Colorado Lawmakers Begin Special Session To Aid Those Hit Hardest By Pandemic As Federal Help Stalls

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado State Capitol, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020.

State lawmakers begin a special legislative session today to tackle an economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses, expanding broadband access for students and educators doing remote learning, providing assistance for child care providers, and helping renters and landlords among others.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis said he called the rare session to try to extend a bridge to those hardest hit by the pandemic, until federal aid might arrive. 

Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia acknowledged that the state’s likely infusion of around $200 million was limited but said the lack of federal action on COVID-19 relief required the state to try to do what it could. 

“[That] created a vacuum for this need, for us to work on addressing small businesses, which have been drowning for months waiting for comprehensive federal aid, while hardworking Coloradans, anxiously watch housing and unemployment continue to inch more and more up,” Garcia said.

The session will begin less than 48 hours after Polis announced that he and his partner, Marlon Reis, tested positive for coronavirus. Polis said they are asymptomatic. He said he’s not sure how he contracted the disease.

“I had a likely exposure and potentially other exposures, but like a lot of folks, I also went to the grocery store, the pharmacy, thankfully my testing caught it early enough,” Polis told CPR’s Colorado Matters in an interview Sunday.

Polis said he will work remotely from home during the special session.

Most state lawmakers also plan to work remotely. Legislative staff said only about 30 out of 100 are expected to come to the Capitol. It’s a noticeable difference from the last time lawmakers met in early summer and most opted to attend in person. Lawmakers will receive KN95 masks, and coronavirus tests will also be provided to lawmakers and staff before they enter the Capitol building. 

“Obviously we are aware of the COVID impacts on the session ourselves,” said Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker. Like much of the country, Colorado is seeing a substantial spike in COVID-19 cases. One in 41 residents are believed to be contagious. 

“So we're doing everything we can to be as safe as we can,” Becker said.

During a briefing on Sunday, Democratic leaders said the first order of business is to change legislative rules to make it easier for members of the public to testify remotely on bills. The technology wasn’t in place over the summer to allow people to testify from home. Members of the public can still submit written testimony. Democratic House Majority leader Alec Garnett said the rule change has bipartisan support.

“[To] make sure people can participate in the legislative process while not compromising their health by coming into the building.”

Legislative leaders say they hope to pass a slate of economic relief bills as quickly as possible so the session would be short, lasting just three days, which is the minimum length required to pass a bill through both chambers. Polis noted that even though he won’t be working from his office inside the state Capitol building, it shouldn’t cause any delays.

“I can sign a bill that's delivered to me and without contact, I can go out, grab it, sign it, put it back, spray it with Lysol and then put it back out,” Polis said.