Colorado lawmakers recess amid COVID-19 outbreak

Some lawmakers are wondering if they'll come back. With so much work left to do, others wonder if they have a choice

COVID-19
Lawmakers recessed for two weeks on March 14, 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. When they return, they'll face a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. (Photo by John Herrick)

Lawmakers cleaned out their desks and headed home Saturday afternoon after an unprecedented vote to recess Colorado’s legislature in an effort to protect public health amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

In many ways, the scene played out much like the end of the session, which this year is still nearly two months away. Lawmakers in jeans cast last-minute votes as they passed around boxes of donuts. 

The smell of hand sanitizer in the air was a reminder of why they are heading home for two weeks and, some fear, possibly far longer. 

“I’ve been a little anxious to get back to work,” said Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton who works as a pediatrician. “In two weeks, who knows where we’ll be. I’m afraid it will be worse.”

Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County, who works as a hospice nurse, said she has mixed feelings about suspending the session.

“I don’t want to leave. We were elected to get a job done. But as a healthcare professional, I’m taking it pretty seriously,” she said. She said she’s planning to return to work during the recess.

The break is the latest disruption as COVID-19 continues to spread across Colorado, the nation and the globe. Schools and universities are closing, office workers asked to work from home, and local agencies from libraries to courthouses are shutting down in an effort to increase social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19 so the state’s hospitals are not overwhelmed. Colorado’s latest tally of presumed positive COVID-19 cases hit 101 Saturday afternoon. 

Several lawmakers and state health officials acknowledged the disease will continue to spread before it gets better. On Friday, the highly infectious COVID-19 took its first life in Colorado – that of an El Paso County woman in her 80s.

Suspending the legislative session was not an easy decision for lawmakers, who have yet to pass the fiscal year 2020-21 state budget, which is needed to keep most state programs running smoothly past June 30.  

“It’s a Catch-22,” said Rep. Kyle Mullica of Northglenn, a nurse who was called in by the local emergency room to work next week. “We were elected to do the people’s work. But we have to make sure we’re protecting the people and not contributing to the problem.”  

“I think we’ll be back. I think we have to come back because we have to pass the budget,” said Jaquez Lewis. “I’m worried we won’t get to do the rest of it.” 

COVID-19
Lawmakers recessed for two weeks on March 14, 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by John Herrick)

The five-month session is at the half-way point. Aside from the state budget, which keeps the state’s government and K-12 schools running, other unfinished policy work for the Democratic majority includes passing the “Colorado option” health insurance plan, a paid family and medical leave program and two gun control measures. Notable achievements so far this session include repealing the death penalty with a bill that now awaits the governor’s signature, and a measure to transfer inmates out of private prisons and into state penitentiaries by authorizing the re-opening of a mothballed prison in Cañon City. 

The session is currently scheduled to adjourn on May 6, a timeline set by the Colorado Constitution. It’s unclear whether lawmakers will lose 14 days out of the 120-day session due to the recess. 

That’s why they also passed a resolution Saturday that sends a request to the Colorado Supreme Court to determine whether the 120-day clock will still toll on May 6 or if they will be able to tack time on at the end of the session, adjourning May 20 or later. If the court rules lawmakers must adjourn on May 6, then there could be a rush to get bills passed and those planned for a late introduction may be passed over. 

In the face of a public health crisis, lawmakers hoped that partisan politics wouldn’t get in the way of the state’s response to the coronavirus. 

But those hopes started to unravel on the Senate floor Saturday. Republican senators asked that the resolution for the two-week break be amended so that the GOP could, at taxpayers’ expense, argue in a brief to the Supreme Court to adjourn the session on May 6, without extra time tacked on at the end.

If the Supreme Court were to agree with Republicans’ request, it would almost certainly force lawmakers to triage some of their policy ideas in a late-session scrabble. 

“One hundred and twenty calendar days are ‘consecutive’ calendar days,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs who was backing the effort to have lawmakers adjourn on May 6. “It doesn’t really matter if we have a disaster or not.” 

The last-minute, hour-long debate frustrated some Democrats. After a huddle in the hall outside the Senate chamber, Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora, said “I’m done being close to people who may make me sick.” Democrats later voted the amendment down. 

COVID-19
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert and Senate President Leroy Garcia discuss an amendment to a bill dealing with how to count the 120 days of the legislative session. Lawmakers later recessed for two weeks on March 14, 2020, due to COVID-19. (Photo by John Herrick.)

At the end of the day, lawmakers were quick to pack up their desks and leave the building, which is notorious for its tight spaces. Their mood was somber and their humor dark. 

“See you Perry, have a good break. See you next year,” said Rep. Marc Snyder, of Manitou Springs. 

“I hope,” responded Rep. Perry Will of New Castle. 

Some lawmakers won’t be taking a break. For the next two weeks, members of the Joint Budget Committee will be writing the state’s $30-plus billion state budget. State analysts on Monday will release what is expected to be a grim quarterly revenue forecast. 

“We are anticipating that this crisis will have quite an effect on the state’s economy and on the state budget,” said Sen. Dominique Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. 

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, gave one of the final speeches on the Senate floor Saturday. 

“We will get through this. We will flatten the curve,” Gonzales said, referencing the effort to spread out the number of COVID-19 infections over time so as to not overwhelm medical staff and resources statewide. 

“While I encourage each of us to practice physical distancing,” she said, “social solidarity is what we will need most in the days ahead.”

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