Colorado Passed A Lot Of New Laws This Year. The Business Community And Polis Don’t See Eye-To-Eye On All Of Them

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A pedestrian pushes a bike past a “going out of business sale” sign on Denver’s 16th Street Mall on Tuesday, April 13, 2021.

Gov. Jared Polis has described the session they just wrapped up as “historic.”

The head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce uses a different h-word. 

Chamber CEO Kelly Brough said much of the legislative session felt like an “exhausting haul” for the business community.

Colorado businesses were front and center in fights over a number of this year’s high-profile policy measures — from food delivery service fees that'll help fund transportation initiatives to rate setting in the health insurance industry to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in certain sectors.

As they reflect on the session, some of Colorado’s top business leaders agree that it was historic, both in terms of the number of bills lawmakers passed and in the substantive policies Democrats got through each chamber, often in spite of business objections.

“(It was) one in which we were constantly on the defense, it felt. Against the wall fighting for our members and their employees,” Brough said. “The session felt longer because we are still recovering from a global pandemic and the scope of legislative issues felt broader than ever before.”

She did also point to some legislative bright spots for the business community, such as more than $130 million in financial aid to help small businesses recover from the pandemic. 

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual post-session State of the State event on Tuesday. Polis made remarks at the virtual forum and representatives from companies like Southwest Airlines and Xcel Energy talked about many of the bills that reached his desk and some that didn’t.

A measure that would have updated and changed how Colorado defines workplace harassment failed on the eve of the final day of session. Businesses, as well as state and local governments, felt that proposal would have been costly, sweeping up good employers into more litigation and out-of-pocket settlements.

“You can imagine how difficult it is to express our commitment, to protect every employee from harassment and discrimination while also highlighting critical flaws in this policy,” Brough said.

She criticized Democrats, who are in their third year of controlling the legislature and governor’s office, for generally failing to listen to outside perspectives.

“It's the luxury of single-party control, no matter which party that is. Less stakeholder outreach, less compromise, less incentive to find shared solutions to achieve shared goals. And frankly, more consequences, whether intended or not,” she said.

She specifically called out House Bill 1232, which created what backers call “the Colorado Option” for health care. It was a top priority for Polis and many Democrats. The goal is to lower health care costs for people who buy their insurance in the individual and small group markets. Democrats predict the measure could reduce insurance premiums by 15 percent by 2025.

The measure will require insurance companies to sell the Colorado Option plan across the state while government regulators would set the price of medical services to achieve savings.

While Brough said she believes the new plan could save some people money, she fears it will increase prices for people who get their insurance through larger employers. 

“Many of our lawmakers know this,” Brough said. “For many of them, it was more important to create the perception that the problem was being solved than to rather, actually solve this problem.” 

Polis didn’t mention the Colorado Option in his address. Instead, he reflected on what he saw as other big wins, saying that the legislative session was nothing short of “transformative.” He highlighted Senate Bill 260, which will raise $5 billion for transportation projects through new fees and existing taxes and federal funds.

“I'm proud to be signing into law a comprehensive transportation funding plan that'll make needed improvements to our roads, reduce traffic, improve our quality of life, create thousands of jobs in construction and the transportation sector and keep Colorado competitive by modernizing our transportation system,” Polis said. “Modernizing how we move people and goods in ways that support businesses, improve efficiency, improve air quality and strengthen communities.”

Improving the state’s transportation infrastructure has been a long-held goal of the business community, which most recently backed a failed tax increase initiative in 2018.

Polis noted the legislature also brought down the business personal property tax for smaller companies. And he said moving forward the business community will be a key partner to help decide how Colorado will spend some of the nearly $4 billion in federal COVID relief. 

“Is there a way that we can shore up the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to avoid costly payroll tax increases in the future? Are there additional opportunities to reduce regulations or bring down taxes to help make the Colorado economy even more competitive?” he asked rhetorically.

The governor also highlighted the legislature’s work on tax relief for restaurants and incentives for the event industry and a proposal to reduce residential property taxes.

He praised the business community for staying engaged and focused on critical policies that, “affect our prosperity as individuals, as companies, and as a state. That commitment to our state was here long before I arrived.”

Brough said she wants to move forward with the recognition that “we can and should do better for one another.”