing the capitol and suspending the legislature, even as major bills remain in limbo.
While no decision has been made, lawmakers held an unannounced meeting in the basement of the state capitol on Thursday morning to go over their options. Right now legislative leaders say they’re monitoring new information hourly. A resolution to stop or suspend the session would need backing from a majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate.
“We think that there might be a bill or more that we actually need to get done before we recess,” said Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker. “We certainly have to pass the rule review bill. We certainly have to pass the school finance act, the budget.”
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Gov. Jared Polis’ written declaration of a state of emergency does give state lawmakers more flexibility. It triggers Joint rule 44 which governs how the legislature does its business during a disaster emergency and allows greater latitude for stopping and re-starting the session. The rule asks that lawmakers “only address those mission-critical responsibilities prior to adjournment or recess of the regular session.”
But still there are a lot of logistical questions. Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail represents the high country where the governor says coronavirus has started to spread in the community. That means health officials are seeing cases and outbreaks where they can’t pinpoint the source of infection.
“Can we halt, do we need to recess? Do we need to identify a date certain that we reconvene?” asked Donovan. “We just need to be responsible, informed as we make the decision... around a public health crisis that recommends that people don't gather in large numbers.”
The state capitol building is a ripe environment for illness to spread and lawmakers have been concerned about the potential dangers since the first coronavirus cases were reported in Colorado. The building is open to the public, offers free tours, and is one of the state’s top tourist attractions, with about a quarter million people visiting it annually.
It’s unclear what a disruption would mean for some of the top priority Democratic bills, which wouldn’t likely be considered mission critical, including Donovan’s bill to create a public option plan for health care. The measure cleared its first committee Wednesday.
“I think public option is clearly a bill that's at the top of everyone's mind yet I don't know what its ultimate fate will be,” Donovan said. “We need to put the health and safety of the people that work and visit this building first, and secondarily, we'll figure out what to do with big legislation.”
Shuttering legislature could affect budget timing
The legislature’s biggest outstanding responsibility is passing a balanced budget. It’s the only bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to do. In a normal year, the legislature’s powerful budget committee waits until March to set the final numbers for the spending plan, based on the latest forecasts from government economists. And once the bill is introduced, it usually takes about two weeks to move through both chambers.
For now, that timeline appears to be on track. The economic forecast is still scheduled for March 17th, and the budget is expected to be introduced in the House the following Monday.
Becker doesn’t anticipate adjourning before the legislature gets a clearer picture of the fiscal situation, especially as coronavirus has driven Wall Street into bear market territory and is starting to lead to layoffs in heavily affected industries, like travel and tourism.
“I think we are going to wait for the economic forecast and we are going to wait to have more information from [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] and others to tell us about what's happening in Colorado about the coronavirus,” said Becker.
Budget committee members say legislative leaders have told the committee to be flexible on timing if needed. “I think we're going to get a disastrous forecast next Tuesday and we're going to be cutting some things that we love,” said Republican Sen. Bob Rankin who sits on the joint budget committee.
The state’s fiscal year begins on July 1. Rankin said even if the legislature paused its work, the budget would eventually need to get done before the end of June to prevent a state government shut down
But Democratic budget committee member Sen. Rachel Zenzinger said there’s plenty of time.
“Given what the forecast tells us on Tuesday, I think we're pretty much ready to go with the budget. I'm not as concerned because June 30th is a long way away.”
If the legislature halts the legislative session, there would still be money available to combat the coronavirus. Sen. Dominick Moreno, the vice chair of the JBC, said Polis has access to about $180 million in two separate funds that could be used in an emergency to respond to coronavirus, without needing lawmaker approval first.
“The only important thing to remember there is that anything that's spent in those funds, the legislature's on the hook for replenishing next year,” said Moreno. “We obviously want to make sure the resources are there to respond to this public health emergency, but know that it has an effect on our budget for next year.”
It is still mostly business as usual at the capitol, although some large gatherings have been canceled. The Colorado Education Association will not hold its annual day of action next week; 5,000 teachers from across the state were expected to rally for increased school funding and higher teacher pay. Earlier this week Senate leaders began to ask lobbyists to contact lawmakers electronically, through email or text, rather than huddling with them outside of the Senate chambers.
Other state legislature’s have been quicker to take action. Illinois has 25 reported coronavirus cases, fewer than Colorado, but has already canceled the legislative session next week. The Missouri Senate has adjourned for at least two weeks, while the House remains in session to finish work on the state budget. Maine has closed its legislative galleries to the public. The Utah legislature this week passed new rules to allow its members to meet remotely if necessary. And the US Capitol has closed to public tours.
CPR’s Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.