The state legislature typically meets from mid-January through mid May of each year. When the need arises, however, the governor can call them into a special session to address specific needs. With federal gridlock, COVID-19 numbers surging, small businesses closing, and unemployment still high, Governor Polis decided there were too many pressing issues to wait until January; the legislature met from November 30 through December 2. While Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s office, the majority of bills were bipartisan, with the more partisan moments having less to do with policy and more to do with face coverings.
House District 4 Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez supported the Governor’s move to call the legislature in early. “If we wait until January it won’t happen fast enough,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez in an interview with The Denver North Star just before the session began. “We want to make sure people have the relief they need.” In a follow-up conversation after the session she said she believed it was a productive three days resulting in meaningful bills.
One bill of particular interest to many small businesses was sponsored by North Denver House District 5 Representative Alex Valdez. Bill HB20B-1004 was a bipartisan Highland neighborhood and Highlands Ranch effort, co-sponsored by Douglas County Republican Kevin Van Winkle and allows bars, restaurants, food trucks, and similar businesses to keep up to $2000 in sales tax they collect each month, up to a total of $8,000. Valdez explained that members were working in pods by their expertise and he was “really intensively looking at the small business side of things.” Valdez hopes the additional funds help keep more small businesses open.
One of the largest bills was sponsored by North Denver SD34 Senator Julie Gonzales and kept the Denver-Douglas county bipartisan cooperation going with cosponsorship from Republican Chris Holbert. The bill allotted $60 million to families impacted by COVID-19, with $54 million going toward rental and mortgage assistance, including allowing landlords to file with tenants on their behalf. $1 million for an eviction defense fund, and another $5 million will go to a “Workers Left Behind Fund” for Coloradans who are not eligible for federal stimulus or other support. That last category includes undocumented Coloradans, which makes the bipartisan support more noteworthy. Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez had a hand in that bill as well, and praised her senate colleagues for its inclusiveness. “Whether you’re documented or not, you’re a person. You’re suffering what everyone else is suffering in the pandemic.”
Other bills include
- $57 million to small businesses impacted by the pandemic, including $37 million in direct payments of up to $7000 per business.
- $5 million to utility companies for the express purpose of keeping power going to low income families who are behind on payments.
- $45 million to help licensed childcare providers stay operational.
- $20 million for a grant program to help the estimated 65,000+ Coloradans who don’t have high speed or any internet at home (including some with children attempting remote learning).
- $5 million for food bank and pantry assistance.
- Allowing local governments to regulate fees charged by food delivery services such as GrubHub or UberEats. While Denver, as a home rule city, has already limited fees in an attempt to help restaurants and other small businesses, other cities and counties were not yet able to do so.
Governor Polis, who tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before the session began and has been isolated at home, released a statement about what he also sees as a productive three days and reiterated his call for the federal government to do more. “The bipartisan efforts achieved this week will help folks get through the challenging months ahead. I’m thrilled we are acting now as a state to improve internet access for students and educators, give a much needed boost to child care providers, provide a lifeline for small businesses and restaurants through tax relief and assistance, and bridge the gap on rent, utilities and food pantry programs for Coloradans who have been hit the hardest,” said Gov. Polis. “But we know there is more work to be done and we continue to urge Washington to take action and give Coloradans the support we need to get through these tougher times and build back stronger.”
While the policies may have had bipartisan spirit, the culture of the special session didn’t always. Despite both legal mask mandates and legislative guidelines, a number of Republican legislators refused to wear masks during the session, including one who wore his mask on top of his head, appearing to mock Democratic colleagues. A Republican staff member who had recently tested positive for COVID-19 came to work anyway despite guidelines, and one future member, who will be sworn in in January, had to be evicted from the chamber for refusing to wear a mask (the special session brought back legislators from the previous session, not those who only recently won election and will start in January. Some incoming legislators attended to watch but did not participate). While legislative rules have requirements on attire, the mask requirement was interestingly separate from the requirement to wear professional clothing such as a coat and tie, which are generally enforced.
The legislature is expected to convene for a regular session in January.