A bill that will help county and state assemblies adjust assembly and convention deadlines tied to public health concerns has been introduced in the Colorado House.
House Bill 1359 is sponsored by House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker.
The bill is one of several possible actions the General Assembly can take in the next few days that, once resolved, will allow legislative leaders to figure out when to close the body because of concerns over the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Another rapidly developing issue is a resolution to the Colorado Supreme Court to answer legal questions about whether and when the General Assembly can recess, and that could be introduced as early as Friday, according to Garnett.
House Bill 1359 temporarily allows state parties to amend their bylaws to provide for remote access to and participation in party assemblies and conventions and to fill vacancies. The permission expires on Dec. 31, 2020.
The bill is going to move fast; it was introduced just before 3 p.m. Thursday; it will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee within the hour and will be heard on second reading debate by the full House Thursday evening.
A bill needs a minimum of three days to completely clear the General Assembly; HB 1359 would receive its final vote in the House on Friday, and could be introduced in the Senate and through its committee hearing, also on Friday. Its final vote would be on the Senate's next meeting day (which could be Saturday; rumors of a Saturday workday are rampant at the Capitol). It would then head to the governor's desk as soon as lawmakers can get it to him.
Whether the General Assembly closes, at least temporarily, is a "when," not an "if," Garnett said Thursday.
"What we're doing, first and foremost, is working in a bipartisan way" to prioritize the health and safety of people who could be gathering in large groups over the next six to eight weeks. He pointed out that many of those who participate in county assemblies and other party functions are among those vulnerable to COVID-19: people over the age of 60, who tend to be most active in political meetings such as caucuses, assemblies and conventions.
"This is both parties, coming together, to protect an at-risk population," he said.
Garnett acknowledged the bill's second function: allowing the General Assembly to prepare for an eventual shutdown.
"That's why you're seeing us introduce the bill today, going into committee and" onto the House floor later Thursday. "We are on the fastest track we can be, taking into consideration an abundance of caution, and that we're hearing from medical professionals about social distancing," the advice for people to stay 6 to 8 feet away from each other. That's not possible at the state Capitol, where committee hearings often draw dozens or even hundreds of people.
Even on Thursday, a bill to repeal the 2019 red flag law, has drawn a near-capacity crowd to the House Judiciary Committee.
At issue is whether the parties can change their rules quickly in response to the rapidly unfolding public health crisis, potentially allowing upcoming county, district and state assemblies to postpone their proceedings and possibly conduct business online or let delegates vote by mail.
“Current state law and state party rules do not allow us to cancel, hold remotely or vote remotely for assemblies,” Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll told Colorado Politics. “We need to first figure out what’s possible and then decide what we want to do. We lack the full slate of options that we would like to have."
Both parties have county assemblies scheduled this weekend, though most are in smaller counties with few delegates. The larger county and district assemblies start next weekend, with the Republicans holding county assemblies on March 21 in Adams, Denver, Larimer, Mesa and Weld counties, and Democrats meeting the same day in Broomfield, Douglas and Jefferson counties.
Carroll said state Democrats are prepared to provide advice and technical assistance to county parties, which could decide to deal with coronavirus concerns in different ways, including allowing mail balloting or holding assemblies online using videoconferencing or other technologies.
“This isn’t going to be a one size fits all,” she said, adding that it’s likely the state party will outline a range of choices for counties.
The parties’ bylaws are governed, in part, by state statutes and national party rules.
Once the state has changed the law to allow the parties to change their rules, spokespeople for both parties said, they expect their national parties to grant waivers and work with the state parties so they can begin the process of electing delegates to this summer’s national conventions.
After the bill was introduced, Colorado Democratic Party spokesman David Pourshoushtari said in a statement that “the most important priority is ensuring the health and safety of Coloradans, while ensuring the wheels of democracy can continue to move forward. We’re thankful for the legislature's speed in working on a bill that will give state and county parties the option to hold remote assemblies and conventions.”