Three F-words were supposed to define the last three weeks of the legislative session, a down-to-business, do-what’s-necessary lawmaking term that followed a two-month halt because of coronavirus.
Fast. Friendly. Free. That was the vow of House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.
Major controversial policies were set aside, like a statewide paid family-leave program, a public health insurance initiative and stricter gun regulations, so that legislators could focus on helping the state respond to the pandemic, balance the hobbled budget and quickly vacate the Capitol before anyone caught COVID-19. Policies years in the making were abandoned.
And then the past week happened.
As the final hours wind down, Democrats who control the House and Senate are pushing through two major tax bills, a vaccine measure that had emotional constituents shouting from the gallery, and sweeping police accountability policy that will dramatically reshape law enforcement across the state.
One 11th-hour proposal introduced Thursday would put an $86 million tobacco and vaping tax on the November ballot. Meanwhile, a Democratic plan to spend $70 million in federal coronavirus aid did not include input from the GOP.
Frenetic. Frustrating. Definitely not free.
“Fast, free, friendly? That’s never been the motto of the Senate in this session,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said. “We always said we wanted to prioritize things that are directly related to this crisis and this moment. I think for the most part we have. For the most part, we really have focused on things that are about relief for families and small businesses and the state’s budget.”
And there have been a number of non-contentious measures, including one creating a grant program for small businesses hurt by coronavirus. The state budget, which can be the center of fierce debate, passed mostly without controversy.
But some proposals have struck a nerve with Republican lawmakers and the business community at large, who say they were deceived and worry that Democratic legislation aimed at helping Coloradans weather the health crisis will actually do the opposite.
“The original goal of this legislature was to come back for a short period of time, address the hundreds of bills that have fiscal impacts or are controversial, dispose of those bills and then leave to make sure that lawmakers and folks like me and the public aren’t at risk at the Capitol of getting the COVID-19 virus,” said Loren Furman, the Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s lobbyist.
Furman was speaking to reporters on a call with about two dozen business groups pleading for the legislature to pump the brakes and extend the lawmaking term. If not, they called on Gov. Jared Polis to step in and use his veto power.
“They’re introducing them and passing them so quickly,” Furman said of the flurry of legislation being brought in the final days. “These bills are only going to make it impossible for business to try to recover after the pandemic.”
GOP lawmakers in the House have had little recourse but to filibuster by requesting bills be read at length and using every last drop of time for speeches from the well.
“The current leadership’s agenda in this state is neither fast nor free,” said Rep. Tim Geitner, a Republican from Falcon. “It’s disappointing that the Democrats can’t better prioritize an agenda.”
The mini-session to wrap up what didn’t get done before the virus hit Colorado was supposed to be subdued, with few in-person spectators. But by Thursday, the lobbyists who had stayed away from the Capitol were filling up the hallways again. Citizens – many to speak against vaccines – put on masks and stood in line to have their temperatures checked at the entrance to the building. Lawmakers are whispering in corners making deals.
It feels like the final days of any legislative session, minus the masks and health screening.
Lawmakers were originally supposed to adjourn on Friday, but lawmaking is likely to stretch into Saturday, at least, because of all the last-minute bills.
Becker defended the work of Democrats, saying that “fast, friendly and free” has happened, and citing all of the controversial policies from before the coronavirus crisis began that were dropped.
“At the end of the day there were a lot of things that we were working on that did go by the wayside,” she said. “I think the frustration is there are a few things now that are definitely in response to coronavirus that they are frustrated with. But we absolutely introduced legislation that was pro-business.”
She also cautioned that things are moving quickly and that bills that are drawing concern have not yet been finalized.
“The session isn’t over and there’s a lot getting addressed right now,” she said. “We’ll see where it all ends up.”
Here are the most controversial items left on the agenda:
The tax credit billOne piece of legislation drawing the most consternation is a complex tax bill introduced Monday by Democrats that would slash or change nine tax breaks and generate about $1.3 billion in revenue in the next four years.
The measure excludes the state from continuing a number of tax breaks put in place by the U.S. Congress in its coronavirus relief package and 2017 tax cuts.
A series of amendments now means that most of the money – about 75% – would go into the state public education system with the rest available for other priorities in the cash-strapped budget.
Democrats argue the measure ensures big business is paying its fair share as Colorado looks to close a multibillion-dollar budget hole. “We need to make a choice; we can either give taxpayer-funded handouts to corporations and wealthy individuals who don’t need them, or we can protect our students and underpaid teachers,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat.
Republican lawmakers see the situation much differently. They spent hours over two days trying unsuccessfully to amend the bill, proposing carve-outs to exempt agricultural businesses, liquor stores, Realtors, electricians and plumbers.
Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican from Douglas County, argued that the federal government “tried very hard to help businesses navigate” the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic, and Colorado Democrats are trying to “snatch that away,” she said. “Now for us to turn around and tax that is just beyond rude. It’s beyond egregious. It’s dangerous.”
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican from Castle Rock, said the tax bill would crush small businesses at a time when they are reeling from the economic shutdown. “This was rushed through at a time when people couldn’t come up here and actively lobby their legislators and make their voices heard,” he said.
