Budget Shortfall And Social Distancing Await Colorado Lawmakers As They Return To The Capitol

Colorado Lawmakers return to Capitol
Courtesy of Rep. Brianna Titone
As state lawmakers return to the Capitol there are new public safety rules in place. Lawmakers will sit spaced apart to allow for more social distancing. Plexiglass was installed in some places on the House floor.

When the Colorado state Capitol reopens Tuesday, lawmakers will come back to a drastically different set of circumstances, a deep budget shortfall and new safety procedures that have never been implemented at the Capitol before. Lawmakers agreed to temporarily adjourn in mid-March due to the new coronavirus.

“So we're expecting the unexpected. We're expecting anything that we can think about and trying to just be prepared for those scenarios,” said Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada who worked on setting up technology to allow for some remote work. She hopes things go smoothly. “We have a responsibility and a job to do and we would like people to just give us the opportunity to finish the work that we started, and pass some bills that we constitutionally have the obligation to do and a lot of other bills that are going to help a lot of people moving forward.”

Titone chose not to work from her usual desk on the House floor. She volunteered to move instead to the public viewing gallery that overlooks the chamber. It’s part of new safety rules that require lawmakers to sit spaced apart to allow for more social distancing. The House floor also has Plexiglass installed in some places.  

“We just need to make sure that we’re being as safe as possible,” said Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, an emergency room nurse from Northglenn. He’s been on the frontlines of the pandemic and recently returned from Chicago where he spent five weeks treating COVID-19 patients at the Cook County Jail. “I was working seven days a week, 12 hour days. It was nuts.” 

That’s how a lot of lawmakers and lobbyists jokingly describe the end of the legislative session when it’s a fast-paced, often contentious environment.

The session will pick up right where it left off, so all of the bills awaiting hearings and votes will need action. Mullica said he’s not sure what will happen with his measure aimed at increasing Colorado’s childhood vaccination rate. The controversial bill was making its way through the statehouse.  

“There's still discussions that are being had around it.”

Lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget. The state now faces a $3.3 billion dollar shortfall, and closing that gap will be a major focus of the next few weeks. Members of the public will be allowed to watch the legislative proceedings in person, but space will be limited and visitors will be required to wear masks inside the Capitol. Medical volunteers will take temperatures at the building’s entrance, and anyone with a temperature below 100.4 will wear a wrist band. Those who have a fever above that temperature may not be let into the building on a case by case basis.  

Colorado Lawmakers Face Masks
Democratic Rep. Julie McCluskie from Dillon will be wearing a mask that her 78-year old mother, Etta Strand, made from her retirement community in Lakewood.
Colorado Lawmakers Face Masks
Republican Sen. John Cooke from Greeley wears a Denver Broncos face mask.
Colorado Lawmakers Face Masks
Republican Sen. Don Coram had these masks made by a local seamstress from southwest Colorado Pam Brown. He said he wanted to include an inspirational message for his colleagues on being resilient. " You sit back, take a deep breath and get a grip and move on."
Colorado Lawmakers Face Mask
Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain may end up wearing one of the more contentious masks. The University of Washington graduate moved to Colorado from Seattle. "Go Hawks!" she said. "Especially Russell Wilson."
Colorado Lawmakers Face Masks
Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker said she will be wearing a ladybug mask that House Minority Leader Patrick Neville gave her. His wife made it.
Colorado Lawmakers Face Masks
Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone from Arvada wears a Colorado-flag inspired face mask.

Republicans in particular have been eager to return to work as soon as possible.

“I think it’s long overdue, that's how I feel about it,” said Republican Sen. Don Coram from Montrose. He said it has been frustrating to have Democratic Gov. Jared Polis make so many decisions, such as how to distribute the state’s federal coronavirus relief money, without the legislature’s input. 

But he said he’s taking it all in stride. 

“I'm an old cowboy, you know, and when you get bucked off, you get back on and we just call that ‘cowboy up’,” he said. 

He had the phrase stitched onto a red mask he plans to wear today. 

Republicans say they hope to pass a slew of measures to help small businesses.

“We're looking at protections for business to get the economy back up and running,” said Republican Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke. “I'm going to request a late bill to protect health care workers and the facilities from a civil liability if they acted properly,” he said regarding potential COVID-19 lawsuits. 

Cooke is planning to bring his Broncos mask to the Capitol but doesn’t know if he’ll wear it the entire day while sitting in the Senate chamber, which doesn’t have air conditioning. He said it gets hot. “I'm not a big mask guy and I have a feeling, you know, some of our members might feel the same way.” He has volunteered to sit on a bench inside the chamber to create more social distancing. “It is what it is. I'll do my part.” 

A handful of lawmakers are not expected to come back to work at the Capitol because of personal or family health reasons. Democratic Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood has an infant son and her husband has an autoimmune disease. She’ll be staying home and is hopeful the Democratic-controlled Senate will pass new rules in the coming days to allow some lawmakers to participate and vote remotely. She will have to return to the Capitol in person to vote for that rule change. 

“We need to be leading by example on how we’re asking workplaces to proceed during this time,” said Pettersen. Under statewide health orders, companies are only supposed to allow half of their employees into the office at a time, with strict social distancing. In Denver, masks are required for anyone who enters a retail or commercial business.

 “If you can work from home, do. We need to provide a framework to allow people who are vulnerable to do that,” she said.

Pettersen plans to introduce two measures in response to COVID-19. One measure would give the state more authority to investigate and prosecute businesses for price gouging in a crisis. Pettersen’s other proposal aims to create a comprehensive behavioral health response to the pandemic, addressing mental health, overdoses, suicides, and adding money to help treatment centers take care of patients. She said she will come to the Capitol in person to present a bill in a committee hearing if it’s required. “I’m going to whatever I can to limit the time I’m unnecessarily in the chamber.”

Republicans are opposed to allowing lawmakers to cast votes remotely and believe it violates the state constitution. Discussing that rule change is expected to be one of the big issues both chambers will grapple within the first few days of the continuing legislative session. 

Lawmakers won’t be the only ones downtown. Education workers protesting budget cuts will have a vehicle parade around the Capitol in the morning. And a group labeling itself “dozens of grim reapers” will be at the Capitol to protest a loosening of bans on evictions.