The Colorado General Assembly on Saturday took the extraordinary step of shutting itself down over fears of the novel coronavirus.
Lawmakers tentatively plan to return to work March 30, but they acknowledge there’s a high chance they’ll have to extend the recess beyond that date.
This step seemed unthinkable to many lawmakers as recently as late last week, when the state’s first known coronavirus case was announced. By early this week, well before the first Coloradan died of coronavirus, it had begun to feel inevitable.
“COVID-19 has gone from a concern to an urgent, pervasive and incredibly important issue for all of us in the legislature to address quickly,” House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, told the chamber Saturday morning.
Saturday was the 67th day of the General Assembly’s 120-day annual session. There is a mountain of legislation — some 350 bills, Becker said — left unresolved.
And a number of major bills are yet to be introduced. Among them is the state budget, which lawmakers were set to review this month. The legislature is constitutionally obligated to pass a budget every year, and leaders at the Capitol fully expect they’ll do so at some point in the next few months. When, where and how they do that remains unclear.
Also fully unknown is what the budget will look like. The state’s bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, which comprises six of the 100 state lawmakers, has been drafting a budget for months under certain assumptions that can no longer be taken for granted. There’s hardly a line item that won’t need to be reconsidered now.
A quarterly state economic forecast is expected Monday, and it should shed light on the degree to which Colorado’s economy, and thereby its capacity to fund existing and new government programs, is imperiled.
“We don’t know what that forecast looks like yet, but watching anything going on in the world of economics right now, we’re assuming it’s going to be a hard budget, that we’re going to be combing through everything we’ve done since November … to find money to keep the state going,” said state Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who leads the Joint Budget Committee.
Esgar added: “My message to the public would be: Know that the six of us (writing the budget) understand our responsibility and the enormous weight on our shoulders right now to make sure that the state not only functions but thrives, and pushes through this pandemic and comes out better. We’re keeping that in our hearts and minds as we tackle probably one of the most difficult budgets we’ll ever have to.”
The Joint Budget Committee meets year-round and will, for now, continue to convene even as the broader legislature takes an indefinite break. Esgar said the committee will seek legal guidance about whether it must keep its chamber open to the public during any meetings it may hold during this public health crisis.
The rest of the legislature also is seeking some legal guidance: Legislators approved a resolution Saturday morning that asks the Colorado Supreme Court whether the legislative session must be conducted on 120 consecutive days. There is some confusion in the Capitol as to whether lawmakers, having paused their work on the 67th day of the session, could return in, say, a month, and count their first day back as the 68th day of the session.
Republicans say they aren’t convinced the legislature can pick up where it left off and in fact spent a chunk of Saturday morning arguing that the General Assembly should bear the cost of any briefs Republicans may want to file to the Supreme Court on this topic. It was the most clearly political, partisan part of the mostly smooth, days-long process that led to the Capitol’s closure, and Democrats were frustrated; an exasperated Becker could be heard arguing for a while with the adversarial and long-winded GOP Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, among other lawmakers, just off the Senate floor.
In an 18-11 vote, Democrats in the Senate shut down the GOP proposal concerning court costs.
This is the second year of a new era of total Democratic control — House, Senate and the governor’s office — of the Capitol. Democrats entered this session with big plans concerning, among other topics, the repeal of the death penalty, paid family and medical leave, gun safety, health insurance and vaccine exemptions. Most of their top-line bills are, as of this recess, pending or not yet introduced. Lawmakers have no idea if and when they’ll get back to work on them.
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