Colorado lawmakers gave final passage to 10 bills and more than $300 million in spending on Wednesday, the third and final day of the special legislative session for COVID-19 relief.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and the Democrats who control both chambers of the legislature had planned for a limited session focused on seven priority areas, all with bipartisan sponsorship. They passed legislation providing direct aid to small businesses, child care providers, nonprofit organizations, and struggling landlords and families.
They’ve also been clear that this session will hardly plug the state’s economic leak. The legislature can’t deficit-spend, unlike the federal government, and so the result of the special session is a small fraction of the money the state received from Washington in the spring.
Republicans introduced their own legislation, including four separate bills proposing tax credits to families because of COVID-19 closures, all of which were defeated.
GOP lawmakers had called for a special session earlier this year, focused on this very topic, but they were unsuccessful in getting Democrats on board. They also tried to once again put limits on the governor’s authority during a state of emergency through time limits and requiring additional procedures, but those efforts also failed.
As lawmakers worked to pass bills on the first day of a session focused on a public health crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Coloradans, concerns spread over unmasked Republican lawmakers and House Democrats asked a GOP staffer who recently tested positive for COVID — and said she was cleared to work by her doctor — to leave the building.
Here are the bills lawmakers passed in this week’s special session:
Expanding internet access for remote learning, House Bill 1001
Students from lower-income backgrounds or marginalized communities as well as those in rural Colorado are less likely to have adequate internet service, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made the disproportionate effects on some of these communities even larger.
This bill would create a grant program for local education providers to increase broadband access for students and staff. Schools that had high populations of students on free-and-reduced lunches last year would receive priority. The Department of Education will receive $20 million for the grant program.
“As we had to move online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the families and school districts were just not prepared to do that,” said sponsor Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican.
About 65,000-66,000 Coloradans don’t have broadband access and some of those people don’t have internet access at all, so the $20 million won’t serve everyone, but it’s a start, Soper said.
Emergency relief for child care, House Bill 1002
This bill will provide about $45 million in funding through two grant programs for existing child care providers that are licensed in the state.
One of the programs will grant funding to help child care providers that are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic and the other will be to assist providers in expanding and adding more staff.
The bill cites the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on women exiting the workforce, with nearly 179,000 women leaving the Colorado workforce between February and May, compared with 80,000 men.
“These grants will keep thousands of child care providers open and provide critical funding to make facilities safer during the pandemic,” said Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins. “Retaining this workforce is critical to ensuring Coloradans don’t have to choose between going to work and keeping their kids safe.”
Food Pantry assistance, House Bill 1003
The state will expand its grant program for food bank and pantry assistance to allow food delivery organizations to apply for funding as well as extends the timeline, giving the Department of Human Services $5 million for the program.
Grants can now be made through Feb. 28 and requires those who have received assistance to buy and distribute food by June 30. It also removes the grant award cap.
As COVID-19 cases surge, so has food insecurity across the state.
“This direct support to food pantries builds on the work we did earlier in the year to bring us closer to a hunger-free Colorado,” said sponsor Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat, in a statement. “While we know there is a great deal of work left to be done, I’m proud that we are taking bold action to help hardworking families keep food on the table.”
Temporary sales tax reduction for restaurants and bars, House Bill 1004
Restaurants and bars have been particularly affected by the effects of COVID-19 public safety closures and restrictions, so this bill will allow these industries as well as food trucks and vintner’s restaurants to keep up to $2,000 per month per location in state sales taxes collected — up to $8,000 — between November and February of next year.
“We all want our restaurants to survive and thrive, and this is just something small that we can do to help them,” said sponsor Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver.
Local control on food delivery fees, House Bill 1005
Restaurants pay fees to third-party services such as GrubHub and DoorDash, through which customers can order food and drinks and have them delivered to their homes, and now this bill will allow local governments to control how much of those fees can be charged during a declared public health emergency.
