Virus Outbreak Colorado

Colorado Governor Jared Polis considers a question during a news conference about the steady increase in cases of the new coronavirus in the state Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Denver. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday an upcoming special session focusing on a $220 million stimulus package that would aid bars, restaurants, tenants, landlords and students.

Polis plans to bring lawmakers back in order to provide assistance to Coloradans and small businesses, given that Congress is unlikely to act on a federal aid package anytime soon, Polis and legislative leaders said at a Tuesday press conference in Denver.

The most likely dates are just after Thanksgiving, although logistical details still being hammered out could push that back a few weeks.

Polis already has proposed a $1.3 billion stimulus package for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget. That package contains $220 million in "shovel-ready public works and infrastructure projects," mostly for the Department of Transportation and state parks improvements. Another $160 million would go toward broadband investments, including telehealth and education; $78 million for wildfire response; $106 million for small businesses — mostly direct aid grants to restaurants and bars, hit hard by capacity restrictions imposed by the state and local governments; and $168 million for the $375 payment for low-and middle-income earners who lost jobs due to the pandemic. Another $200 million is included for "one-time stimulus legislative priorities."

The stimulus headed to lawmakers for the special session comes from ideas in that $1.3 billion package. The cost for the special session legislation is estimated at about $220 million. 

The pieces include tax relief for restaurants and bars hit hard by COVID-19 capacity limits. A second piece will deal with child care; a third is rental assistance that will go to both tenants and landlords. A fourth piece, about $20 million, will help K-12 students with Internet access, to include mobile hot spots.

During Tuesday's news conference, Polis said tax relief will come in the form of allowing restaurants and bars to retain the 2.9% sales tax they already collect and remit to the state. Polis said they can use those dollars to pay rent or other costs. He also hinted at more direct aid for those businesses. 

"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary action," the governor said. He added that he will officially issue the call later in the week, once the parameters for session are ironed out, including when lawmakers will come back. 

Polis said legislation in the special session will help Colorado families and businesses bridge the months ahead until the vaccines are ready for distribution.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, said Coloradans cannot wait on the federal government for help. "Countless Coloradans have lost jobs, life savings, family businesses and hope," he said.

People are staring at unpaid bills, wondering how they will make it one more month. They're facing possible homelessness, lack of child care for those who must work outside the home, and "rural students are watching their education dry up in front of them," he added.

"We need to urgently bring relief to people," Garcia said.

Speaker of the House-elect Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, recounted the many calls he said he had received from people in his district, telling him they can't pay their rent and asking what the legislature will do to help. 

The stimulus will help bridge Colorado to the vaccine, he said, calling the vaccine a light at the end of the tunnel.

Colorado's recovery could hinge on the next few months, and targeting relief now will have the greatest effect, Garnett said.

Garnett also addressed the "why now?" question, given that the 2021 session of the General Assembly is just two months away.

"January will be too late" for many small businesses, restaurants and bars, and for Coloradans on the brink of eviction and foreclosure, he said.

"We cannot wait for Congress to act," he added.

The other question is how to pay for it. The General Assembly made tough choices for the 2020-21 budget, Garnett said.

September revenue forecasts came in showing there was more money available for 2020-21, thus creating one-time dollars that can be used for the special session stimulus, he added.

"This is what Coloradans expect from legislative leaders, from the people they have voted for," Garnett said.

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Joint Budget Committee (JBC), told Colorado Politics before Tuesday's news conference that the governor's proposal is a way to help businesses and families get through the winter. Hansen said the focus will be on how quickly that money can get into the hands of those who need it most.

"That's the top of our minds as we consider different stimulus" proposals, Hansen said. "We can't start new programs or build something from scratch. It has to be something already in motion, and that will certainly come out in the final proposals."

The package, and the special session to pass it, also satisfies calls by lawmakers for more transparency in how money tied to the pandemic is being spent, according to Republican Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, the JBC's senior member. 

Rankin, however, believes that it might not be clear what money is available to pay for the special session stimulus legislation until the December revenue forecast comes out, due around Dec. 20.

Rankin said the most recent forecasts issued by the governor's office of state budgeting and planning, and legislative council economists, are "divergent."

"Until the December forecast, I'm not sure we have the money," he said.

But "Senate Republicans do support the idea of some stimulus spending within the range of what we know we can afford," Rankin said.

Rankin also addressed the legalities of getting that stimulus money into the hands of Coloradans. The only legal way to do it is through a special session, which is preferable to more executive orders, he explained. The JBC has another mechanism for emergency spending, through what's known as its "1331 powers," but he indicated it isn't a first choice.

Rankin pointed out that the minority party has asked for transparency and legislative involvement in the spending of relief funds, and that the special session satisfies that request.

"We want to see the details, including eligibility," Rankin said.

There may be some tweaking, he said, but generally, Republicans are supportive.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and the JBC's newest member, said Tuesday that she supports the call for a special session to address the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.

"Our people are hurting," she told Colorado Politics in a text statement. "Businesses are struggling to stay afloat. Now is the time for the legislative branch to work with the executive branch to tackle one of the toughest challenges Colorado has faced in generations. We must act urgently on behalf of the people of Colorado."

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