Paid family leave. Public option. Immunizations. The budget. Cellphones. A ban on plastics.
Once the General Assembly comes back from its COVID-19-induced break, possibly on March 30, lawmakers face some of the toughest decisions they’ll make in the 2020 session.
The big question is just what they will have time to work on, and whether there's any money to put toward new programs.
As of March 12, 563 bills have been introduced in the House and Senate. According to data compiled weekly by the legal services staff, 337 bills are still awaiting action of one kind or another, whether it’s final signatures from the House and Senate leaders, the final step before a bill heads to the governor’s desk; or the first hearing for more than three dozen measures introduced since the first of March.
So what’s still out there, and what’s still high on the priorities of lawmakers when they come back?
Paid family and medical leave
The bill, which hasn’t been introduced yet, shed two of its original sponsors last month after a dispute over whether the proposal does enough for low-income and people of color. The measure has been a top priority for legislative Democrats for the past four sessions.
After Democrats swept the 2018 election, taking control of the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion, many believed the time had come for this policy. But in 2019 it ran into roadblocks from business and from the governor, who favors a private market solution.
The COVID-19 outbreak has led Democrats to point out that having this policy in place before 2020 would have saved many Coloradans a lot of grief. Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, the proposal’s co-sponsor in the House, tweeted on March 13 that if a previous bill had passed, “we’d have had statewide paid medical leave come online two months ago. We’re already many years too late in providing paid family and medical leave, and we need to act now.”
Gray is expected to be the bill’s prime House co-sponsor, along with Rep. Yadira Caraveo of Thornton. The Senate’s sponsors are expected to be Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, who has carried the legislation for the past three sessions, and Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, whose decision was praised by Gov. Jared Polis in a Facebook post on March 4.
So what are its chances in 2020? It’s possible that emergency coronavirus legislation currently working its way through Congress will give the proponents of paid leave in Colorado a breather until 2021. The emergency bill includes two weeks of paid family and medical leave for all but those who work for large employers, defined as 500 employees or more. President Trump has indicated he will sign the bill, which passed the U.S. House on March 14 and is awaiting action from the U.S. Senate.
There’s also two ballot initiatives on paid leave in Colorado, backed by those who also support the Democrats’ proposal, and that are awaiting Supreme Court review. That’s scheduled for March 31. If they win the challenge, mounted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Kelly Brough, the next step is petition approval and signature gathering.
Then there's the cost: while the paid leave program would eventually be funded by premiums paid by employers and employees, every state-run proposal to date has had fairly big start-up costs.
Money may also be a problem for House Bill 1349, the so-called public option bill that sets price caps on hospital services.
One way around it is to say that the bill, and others with big ticket costs, wouldn’t go into effect for another year or longer. That could bring up an age-old argument that lawmakers use when it suits them: that a legislature cannot pass bills to obligate a future legislature. Passing the public option bill would obligate the next General Assembly to shell out just under $1 million in its first year, according to its fiscal note.
The Capitol has been inundated for the past month with protesters opposed to any changes in the state’s immunization policy. The question is money. The initial cost of SB 163 is just under $50,000, but even that may be too much.
Two bills designed to cut down on single-use plastics and polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, could succeed where the previous measures wouldn’t, at least on the issue of money. Neither House Bill 1162, which bans retail food establishments from using Styrofoam containers, nor House Bill 1163, which enacts prohibitions on single-use plastics, carry a cost for 2020-21.
Best of the rest
It's a big list: secure savings/retirement, air quality, construction defects, binding arbitration, conservation easements, vaping, new licensing requirements for tobacco sales, mental and behavioral health, opioid treatment, a new state park along with millions of dollars for improvements at others, and lots of bills dealing with education and workforce issues. All are likely to depend on whether there's money to pay for them.
What they got done
To date, the most significant bill to come out of the 2020 session is Senate Bill 100, the repeal of the death penalty, which could be signed by the governor within the next few days. It was sent to him on March 13 and he has 10 days to act on it. He’s expected to sign it, but the larger question is what will happen to the three inmates on Colorado’s death row. He has said he would commute their sentences to life in prison, although most recently, Polis said he had not received such a request from any of the men.
Not far behind: the governor has signed the CROWN Act, which bars discrimination based on hairstyles tied to race. Headed his way: a bill renaming Columbus Day to Frances Cabrini Day, and several bills to assist the military or veterans, including a measure allowing family members of those stationed in Colorado to obtain in-state tuition at community colleges and another to increase the minimum pay for members of the National Guard, who have been called out to help with the COVID-19 outbreak.
What has to be done
That list is actually quite short. The only bill required by the Colorado Constitution is a balanced budget, which JBC members said Monday they hoped to have ready to go by March 30, the scheduled date for the General Assembly’s return. The budget bill never travels alone; it’s usually accompanied by a dozen or more “orbital” bills, changes in statute that are needed to help balance the budget.
The School Finance Act is an also “must-do” bill, as is the bill that funds the legislature itself. Neither the budget nor the School Finance Act have been introduced, but the funding bill for the legislature, HB 1345, is awaiting Senate debate and final approval.
There’s also roughly two dozen “sunset” bills that reauthorize state programs, including occupational licensure, that also are on the “mission critical” list. The only one completed so far is HB 1217, which reauthorizes financial services cooperatives for marijuana businesses.
The co-ops would require federal approval and would act similar to a credit union. While the sunset review recommended giving the program another five years, not one business to date has applied for the charter to start up a co-op.
What's next for the time and money questions
The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday accepted a request from the General Assembly to look at a constitutional question around the 120-day calendar.
Under normal circumstances, the General Assembly begins on the second Wednesday in January and ends on the second Wednesday in May. The 120-day clock runs the entire time, even on weekends when lawmakers don’t usually meet.
But these are not normal times.
With the governor’s declaration of a disaster emergency related to public health, the rules changed. Among them, a rule that the General Assembly no longer had to count its days as consecutive, that each day was its own separate working day. That’s the opinion of the General Assembly’s legal services head, Sharon Eubank.
But not everyone agrees with that, and the risk is that if they come back and keep working for another 53 days, which is what’s left out of the 120, it means adjournment past May 6. Any actions taken after May 6, including passing some of the session’s most controversial bills, could end up in court, with a legal claim that those post-May 6 actions are unconstitutional.
Hence the request to the Supreme Court, which will accept briefs on the question until March 24. Oral arguments will follow after, although a date has not yet been set.
But an even bigger issue surfaced on Monday, and that’s money.
The revenue forecast from state and Legislative Council economists had one strong message: there’s no money for anything new in the 2020-21 budget. Members of the Joint Budget Committee openly worried Monday whether the state will even have enough money to pay for obligations already on the books, whether it’s continuing the current caseload levels for Medicaid, a required inflationary increase for K-12 education, or “maintenance of effort,” a term that applies to maintaining current state funding for a whole host of federal programs. That lack of money may spell the end for dozens, if not hundreds of bills with even the smallest costs.