Perhaps the most urgent question at the Capitol this week is not whether the legislative session will at some point be halted over the spread of coronavirus — it probably will, at least one top lawmaker believes — but what the public health emergency portends for the state budget.
On Tuesday, lawmakers are set to receive the quarterly state economic forecast and then begin finalizing the 2020-21 budget for Colorado — and they’re preparing to scale back spending plans dramatically.
“If we get a 5% decrease in our budget, that would be $600 million, roughly,” said state and budget writer Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale. “I think we should expect something like that.”
That would be bad news for the many new programs and services proposed in this year’s budget and in pending bills that propose new spending. A drop in the range of 5%, Rankin said, would make it hard enough just to pay for existing budget items.
“Anything that needs new money, I just don’t think we could do,” Rankin said.
“Can we add money to K-12? Can we add money to higher education? Maybe not. The governor’s request for pre-K slots — $27 million. I don’t see how we could afford that. Opening a new state park — $10 million. We just voted yesterday to give a 7% increase to higher education. We have a 3% increase across-the-board for state employee salaries. We’d have to go back and look at all of those. I suspect we’d have to reduce.”
Added Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, the vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee: “I think there is concern. … There’s undoubtedly going to be an effect on the revenue outlook.”
Like Rankin, Moreno did not sugarcoat the economic reality now facing the legislature: With the expected bad news in next week’s forecast, he said, “we’re going to have to look at big-ticket items in the budget a lot of people were hoping we’d make progress on.
“All of those could be affected.”
It’s not just budget items that could be put off. There are countless bills, too, that may now be in trouble.
The legislature is 65 days into its annual 120-day session. This is crunch time, when lawmakers are digging into the biggest, most controversial bills of the session. Colorado Democrats, who control both chambers of the Capitol, entered this session with plans for major reforms to policy concerning vaccines, health insurance, the death penalty, paid family and medical leave, and gun safety, among other areas,
Only one of those bills — the death penalty repeal — has passed out of the legislature. The paid family and medical leave bill hasn’t even been introduced.
Those top-line items may not be existentially threatened by a shutdown, but they may well be delayed.
The hotly contested hybrid public health insurance option bill passed in its first House committee hearing Wednesday, and sponsors are bracing for various ways the bill’s progress could be slowed.
“It would be unfortunate if we weren’t able to get it passed this year because of what happens, but obviously people’s immediate health and safety is a priority,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon. “I’m ready to roll with whatever comes at us.”
“I hear from my constituents daily, weekly, whenever I’m knocking on doors, that this is an immediate problem for them, so any delay in this bill means they’re getting delayed in relief from what they’re facing,” Roberts said.
There are many other bills still to drop, and, because of the expected belt-tightening, those that propose new spending may never see daylight.
“The message we’re sending to people is there’s uncertainty, so be flexible and be aware that there may be a decision that bills that cost a lot of money might not move forward,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who himself is soon to drop a bill that calls for 20 new full-time state employees who’d monitor air-quality problems.
“The market is very uncertain, the economic impact to Colorado is uncertain,” added House Speaker KC Becker, also a Boulder Democrat. “How long and deep and severe, we don’t know, so don’t expect (passage), unless it’s something we really need to get done.”
There is, of course, another unknown looming over all of these budgetary and bill concerns: whether or not the legislature should even continue meeting.
A session pause?
Many Colorado lawmakers have, over the last couple days, said privately that they assume and even hope that the legislative session will be halted soon because of the spread of coronavirus.
House Speaker KC Becker said Thursday morning that no final decisions have been made, but later Fenberg said that speculation concerning a session pause is probably fair.
“I think it’s relatively likely, yeah,” he said. “The question is more about when and for how long.”
Nonpartisan state legal analysts have advised lawmakers that they have the authority to take a recess and then resume the 120-day session countdown upon their return. Leaders at the Capitol say they could introduce and pass a resolution calling for that pause in a single day.
But there are other things they’d like to take care of first. They’d want to pass a bill allowing possible rescheduling of upcoming county assembly dates. And, despite the seemingly unequivocal recommendation of the nonpartisan state lawyers, lawmakers are in discussion about requesting guidance from the State Supreme Court about the constitutionality of a session break.
“The idea is to get the ball rolling on as much as we can so that if we do need to flip the switch and say we’re going on recess, we can do so quickly,” Fenberg said.
“If we recess, we don’t think it’s going to be before three days” from today, Becker said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of things we’re trying to figure out. … We have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.”
Reporter Saja Hindi contributed to this story.