Democrats shot down each amendment and repeatedly said the legislation is written to exempt business owners who net a certain income and should not single out specific professions, such as electricians or liquor store owners.
“This is not about cherry-picking businesses,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat.
On Thursday, before the House approved the measure, Weissman spoke about the dire needs of the state’s public education system. “I know this is a big bill. Because we have big problems,” he said. “We need to make this commitment to public education.”
“It is the fierce urgency of now.”
The measure, House Bill 1420, still has to make it through the Senate before it’s passed. And more Republican opposition is expected.
Business groups have begun calling the legislation the “unfair tax act.”
Becker said the prime sponsors are open to compromise and thinks that changes are likely.
The irony of the situation: The whole fight could have been for nothing. Gov. Polis doesn’t like the legislation and a veto appears imminent. He said he’d like to see a package aimed at helping businesses and creating jobs.
“I don’t yet see a route for how the tax bill could become law,” Polis said at a news conference Thursday. “At this point, I’m not terribly optimistic.”
The tobacco, vaping taxThe 43-page tobacco tax bill, introduced Thursday afternoon, was discussed in a committee hearing only minutes after it was posted on the legislature’s website.
Lawmakers on the House Finance Committee said they were handed the bill after they sat down and did not even know the details of what they were voting about.
“We got this bill after we even sat down in here,” said Rep. Janice Rich, a Republican from Grand Junction. “It sounds good, but I just can’t support it right now.”
And talk about fast. The bill was passed within about 20 minutes, on a 6-to-5 vote, after two quick bits of testimony in support.
“I know that it’s all come kind of fast and furious these last few days,” said sponsor Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton and a physician.
The bill would put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to increase the tax on cigarettes from 84 cents per pack to $1.94 starting next year. The tax would rise each year until it reaches $2.64 in 2027. House Bill 1427 would generate $86 million in its first year.
If passed, Colorado would have its first tax on nicotine vaping products. A spokesman for Polis said he’s supportive of the bill and would sign if it reaches his desk.
Another sign the legislation may have a chance of making it through: Tobacco interests are supportive of the measure out of self interest. They are fearful about a proposed ballot initiative that would enact the taxes more quickly and see House Bill 1427 as a compromise.
Caraveo pointed toward Colorado’s highest-in-the-nation rate for youth vaping. Studies have found 27% of youth in Colorado are vaping. She also noted that after the federal government last raised the tax on tobacco products in 2009, studies found that smoking dropped especially among people who live below the federal poverty line.
For the first two and a half years, money generated by the tax would go straight to the state’s general fund. In the third year, the funds would go toward other programs, including for free hours of preschool for Colorado children, said Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat.
The holdup could be the Colorado Senate, where Democrats last year rejected a similar measure out of fears that the tax change would disproportionately affect low-income Coloradans. It’s not clear if there are enough votes in the chamber for it to succeed.
VaccinesThe longest filibuster in the final week came on a bill aimed at strengthening Colorado’s immunization rates.
The measure creates a standardized form that parents would have to get signed by a medical professional in order to exempt school children from vaccines. In lieu of a signature, parents could watch an online educational video and print out a certificate to show their school office.
One of the most contentious parts of the legislation is the creation of a statewide database that public health officials could use for contact tracing in case of an outbreak – meaning they could alert someone who was not vaccinated that they were exposed to measles, for example. Still, parents could opt out of the database.
Debate on the bill lasted for hours in the House, but the filibuster began long before that. Republican lawmakers used stall tactics – including listing the names of seeds, talking about crop rotation and telling war stories – on other bills as they worked to come up with a compromise on the vaccine measure.
In the gallery above the House, parents wearing masks gathered to watch. When the measure finally passed, one mom shouted, “We will vote you out!”
Senate Bill 163 still needs to go back to the Senate, and it’s unclear whether that chamber of the legislature will keep a major, GOP-supported amendment the House made to the bill. The amendment to add a so-called “petition clause” would allow opponents of the vaccine policy to ask voters to repeal it in 2022 if they can collect the more than 124,000 signatures needed over the next 90 days to get it on the ballot.
Fenberg, the Senate Majority leader, suggested on Tuesday that the petition clause may not remain. Given the pandemic and the need to ensure there isn’t an outbreak of an existing disease, many feel the measure needs to go into effect as soon as possible.
“I don’t know how much of an appetite there is to kick this to an election,” Fenberg said.
If the Senate does pull out the petition clause, it would likely only serve to drag out the controversy around the bill and potentially lead to more Republican delay tactics.
The police accountability billIn the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis last month, Democrats in the legislature introduced a wide-ranging law enforcement accountability bill.
The measure would require all law enforcement agencies to outfit their officers with body cameras, report a long list of data to the state, make it easier to sue officers in their individual capacities and change the legal standards around which police can use deadly force.
At first, Republicans were opposed. But after a series of changes many GOP lawmakers are now supportive of Senate Bill 217. Others are warning that the legislation is too rushed.
Because the legislation is so impactful, it has been the subject of fierce and emotional debate.
The policy is also a moving target. It was amended 13 times just on Wednesday night, as debate went on until midnight.
The bill has passed the Senate and is making its way through the House.