Should the governor declare a disaster emergency, how would that affect the operations of the General Assembly?
The executive committee of the Legislative Council, which is made up of the top six leaders of the House and Senate from both parties, met with their top nonpartisan staff Tuesday to find out.
The General Assembly has had a “continuity of operations plan” since 2008, when it statutorily created a quasi-legislative committee on emergency response, now known as the Legislative Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery Committee, or LEPRRC.
The plan addresses essential staffing, alternative work locations and communications, according to Sharon Eubanks, director of the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
The response differs depending on whether the legislature is in session or not. There isn’t much that has to be done if lawmakers are out of session, said Natalie Mullis, director of the Legislative Council staff. They would determine who is essential personnel and send everyone else home, she said.
It’s a lot more complicated if lawmakers are in session.
First: what happens to the 120-day timeline? That’s constitutionally mandated, but Eubanks said if the governor declared a disaster emergency, lawmakers could change the calendar. They would still be limited to 120 days, but those days would not have to be consecutive, she said. She also pointed out that a disaster declaration is limited to 30 days, although the governor can extend it.
Were the state Capitol declared uninhabitable, and that’s a declaration that would have to come from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the first option is to look at alternative locations in the Denver metro area.
Holding electronic sessions, whether it’s meetings of the entire House or Senate, or committee meetings, could be doable but it raises some legal questions, Eubanks said, related to verifying the identity of a lawmaker voting on a bill.
And then there’s what Mullis called “mission critical” work, or bills that must be completed in the event of a disaster. That includes the annual budget bill and the school finance act, but it can also include anything else the leadership believes is critical.
Lawmakers also could relax some of the rules around electronic participation, which set off a series of questions from House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock.
Electronic participation applies to whether meetings and hearings would still be broadcast to the public, but more importantly, how or whether the public would be able to testify on bills. That would be logistically challenging, according to Manish Jani, a deputy director of the Legislative Council who is in charge of the General Assembly’s information technology.
Neville also asked whether there were statutes that could be “relaxed,” particularly those that require people to go to places where they risk being infected, were a disaster taking place during the current outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. (There are no confirmed cases in Colorado, although eight people are currently being tested, according to state officials.)
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, was curious about the governor’s authority in a declared disaster emergency. That included questions about the governor’s ability to suspend or nullify laws, or if the state constitution give the governor the ability to act “with unilateral authority.”
While the answer to that is not complete, Eubanks noted that the governor has the ability to access a disaster emergency fund, which also allows him to tap into reserves. Currently, that’s around $450 million, although only about half of that is liquid, according to Mullis.
The governor also could, if he were running out of money, transfer other funds that are appropriated for other purposes, Eubanks said.
Legislative leaders indicated an interest in putting its LEPRRC group to work on bill priorities, for example. The way the statute was written, they can only meet after there is a disaster declaration. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, asked that the committee “informally” meet, although it would still be governed by the state’s open meetings law, in order to gather information and review the operations plan.
The meeting was attended by about 25 opponents of Senate Bill 163, the school immunization bill. Opponents told the Denver Post that they will be at the state Capitol this week to protest the bill. However, the executive committee took no action and does not allow public testimony.