How Colorado Lawmakers Spent $342 Million In Coronavirus Aid In Record Time

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Chris Hansen, vice-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Lawmakers were called back to a special session by Gov. Polis to work on a package of COIVID-19 relief bills.

The Colorado state legislature finished up a three-day sprint of lawmaking on Wednesday afternoon, passing a series of bills meant to throw a lifeline to businesses and families as the coronavirus pandemic surges.

“This is not the end of the conversation. There's more that the federal government needs to do. And yes, there's more that the legislature will be able to talk about when they convene,” said Gov. Jared Polis. “But you know what? This is going to help a lot of people and small businesses get through the next couple months.”

 Here’s what happened with some of the biggest storylines of the special session.

What they passed

In the spring, the legislature approved a starvation budget. But the state’s economy is doing somewhat better than expected, which gives the government extra money to work with. Polis called the special session so that lawmakers could spend that money on stimulus measures.

The final tally was:

  • $100 million for the state’s public health response. This money will come from the general fund to pay for pandemic expenses.
  • $60 million for housing help. Most of the money will go to rental and mortgage costs through existing state programs, but the bill also creates a new $5 million fund to help undocumented people, who can’t access other government supports, and $1 million for eviction defense.
  • About $57 million in grants to small businesses and arts organizations that are affected by capacity limits. The business grants range from $3,500 to $7,000 and are aimed at those that make less than $2.5 million in annual revenue. County governments will accept applications for the money and pay it out by February 12.
  • About $50 million in sales tax relief for bars and restaurants. Restaurants will be allowed to keep  up to $2,000 per month in taxes for each of up to five locations. The bill covers four months of taxes: November through February.
  • About $45 million in grants for licensed child-care businesses, which have been pummeled by the pandemic. Ranging from $500 to $35,000, they’re meant to keep facilities in business and help them expand.
  • $20 million for a new program to subsidize broadband internet access for students and educators in need.
  • $5 million in grants to food pantries.
  • $5 million to help people with utility bills.

They also passed a law that gives cities the power to limit delivery fees from apps like GrubHub, and one that tweaks how insurance companies pay taxes.

Swift and remote

The session concluded early in the afternoon on Wednesday, its third day. That’s about as fast as the legislature could legally pass these bills.

They also embraced virtual lawmaking. Earlier in the pandemic, a handful of lawmakers were allowed to appear at the Capitol via video instead of appearing in person. This time, dozens of legislators worked remotely, and for the first time, witnesses at committee hearings were allowed to patch in from home, instead of having to travel to an official location to give testimony.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Bob Gardner appears before the Senate Finance Committee in a socially-distanced hearing, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Lawmakers were called back to a special session by Gov. Polis to work on a package of COIVID-19 relief bills.

It all ran smoothly, for the most part. “This is how we make government work during a pandemic,” said Rep. Matt Gray, chair of the House Finance Committee, as a speaker struggled with the mute function.

The modifications could pave the way for more remote work during the regular session that begins in January.

Denying money to defiers

One controversial decision: The newly funded grants for small businesses might not be available in counties that are defying public health orders, like Weld County. Language in that bill said that only counties making a “good faith” effort to enforce restrictions on restaurants and other health protocols would be allowed to distribute that money.

“The idea is that this money should go towards those who are most in need,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. 

“If you are a business operating in a county that has told you that you don't have to follow the law, you can be at full capacity, or more capacity than what is allowed under the public health orders. You actually don't have as much of a need as someone who is following the law, because they are doing the right thing and have fewer customers.”

The idea drew objections from Republican lawmakers, including one who explicitly called for defiance of state health orders.

“I think we’ve come to a point where we are beginning to see the bubbling of soft tyranny,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a House Republican from Colorado Springs. “I do believe that there should be more counties and more municipalities and more businesses that do engage in civil disobedience and do tell the governor, do tell CDPHE and the other experts that, ‘You know what, this isn’t working for me’ … I encourage it, and I encourage all of you to encourage it.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Sen. Brittany Petterson listens to a sergeant-at-arms during a socially-distanced hearing of the Senate Finance Committee oil Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. Lawmakers were called back to a special session by Gov. Polis to work on a package of COIVID-19 relief bills.

Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Democrat from Fort Collins, said that statement was “irresponsible” and could cost lives. 

Members of the parties found a compromise: The final version of the bill allows individual cities to handle the grant money and distribute it to businesses within a mile of their borders, assuming the city follows public health guidelines. That could allow a city like Greeley to avoid being punished for its county’s decisions.

At a press conference, Polis didn’t directly answer a question about whether he supported the idea of excluding defiant counties from stimulus money, instead calling on everyone to follow public health orders. The question could arise again as the lawmakers consider more spending in the regular session.

Republican suggestions shot down

Republicans made fruitless efforts to pass some bills of their own. 

Two proposals would have limited the governor’s power in a public health emergency or given the legislature more power over future emergencies. That’s been a priority for Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, who said Polis’ wide-ranging use of executive orders throughout the pandemic shows the system needs changes before the next emergency. 

The Republican proposals were killed by Democrats in committees, with some Democrats suggesting it wasn’t the right time. Other failed bills would give tax credits to families.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state House members confer during the second day of a special legislative session to address a COVID-19 relief package on Tuesday Dec. 1, 2020.

There were moments of tension, especially as some Republican politicians chose to go without masks at times, while Democrats fumed. But lawmakers from both sides seemed to leave in a good mood.

“There was, I think, a really strong sense of bipartisanship and camaraderie, that we really wanted to do what was right for Colorado. And what's right for Colorado right now is passing the assistance they need and helping small businesses, helping people pay rent and get food on the table,” said K.C. Becker, who served her final days as House Speaker during the special session.

From here, the bills that did pass will go to Polis for his signature. Since he and his partner are recovering from COVID-19, Polis said he would use Lysol disinfectant and gloves while putting the final marks on an unusual session.