Some “home-rule” cities such as Denver already do that, but this expands the authority to cities and counties across the state during these emergencies and when indoor dining is restricted to 50% capacity. It’s a bipartisan-sponsored measure that saw some opposition from Republicans, but it ultimately succeeded in the Democratic-controlled chambers.
Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican and one of the sponsors, said the measure is needed after the government shut down businesses and made an “extraordinary intervention in the free market.”
“This is a way to protect small businesses’ ability to possibly increase margins to help sustain themselves over the short-term of the pandemic,” he said.
Insurance premium tax payments and credits, House Bill 1006
This bill amends House Bill 1413 passed in June to create a small business loan program by increasing its value to get more money for small businesses. The state will be bonding out the insurance premium tax credit after going to market Dec. 18.
“When there was a (call for) a special session, the treasurer realized we could increase the value before the sale and increase the small business loan fund,” said sponsor Rep. Jeni Arndt, D-Fort Collins.
The sale of the bonds will go toward the $50 million required to establish the program. The amended bill includes four main provisions to the insurance premium tax and credits.
“Colorado values our small businesses and we know they’re a driver of innovation,” Arndt said. “We’re sensitive to the fact or the hardship the pandemic has created for small businesses.”
Small business and arts organization relief, Senate Bill 1
This bill appropriates a total of $57 million in relief money for small businesses and arts organizations, with a small portion ($4 million) set aside specifically for the benefit of minority-owned businesses.
The bulk of the bill’s spending ($37 million) goes toward direct relief payments, up to $7,000, to small businesses hit hard by pandemic restrictions, such as restaurants, bars, salons, movie theaters and gyms. The catch is that lawmakers are withholding these payments to businesses in counties that refuse to comply with state-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, with an exception carved out, via a late amendment, for certain businesses that comply with restrictions within counties that do not.
This aspect of the bill is a direct response to conservative politicians in Weld County and elsewhere who’ve resisted restrictions and defied the governor.
Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, explained the reason for this clause: “The goal of this bill is to get money to those businesses that have been the most impacted by capacity restrictions. These restrictions have had a larger impact on businesses in compliant counties. It is important that counties working hard to stop the spread of COVID have resources to help their businesses.”
Some Republicans strongly objected to this approach and said the compliance clause amounts to unfair targeting, though some said their concerns were partially assuaged by the carve-out amendment.
Housing relief, Senate Bill 2
Housing insecurity has been a theme of the pandemic since March, and it’s not going away any time soon. In fact, state estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of Coloradans will remain vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure into next year.
With most relief money for this purpose expiring this month, lawmakers, through this bill, are replenishing the pot with $44.5 million in housing assistance for vulnerable people, and to landlords who may be struggling to collect rent. That money must all be used by the end of June.
The bill sets aside $5 million for people who’ve been ineligible for government relief money to this point — undocumented people should see some minor benefit from this — and another $500,000 to fund eviction legal defense. Research consistently shows that people with legal representation fare much better in court than those facing eviction without representation.
Utility assistance, Senate Bill 3
This bill sets aside $5 million to help low-income people cover utility expenses, specifically related to energy. The money must be spent by the end of the June.
Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Colorado Springs, was a lead sponsor on the bill and said that without it, “people, especially in rural Colorado, are going to be freezing cold this winter.”
The money from this bill will go directly to energy companies, with the condition that they use it to maintain service to people who can’t make their utility payments, or who may already be in arrears. The bill does allow for expense on firewood, in addition to the more traditional energy expenditures households make.
Disaster relief, Senate Bill 4
Though the majority of the focus (and money) for the special session was on economic stimulus, the legislature also designated $100 million that, in the words of the bill, will go “to the disaster emergency fund for public health and emergency response expenses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.”
This money, generally speaking, will go toward aiding public health-related spending by the state, led by the governor’s office, during the pandemic. Unlike with the economic stimulus bills, lawmakers expect that the money from this one will be reimbursed by the federal government.
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