Jared Polis Colorado Recovery

Gov. Jared Polis, surrounded by legislative leaders and the Joint Budget Committee, talks about the Colorado Recovery Plan unveiled March 10, 2021. 

Just as the U.S. House was sending through a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that now heads to President Joe Biden, Colorado lawmakers and the governor announced a rescue plan of their own: a $700 million-plus stimulus package that they say will help Colorado on its own road back. 

The package announced Wednesday isn't actually ready for prime time yet; most of the bills haven't been drafted, and there's the small matter of the 2021-22 budget, which is still being crafted by the six members of the Joint Budget Committee and is due to be introduced in the state Senate on April 8. 

The money comes from higher-than-expected income tax revenues, disclosed in a December revenue forecast but which are one-time-only funds, meaning no new continuing programs. Another revenue forecast is due to lawmakers on March 19. 

Gov. Jared Polis announced the Colorado Recovery Plan at the governor's mansion Wednesday, surrounded by JBC members, majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, the Speaker of the House, Senate President and several people representing small businesses. 

Details of the plan

The package is focused on five key areas: small businesses, infrastructure, families, rural Colorado and workforce development.

The small business portion outlines eight initiatives, valued at $110 million to $138 million. Some of the targeted areas include money for the hospitality industry, arts and cultural organizations, restaurant sales tax relief, and the Energize Colorado Gap Fund, which gives grants to women, minority and veteran-owned businesses as well as businesses that did not qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said during the news conference that small business relief is one of the main pillars of the package, which he said will include direct support to small businesses. "They've struggled to comply with public health orders and to keep their doors open," Fenberg said. "It's our turn to support them."

The restaurant sales tax relief was hailed by the Colorado Restaurant Association, which has been among the harshest critics of the governor's orders on restaurant capacity, "last call" restrictions and shifting decisions on vaccinations for restaurant workers. But Beth Gruitch, owner of Rioja and representing the association at the press conference, said Wednesday the proposed sales tax relief, which allows restaurants to retain the sales tax they would otherwise remit to the state, will enable bars and restaurants to instead use those dollars to keep workers employed. The proposal builds on an executive order Polis issued in November and a bill passed during the November 2020 special session that expired last month. 

The largest dollar amount in the package, about $375 million to $445 million, is slated for infrastructure to include road and bridge improvements, affordable housing, access to state parks, broadband improvements, clean energy and weatherization grants.

The seven areas under family support include summer school, mental health screenings in schools and a mental health hotline for the unemployed; support for childcare businesses, an affordable housing program and housing for those experiencing homelessness , and money for the BEST school construction fund. That package is slated for $47 million to $66 million.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, has been an advocate for summer school. "We're nearing the end of the school year," he said, and many districts are just now getting kids back in the classroom, only to head off to summer vacation in a few months. He's interested in funding schools or districts for a "summer semester" to help kids get caught up on a lost year of learning.

The portion devoted to rural Colorado has 10 projects, including wildfire recovery and mitigation, watershed restoration, economic diversification and development, investment in agriculture supply chains and renewable energy, drought response and support for the National Western Stock Show, Colorado State Fair and other ag-related events that shut down in 2020. Total estimated cost: $70 million to $131 million.

"The Colorado way of life depends on the rural parts of our state and the agriculture industry," said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. "Rural Colorado has been hit hard, ... but these challenges present a great opportunity for us to create new jobs and build back stronger." 

The word "agriculture" showed up a number of times during Wednesday's news conference. Polis has been under fire from the industry almost from the beginning of his term, and recently, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced efforts to lure away Coloradans and vendors from the National Western Stock Show. Stock Show President John Ellis lauded the ag stimulus, which he said will help small and medium-size ag producers with issues such as the drought and in resolving agricultural supply chain problems. The Stock Show could see a boost of $3.5 million, which would cover at least some of the lost revenue from a year without events at the complex. 

Finally, the package sets up six goals for workforce development, including college scholarships for displaced workers, educator license fees and support for formerly incarcerated individuals re-entering society, with a total cost estimated at $34.4 million to $55.4 million.

The package could result in some quick wins, with the inclusion of at least four bills already winding through the legislative process on waiving educator license fees, a supplemental bill for the governor's office that includes funding for advanced industry grants and a strategic business fund, "Main Street" infrastructure and improving access to state parks. 

One difference between the state plan and the relief package passed by the U.S, House on Wednesday on a 220-211 party-line vote : bipartisanship.

Holbert said that his caucus has three goals: roads and bridges, getting kids back into the classroom and getting people back to work. Those are goals shared by House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland.

"We don't always talk about things in a super bipartisan way," McKean said. "We want to make sure everything we do will help someone sitting at their kitchen table" and who's trying to figure out how to pay the bills. But there was a hint that some of the proposed package might not fit with the Republicans' goals.

"When there are bills we agree on, we will help," McKean said. 

"We are here to do what Colorado voters expect us to do," said Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, D-Denver. "This is the main event ... this is the launch of the Colorado comeback."

In charge of spending

One thing's for certain: lawmakers intend to reassert their authority in the spending of that $700 million. The issue of just who gets to spend the dollars has been a bone of contention between the General Assembly and Polis, who issued executive orders to spend some federal CARES Act money last year. That drew questions and some grumbling from lawmakers, including the JBC, given that appropriations are supposed to be handled by the legislature.

In a nod to that responsibility, the handout given to the media said the 2021 stimulus was being presented by the Senate and House leadership "in collaboration" with the governor. 

"I appreciate that Gov. Polis is working with the Joint Budget Committee," Holbert told Colorado Politics, adding that they have pushed back on the executive branch to remind the governor that there are three branches of government and that the legislature does the appropriation. "That's good news. This is going to work."

As to the timing of the package, it won't be soon. JBC Chair Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said once the stimulus bills come into focus and firm dollar amounts are determined, the JBC would set that money aside in the 2021-22 budget.  

He said the 2021-22 Long Appropriations Bill is likely to be released before the stimulus bills are out, although they could work in concert, he said. 

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, also a JBC member, said there is definitely an equity lens in the package. "I appreciate the governor, leadership and JBC ensuring that those funds go to communities hardest hit" by the pandemic. They should also know by next week what Colorado's portion of the Biden relief package will be, she said.

"We are not going to recreate the wheel for the federal stimulus," hoping to put those dollars into existing programs.

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