Becker, Neville on Supreme Court resolution

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock and Speaker of the House KC Becker of Boulder discuss the resolution asking the Supreme Court to address a constitutional question around the 120-day calendar. Courtesy Colorado Channel.

The Colorado General Assembly met Saturday to work through as much as they could before enacting an unprecedented two-week shutdown over concerns for public health and tied to the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.

But as is often the case, the unusual Saturday session was not without drama and politics. 

Six House members — half Democratic, half Republican — were out with excused absences during the Saturday session. Five members of the Senate, all Republicans, also were excused Saturday.

Among the first order of business in the Senate: passage of House Bill 1359, which grants county assemblies extra time to hold their meetings, in which they pick delegates to district, congressional and state assemblies, among other things. The House later concurred with Senate amendments and sent the bill on to the governor.

The Senate also unanimously passed House Bill 1275, which allows families of service members stationed in Colorado to receive in-state tuition rates at Colorado's community colleges. It was not amended in the Senate and now goes to the governor for signing.

And one of the time-sensitive issues on the minds of legislative leaders: a bill that puts a final stamp on rules adopted by state agencies between Nov. 1, 2018, and Nov. 1, 2019, also passed unanimously and unamended by the Senate, goes to the governor. 

Legislative leaders had said that without passage of House Bill 1179, all those rules — literally thousands — would expire on May 15. 

The House's first order of business was to adopt, on a voice vote, House Joint Resolution 1006, which asks the Colorado Supreme Court for guidance on the 120-day calendar issue.

Speaker of the House KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, spoke of the unusual nature of the session.

"We are here at the Capitol on a gloomy Saturday on a very solemn and unprecedented occasion," she said. "Over the last week COVID-19 has gone from a concern to a pervasive, urgent and incredibly important issue for all of us in Colorado to address quickly."

The legislators have to think of the safety of those who work and visit the Capitol while continuing to respond to the crisis and do the people's business of governing, she said. 

Becker called it a Hobson's Choice — a decision when there are no good choices. 

House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock congratulated Becker on her leadership during the crisis, but spoke to the uncertainty ahead.

"We don't know if a two-week recess is going to be enough," he said. "We don't know if it would be advisable to come back after that point, so we need the Supreme Court to weigh in."

He said he could see reasonable arguments to follow the 120-day calendar and to suspend it.

Becker said some members were term-limited and some might not get re-elected.

"I don't think the people who set up the three branches of government want us to cede our authority, because of these extraordinary times," she said. "They want us to be able to still do the work of the people."

As to suspending the session, Becker said, "we'll come back into session when it's appropriate and necessary," meaning that they may extend the recess beyond the two weeks if needed.

Becker said two weeks was picked to provide some social distancing without "pushing us too far out into the future." She said the legislature might not need to extend the break.

"I know all of you will be working in your communities, at home, over email, just like you would under any interim," she told House members.  "I fully expect that to continue. Until we come back, your bills are in suspended animation."

By 10 a.m., the House had sent over the joint resolutions to adjourn the session and seek the Supreme Court guidance.

In the Senate, President Leroy Garcia, Democrat of Pueblo, in speaking on the Supreme Court resolution, said "we find ourselves in this unique, solemn and historic occasion ... I'm grateful for one thing: that we have come together as leaders from both sides, both chambers, to work to address the challenge at hand."

That spirit didn't last long.

The process bogged down in partisan fighting over who would pay for legal briefs to the Court, a debate that went on for more than two hours, including a 45-minute filibuster by Sen. Bob Gardner, the Colorado Springs Republican and attorney who is known for his loquaciousness.

Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said the General Assembly has not been confronted with such a question, at least not since the session was reduced from 140 to 120 days back in 1988. He noted that the constitutional conundrum of the calendar came from a member of his caucus — Gardner, although he was not identified as is custom of the Senate. In light of that, Holbert asked that the resolution be amended to address sharing legal costs for majority and minority briefs.

"Both sides of that question are legitimate," Holbert said. "We're not trying to renegotiate" the resolution, nor trying to engage in political tactics.

That led Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder to warn that the resolution, which was sponsored by all six leaders of the House and Senate, was starting to veer off-track. "There will be an opportunity for different opinions to brief the Court," he explained. "This is a moment in which we can come together." 

"This is not a political question," Garcia said. 

That resulted in a lengthy delay and an even lengthier debate after Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said that while the resolution talks about briefs, it isn't clear that briefs would represent both the minority and majority perspective. Lawyers and arguments are expensive, he said.

"Who pays? The General Assembly should pay," Lundeen said. "I want us to end where we began, in unity, and on behalf of the people of Colorado in a time of crisis."

Sen. Mike Foote, a Lafayette Democrat, said in paying for both sides, the legislature would be arguing both sides. "That's not how it works." Foote said he had no doubt the other side would be argued by parties outside the Capitol.

The amendment offered by Republicans, to require the legislature to pay for legal briefs for both sides, failed. 

After that, Gardner told the Senate he did not believe the resolution to ask the court was necessary, even though he was the first to publicly raise the calendar issue. He then launched into the filibuster. The resolution passed shortly thereafter on a 26-3 vote, with Gardner and Republican Sens. Larry Crowder of Alamosa and Jack Tate of Centennial voting against. The resolution to adjourn the General Assembly to March 30 won easier, and unanimous passage, minutes later.

And by just after 12:30 p.m., it was all over. For at least the next 16 days.

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