After taking a month off because of the ongoing pandemic, the Colorado Legislature will come back into session on Tuesday, and leaders expect things to return to a relative normalcy.
That means that just about everything is on the table that had been nixed during last year’s truncated session, when lawmakers set aside nearly 300 bills that didn’t have anything to do with the COVID-19 pandemic or the state’s devastated economy.
Still, legislative leaders said their main focus will continue to concentrate on helping the state recover from the pandemic, including finding new ways to help businesses and residents get back on their feet.
“You’re going to see us coming out of the gate really focused on building back, focused on our economy, focused on anything that we can do with one-time dollars to help small businesses, families and communities across the state,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “Obviously, there are a lot of other issues that Coloradans continue to talk to legislators about: rising health care costs, concerns about the climate and other things. We’re going to try to balance all of that during the session.”
Garnett said that while the state still is waiting to see what new COVID-19 relief bill comes out of Congress, a measure that is expected to provide direct financial aid to state and local governments, that won’t stop them from doing whatever lawmakers can with state money to help in the recovery.
Much of that is based on a $1.3 billion stimulus plan released by Gov. Jared Polis in November, before the Legislature met in a special session to approve short-term proposals aimed at helping businesses recover faster, and displaced Coloradans pay for such things as rent, food and health care.
The governor said he’s hoping to target things the federal government isn’t, such as revitalizing downtowns and helping to boost broadband to unserved or underserved areas of the state, particularly in rural Colorado.
“We can invest in different areas, for instance, roads, infrastructure, shovel-ready projects,” Polis said Friday. “That’s a big part of creating jobs in Colorado today and building a lasting legacy of reducing traffic, increasing access to our mountain areas.
“The federal government has more resources, that’s why I’m supportive of their efforts to send people $1,400. That’s not something the state can do,” he added. “What we’re doing here is Colorado-specific. How can we best, utilizing this one-time funding, invest in transformational concepts that can really help prepare Colorado for an even brighter future.”
Some of Polis’ proposals were completed during last December’s special session. During that three-day session, lawmakers approved 10 measures aimed at helping small businesses, increasing child care availability, improving broadband access for schools and providing aid in food, rent and utilities to those who are most in need.
Nine of those measures were funded by $228 million the Legislature managed to tuck away during last year’s regular session. The final one was for another $100 million aimed at paying continuing expenses for the state’s response to the public health crisis.
The governor said that money, and an additional $1 billion, had become available because lawmakers had dramatically trimmed Colorado’s budget last year because of the pandemic. But because the economy didn’t get as bad as previously thought, that money now is available to help boost the economy, with up to another $1 billion to be set aside in case things don’t improve as lawmakers expect.
Polis’ plan calls for one-time spending to help spur the economy, much of which is in infrastructure projects. For example, the plan calls for spending $220 million on “shovel-ready” public works and infrastructure projects, $160 million on broadband and $140 million for business growth and development.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, said one of the Legislature’s other main pieces of legislation that he hopes will get through is a major transportation funding bill, something that would focus on more sustainable revenue sources, but not one that would call for tax increases.
While the details of that proposed bill are still being worked out, Fenberg said that at least one part will include ensuring that electric vehicle owners and internet-based companies that are using the state’s roads more, such as Amazon and Uber, are paying their fair share.
“This is the year we’re going to get a big transportation package done,” he said. “It’s not going to solve the problem, but I think it’s very much going to move the ball significantly forward on future-proofing our revenue streams, but also future-proofing how we use our roads. It’s also getting some big projects moving that have been back-logged for a long time, but also thinking about how we expand our electrification and transit so we’re building a transportation system for the future rather than fixing the one of the past.”