Democratic leaders addressing the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday spoke of a need to increase revenue and restore a pandemic-battered economy in the upcoming legislative session, while eschewing some more ambitious, progressive proposals.
“It’s important for everyone to remember where we were last year. We were facing one of the starkest, most devastating economic forecasts that the Joint Budget Committee has ever seen,” incoming Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, D-Denver, told the region’s business community during a virtual legislative preview event. “I just wanted to paint a picture of the amount of revenue pressure, revenue crisis, that Coloradans face.”
Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who is the upper chamber’s president pro tem, added that beyond the budget committee’s cut of $3 billion amid the pandemic, voters in 2020 also approved Proposition 116 to lower the state income tax and reduce revenue by $154 million.
“That choice that the voters made in the fall will have a direct impact on a primary source of revenue for the general fund,” she explained.
One area rumored to be a target for additional revenue is transportation, where lawmakers have floated the idea of a fee added on top of the gasoline tax to help fund the $3.2 billion the Colorado Department of Transportation needs to address the infrastructure projects in its 10-year plan.
“There does seem to be increased momentum around finding a solution this year,” Donovan said. While giving no specifics, she elaborated that in comparison to the state’s gas tax, which last increased in 1992, the fee proposal is preferable to “one that’s tied to a policy that was created when I was in middle school.”
Garnett said he believes the legislature will prioritize transportation funding this year, “unlike we have in years past.” In previous attempts that failed, “we were swinging for the fences. We were trying to hit a grand slam or home run on the first pitch,” meaning that lawmakers may have to try a more focused, incremental approach.
Donovan acknowledged the legislature would likely review a different version of the “public option” — or price-regulated health insurance plan — compared to the proposal the General Assembly was considering last year when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the session. Garnett also said the cost of healthcare premiums was the number one issue he heard from constituents, and reducing the price tag would be a focus in this session.
Asked by the event’s moderator, Ed Sealover of the Denver Business Journal, about additional worker protections, especially for gig workers, Garnett pointed to the “multimillion-dollar war” in California last year over Proposition 22. The passed measure overturned a prohibition on ridesharing and delivery companies classifying their workers as independent contractors.
“I’m a little nervous that this conversation hasn’t spread across the country enough, and if we start that up again at the wrong time, we’re going to become the national focal point for both sides and millions of dollars being spent waging war with each other,” he cautioned. The technology companies spent more than $200 million on Prop 22.
“We need to give consistency and stability to the business community” to recover from the pandemic, Donovan added.
Both Democrats also stood by their hallmark oil and gas regulation law from the 2019 session, Senate Bill 181, and reiterated a commitment to combating climate change, framing it as an issue that affects farmers, hunters and those vulnerable to the raging wildfires that set records in Colorado last summer.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, who is his party’s whip, and Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, the GOP’s House leader, subsequently called for a break from comprehensive new policies from the Democratic majority.
“Alec Garnett is one of the most bipartisan people you will ever find,” McKean said, but “we have fundamentally changed a lot of Colorado in the last couple of years and I think we need to take a breath. I think we need to stop with dramatic change and see [the effects] that we have inflicted upon the state through legislation,” as well as those from the pandemic.
The state also needs to move beyond “a time of an array of executive orders — more than 250 executive orders creating the new laws of Colorado for the crisis — and return the people’s voice to that conversation. Restore the people’s voice,” Lundeen said.
Lundeen also stated that money for transportation needs to go chiefly to roads and bridges (“How effective are those buses working right now?” he said in an apparent criticism of public transportation during the pandemic), and that it would not be ideal to curtail tax credits or expenditures during this time of recovery.
“Absolutely no. I think that we should not mess with making taxes more onerous for any employer in the state of Colorado in any way at this time," he said.
Kelly Brough, the CEO and president of the Denver Metro Chamber, afterward expressed the same sentiment, saying, “this is simply not the time to increase the cost of doing business.”
She added the business community also does need “time to understand how the many regulatory and legal changes will affect us.”
The 2021 legislative session begins on Wednesday.