Legislative leaders address the media

Democratic leaders of the House and Senate spoke to reporters Friday about their plans to pause the 2020 session.

The Colorado House has taken the first step to shutting down business for two weeks in light of the growing COVID-19 outbreak: a resolution to pause the session and a request to the Colorado Supreme Court on a constitutional question about what happens when they come back.

House Joint Resolution 1007 is a simple one-pager and one paragraph measure that says they adjourn on Saturday and come back on March 30 at 10 a.m.

Whether that actually happens? Legislative leaders raised the possibility on Friday that if two weeks isn't enough, lawmakers would come back on March 30 and pass another resolution to adjourn for another period of time. However, the rules require resolutions be laid over one day, meaning a resolution introduced on March 30 couldn't be voted on until March 31.

The second resolution, HJR 1006, is a seven-pager that lays out the constitutional question the Supreme Court will be asked to address.

In 1988, voters approved shortening the legislative session from 140 days to 120 days. The intent of proponents, as outlined in the election guide — aka the Blue Book — was that the 120 days could not be changed by legislative rule.

The General Assembly's Rule 23 states plainly that the 120 days are consecutive.

However, in 2009, the General Assembly adopted Joint Rule 44, intended to provide preliminary guidance on what lawmakers should do in case of a public health emergency. And within that rule, lawmakers decided that the 120-day calendar could be considered separate working days, rather than consecutive days. 

What's at risk: any measure adopted after the regularly scheduled adjournment date of May 6 could be rendered unconstitutional. And if the General Assembly came back and continued on with its calendar — March 30 would be day 68, if Joint Rule 44(g) applies — the last day of the session would be May 20, later if lawmakers decided to extend the time-out.

The resolution states that courts have held that legislation passed by a legislature "outside of the constitutionally established length: of the session are void, because the legislature doesn't have authority to enact measures outside of the constitutionally established length unless that's part of a special session.

The legislature's conundrum is spelled out in the resolution: "The General Assembly is thus faced with the difficult choice to either protect public health and potentially fail to meet the public's need for legislation or meet the public's interests and needs by continuing to work on legislation while ignoring the danger to public health."

The resolution asks the state's high court to act quickly. The House and Senate ask that if the Court grants the request for interrogatories, that it adopt an expedited schedule, to require submission of briefs within no more than five days after accepting the General Assembly's request and schedule oral arguments no more than five days after briefs are submitted.

The House and Senate will vote on both during Saturday's session.

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