Police Reforms, Hard Budget Choices Mark The End Of Colorado Lawmakers’ Strange Year

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David Zalubowski/AP
Members of the Colorado House of Representatives toil as lawmakers try to wrap up the 2020 session in the State Capitol Monday, June 15, 2020, in Denver.

Colorado lawmakers have finished their work, bringing an end to one of the most unorthodox legislative sessions in recent memory. Possibly even the most unusual in state history.

Legislators dealt with an unprecedented global pandemic, unexpected multi-billion dollar budget cuts and met at the state capitol as protests galvanized by the death of George Floyd gathered daily to call for an end to police brutality and for more support of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the session had its usual partisan differences and disagreements, lawmakers did come together to pass a sweeping law enforcement accountability measure, among the first of its kind in the nation.

“Those deaths are not in vain,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, one of the main sponsors of Senate Bill 20-217, and the head of Colorado’s Black Democratic Legislative Caucus. “We will be able to intervene and do something.”

The measure bans the use of chokeholds, requires law enforcement to wear body cameras and for the footage to be released if there is an allegation of misconduct. If an officer is convicted or pleads guilty of using excessive force or fails to intervene when it’s used, that officer would immediately be terminated.

“Today is one of the most meaningful days of my legislative career,” said Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields as she cast her vote. “We’ve been working on police accountability legislation for years but have never had the support to get it done.”

What’s remarkable is that for a policy that was proposed in the final two weeks of the session, it passed the 100 person legislature with only 14 no votes. Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville was one of many in the GOP to back the bill and said when members of law enforcement misbehave it’s corrosive and breeds suspicion.

“When our Constitution says all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I believe it,” said Neville on the House floor. “I’m concerned about the rights of the innocent, of suspects, of citizens, and police. I also believe in accountability especially for those in positions of public trust.”

Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker is term-limited and reflected that her last session was filled with a lot of twists and turns.

“It's been a wild ride,” she said. “And it's been a lot of adjustment, a lot of figuring out new things, you know, figuring out things for the first time. Like, how do we go out of session? Can we do remote meetings? How does this change our agenda? How does it change our priorities?”

Bente Birkeland/CPR News
Democratic Reps Alex Valdez, Kerry Tipper, Sen. Dominick Moreno and Rep. Adrienne Benavidez on the House floor on the final day of the session, June 15, 2020.

In many ways, it was a tale of two legislative sessions, pre- and post-coronavirus. Lawmakers temporarily adjourned in mid-March to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reconvened at the end of May.

While the law enforcement reform bill was a bipartisan highlight, there were also plenty of disagreements and Democrats had to set aside some major priorities when state revenues plummeted because of the pandemic and shutdown orders. Democrats scrapped a public health insurance option, and a paid family and medical leave program.

“Where the session is and where we want it to be, are two different things, but you can't say it hasn't been a productive, great session for Coloradans,” said Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia.

Democrats did pass some significant and controversial measures in the final days of the session, including House Bill 20-1420, otherwise known as the “Tax Fairness Act.” It decouples several state tax deductions for businesses and high earners from federal law to generate money for low-income Coloradans and K-12 schools. Business groups quickly rallied against the measure saying it would hurt small businesses hit hard by the pandemic and slow economic recovery.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis threatened to veto the bill, unless an across the board income tax reduction was included, which his party opposed. Democrats eventually watered down the measure, and the business community said it was much less harmful than it could have been.

“The elimination of the tax relief in statute would have meant the loss of more jobs for the very people that businesses need in order to effectively recover during the next few years,” said Loren Furman with the Colorado Chamber of Commerce.

Lawmakers also passed House Bill 20-1427 to refer a measure to the ballot that seeks to raise taxes on cigarettes and start taxing other products that contain nicotine, including vaping products. It would bring in $86 million in the next fiscal year and $175 million the following year.

Voters will also decide on another major tax question referred by the legislature: Should the state repeal the Gallagher Amendment, which threatens to reduce school budgets by hundreds of millions by automatically lowering property tax bills in the future? The strongly bipartisan effort showed how much the budget crisis has upended state government and some Republicans are effectively opening the door to cancel a decrease in taxes.

Republican Sen. Don Coram voted for both the vaping tax and to send the Gallagher repeal question to voters. However, he did criticize Democrats for introducing new bills so late in the abbreviated second half of the session.

“I think it’s unfortunate in the 11th hour that we tried to get all these bills through,” he said.

Bente Birkeland/CPR News
Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica on the House floor during the final day of the 2020 legislative session, June 15, 2020.

Coram was especially upset with the debate over a childhood vaccination bill that aims to increase vaccination rates. House Democrats scheduled the hearing for a Sunday, a day state lawmakers normally take off.

“I’m not happy with how they handled the [SB 20-]163 situation. I think COVID has been a great excuse to shut the public out of government. It’s just wrong,” he said. “I think we could have done much better.”

Because there were fewer people physically at the Capitol it was harder to figure out what was happening, said one longtime lobbyist. Lawmakers passed restrictions on where the public could stand and sit and required temperature checks to enter the building. Jason Hopfer represents business and education clients and was one of a handful of lobbyists that came to the Capitol in person most days because he said he had to deal with pressing issues.

“It was really challenging for everybody, lawmakers included, trying to figure out how to do this job, representing your clients mostly by text and email phone calls.”

He said the lack of face to face interaction also made it difficult to get feedback from the public.

Lawmakers passed a slate of measures aimed specifically at addressing impacts from COVID-19. One bill would protect employees from retaliation if they raise safety issues. Other proposals would expand medical reimbursement for telehealth services, let employees earn paid sick leave and provide rental and mortgage help to people facing financial hardship because of the virus.

Passing a balanced budget is the only thing lawmakers are constitutionally required to do, and that’s what Republican Sen. Bob Rankin spent his time focusing on. He sits on the powerful Joint Budget Committee, which had to fill a $3.3 billion shortfall.

“The public does not understand what 25 percent cuts to the state budget has done and will do for the next few years. I think that ought to be the issue,” he said. “Those of us who are back are going to have one heck of a time trying to provide basic services, and keep state government running as we recover.”

Budget Committee Chair Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar echoed Rankin’s thoughts.

“For those of you who haven’t heard the news flash, next year is going to be worse. If you don’t believe me, join me Friday, the next economic forecast is coming out. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Esgar told her colleagues on the House floor.

The last day of the legislative session is normally celebratory and lighthearted. That wasn’t the case in 2020. The statehouse was quiet and largely empty. The end of the session was more muted on the chamber floors, just a handful of lobbyists and members of the public roamed the hallways.

Most of all, Lawmakers were ready to be done with a tumultuous, unexpected session.

For Democratic Rep. Janet Buckner, part of a small number of lawmakers who participated remotely in the final few weeks because of health concerns, the high point was “seeing how the session demonstrated the importance of addressing current events in real-time, being able to adapt to COVID and George Floyd.”

As a black woman, she said she was especially moved by the passage of significant policing reforms.

“We've had experiences that let us know that something had to be done and something had to be done quickly.”