DENVER — The 2021 legislative session kicked off Wednesday with state lawmakers eager to provide more COVID-19 relief for businesses and families.
The start of the session will be unusual this year: the legislature will gavel in for roughly three days to work on fixes to some of the legislation passed during the special session and then adjourn for a month.
Lawmakers will then resume their regular work in mid-February.
The month recess is in response to the state’s current COVID-19 numbers. Democrats say they will use the time to hold town halls and hammer down their priorities for the session.
Denver7 went 360 to speak with multiple groups about what the focuses of the 2021 session need to be.
What started as a session of hope and big ideas for Democrats last year ended with an abrupt change of pace due to COVID-19 and the swift death of dozens of bills.
A special session in November gave lawmakers time to pass a package of bills focused on pandemic response.
During a pre-session press conference Monday, the democratic leadership said it expects the pandemic to, once again, play a big role in legislation this time around.
“I think you’ll see a lot of bills come back that are really focused on small business recovery, very focused on low wage workers who have been disproportionately impacted by this economic slowdown and turn down,” said House Speaker Rep. Alec Garnett.
Garnett also expects some of the bills that died last year to come back but admits there may be some big changes.
“I think you’ll see us really stay focused on what we’re hearing most from the voters, what we heard most from voters coming into the 2020 session, which is health care costs are too high, people continue to worry about our aging infrastructure, people are very nervous about small businesses and how to make ends meet,” Garnett said.
Senate President Leroy Garcia is also keenly aware of the struggles businesses are facing and wants to help.
“You’re going to see us continue to focus on mental health, substance abuse, supporting small businesses,” Garcia said.
He’s also interested in focusing on legislation that will help address education and mental health needs.
However, the Democrats have not yet laid out their exact list of priorities for the year since many consider the true start of the session more than a month away. They’re expecting to hold a press conference closer to Feb. 16 to outline their list of priorities.
Something Garcia said he doesn’t want to see, though, is political grandstanding.
“Our time should not be wasted on political bickering and differences like we’ve seen in Washington DC. We really are expected, especially now with all the challenges that are being presented, to stand up and read and implement and pass meaningful legislation,” Garcia said.
Republicans also believe the COVID-19 pandemic will play a major role in the 2021 session.
House Minority Leader Rep. Hugh McKean expects several bills Republicans introduced during the special session and died to come back this year.
“We want to make sure that wait staff, that people who depend on gratuities for their income, don’t have to pay income tax on their gratuities during this time,” McKean said.
He’s also looking at ways to help small businesses and the Colorado economy recover.
McKean is also hesitant to bring up big regulation reforms that could further damage industries that are already struggling, like oil and gas.
“We need to not try to run a whole lot of groundbreaking legislation because we need to find out what the last groundbreaking legislation is going to do and how it is going to move through the economy,” McKean said.
In particular, he is watching closely to see how Senate Bill 181 dealing with oil and gas operations in the state from the 2019 legislative session is affecting the industry during tough economic times.
Something else McKean will be paying particular attention to in this session is money.
“Where is the money going to come from? Because the challenge is that last year, we had a really tough budget year. We had to cut back a lot we had to make sure we had enough money to keep the state running,” McKean said.
After an unprecedented pause in the session last year due to COVID-19, when lawmakers returned to the Capitol, the creed was to pass legislation that were fast, friendly and free.
“Bills had to come in that were ready to go, and they were good for both sides and that seriously didn’t cost any money. Well, we found out that that was just an utter lie. When we came back in, they killed all of our bills, and then they ran bills that were not fast, not friendly and not free,” McKean said.
This time around, McKean said Republicans will be much more critical of how the majority depicts the state’s financial situation.
For education groups, the plea for the 2021 session comes down to a single word: funding.
“We are woefully underfunded in public education here in Colorado and we have been experiencing for over a decade plus what that means for our school systems,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association (CEA).
Baca-Oehlert said the pandemic did not create a lot of the issues that the state’s education systems are currently facing, but it did exacerbate them.
In particular, she would like to see more done to address the digital divide among student and help families have equal access to the internet.
“We have many of our students who have what’s called the homework gap because when they leave our schools during the day, they don’t have the access to the technology and to the Internet to do their homework at night,” Baca-Oehlert said.
Beyond that, CEA would like to see more resources provided to address class size, barriers for students in communities of color and mental health.
“I do believe that the state as well as our local school districts have a role in ensuring that our schools are a safe and welcoming place for all students,” Baca-Oehlert said.
If there’s one thing the pandemic has served as a reminder of it’s the importance of health.
“What we have seen through this pandemic as it has highlighted a lot of the gaps in our health system and how precarious it could be when someone is relying on employer-based insurance and then all the sudden that evaporates through no fault of their own,” said Adam Fox, the deputy director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative.
Health care groups are also hoping to get some of their priorities passed during the 2021 legislative session.
Last year, dozens of bills dealing with health care were introduced but then sidelined during the pandemic, including a public option bill.
Fox expects some of those bills to be revived with new legislation this year.
“The public health insurance option has the opportunity to create more affordable coverage Coloradans and really bring down costs of care and that is what we hear consistently from people,” Fox said.
Fox would also like to see legislation that focuses on controlling prescription drug prices when it comes to out-of-pocket costs, as well as the costs to the health care system.
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) is also hoping for more funding during the 2021 legislative session.
With more families staying home over the course of the pandemic and fewer people on the roads, CDOT saw a drop in gas tax revenue but was able to receive some federal help through stimulus spending.
The Governor’s budget has also proposed $200 million in state stimulus funds for transportation.
“The faster we can stabilize funding through both federal and state sources, the more of these projects we can put out,” said Shoshana Lew, the executive director of CDOT.
Along with focusing on the governor’s 10-year plan to fix Colorado roads, Lew said something that has stemmed out of the pandemic, in particular, is the need to help communities use main streets to support businesses.
Many communities have blocked off some streets in order to allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining to stay afloat during COVID-19 restrictions.
Lew sid she’s looking forward to working with the legislature to continue to find ways like this to support communities.
“Really doubling down on these investments and Main Street to make sure that we have a concerted focus in helping communities across the state keep their main streets vibrant,” Lew said.
Something else on CDOT’s legislative wish list is to increase the size limits on simple projects they can do themselves without maintenance forces.
“This is an issue that is actually particularly salient to the rural areas because very small projects in remote areas are sometimes hard to put on the commercial market. Increasing the cap on what our folks are allowed to do for those communities to help with simple repairs is sometimes the only way to get those projects done,” Lew said.
Unusual session, varying priorities
From the start, the 2021 session is already shaping up to be an unusual one. Lawmakers are starting the session by focusing on COVID-specific legislation and fixes to laws that are already in place before moving on to their legislative priorities in February.
With another tight budget expected and a suffering Colorado economy, the legislative wish list is long and just about everyone has an option on what the focus of the session should be,
It will be up to lawmakers to find a balance between the various wish lists, the needs of the state and the realities of Colorado’s economic situation in approving new legislation.