Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, a paramedic by trade and a Marine veteran, will begin his third year as President of the Senate.
For someone to serve more than two years in the post is not as common as it used to be. Only one other person — Democrat Brandon Shaffer of Boulder — has served more than a two-year term in the president’s chair since term limits were imposed in the 1990s.
He begins that third year leading a Senate dealing with an unprecedented pandemic and mountains of need for Coloradans. They have lost their jobs, lost their healthcare, have seen their children lose seat time in the classroom and, among small business owners, lose their livelihoods .
“We’re all seeing communities where [the effect of the pandemic] is being shaped differently,” he told Colorado Politics recently. While there’s good news on the horizon with the distribution of vaccines, “it doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet.”
For 2021, his caucus intends to be focused on “kitchen table” issues around pandemic relief and how to stimulate the economy. He pointed to small business closures in Pueblo and further south, and that means lawmakers will continue to look for ways to provide relief to small businesses.
The pandemic also has exposed disparities in health care and education, Garcia said, and that, too, will need to be addressed in the 2021 session.
How the General Assembly will convene after Wednesday is still uncertain, given the slow rollout of the vaccines, both at the federal and state levels. He blames the slow rollout on the Trump administration, which promised 20 million people would be vaccinated by Jan. 1. Instead, federal officials connected to Operation Warp Speed reported that only about 2 million had gotten their first shots by year's end.
Garcia, in his job as a paramedic, has been on the front lines of early vaccine distribution, helping at clinics in the Pueblo area. The lines for vaccines have been miles long, he said. At one fire station in Pueblo, 20 people were simultaneously administering vaccines.
“We’re seeing an acceleration, and things are moving in the right direction," he said, but there’s a question on whether February is realistic as a return date for the General Assembly.
Vaccines aren’t the only issue. There are still kinks to be worked out in how lawmakers and the public will engage around legislation. Remote participation is still relatively new, and they’re still trying to figure out how to allow for that participation and still have the legislature function.
The three-day special session at the end of November and beginning of December was manageable in part because of its brevity. People largely stayed away, whether it was lobbyists or members of the public. But a 120-day session, or however many days the legislature convenes, is a different issue.
Safety of the members, staff and everyone else involved in the process, and being part of the democratic process, goes hand in hand, Garcia said. No one has been discouraged from participating; the building isn’t chained and locked.
“We want people to be assured their voice in the process is fundamental,” he added.
Between now and when the session gets underway, more remote sites, which must be paid for by the legislature’s budget, are being explored.
“We want to strive to allow [citizens] as much opportunity to be part of the democratic process through any access point,” whether that’s remote participation or coming to the Capitol.
Will 2021 be a full 120-day session? That is still an ongoing discussion, Garcia said. What will determine the length is need, he said, and response from the federal government.
“We’re having to do a lot more with less,” he said, especially given that badly-needed financial assistance to states and local governments has not been part of the federal government’s aid, but he indicated he is hopeful that it will be a priority for the new Biden administration.
Among the lessons learned during the special session, and what Garcia hopes to see in 2021: collaboration. He said he has deep appreciation for Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker and his caucus for their work during those three days, which he said went off without incident, from a medical, safety and political perspective.
“No monkeying around,” he said.
While the minority party may disagree about the specifics, Senate lawmakers came together to get the work done. The same thing can happen when the Senate resumes next week, he said.
Garcia believes that what Americans and Coloradans want most is no more political posturing.
“They want us to act as leaders and come to the Capitol solution-oriented. That’s what I’m tasking the 34 other members of the Senate to do,” he said. “There's no time for political bickering like what you see in Washington, D.C. Let’s get the job done.”