Even in a public health crisis, Colorado lawmakers need to pass a budget

Under the dome at the Colorado State Capitol. (Photo by Erica Meltzer, Chalkbeat Colorado)

Leaders in the Colorado General Assembly say they’re committed to passing key budget legislation as soon as possible, even though they are not sure when the legislature will reconvene.

“The reality is that we have to pass a budget. We have to pass a school finance act,” Speaker of the House K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, said. “There are many bills that go along with the budget that have to be passed. And a lot of that has to be done soon because school districts, higher ed, a lot of groups that get money from the state have to do their budgets and know what their impacts are.”

The Colorado Supreme Court gave the Democrats that control the state legislature a key victory this week by ruling that lawmakers can meet past May 6, when the legislature was originally scheduled to adjourn. The state constitution gives lawmakers 120 days to get their work done. Republicans argued that should be interpreted as 120 consecutive days and the session should adjourn May 6 no matter what. Democrats argued that in an emergency, that could be 120 calendar days, even if there is a long gap in the middle. There is no set date for the legislature to reconvene.

That doesn’t mean there are no time pressures. School districts are required to adopt final budgets by June 30, the end of the fiscal year, and they’re required to have their budgets available for public review for at least 30 days before that. If there’s no state budget by late May, it becomes much harder for school districts to meet those requirements.

Becker said even that requirement may need to be reconsidered, though changing it could require additional legislation.

“We’re in a very uncertain situation,” she said.

Lawmakers are looking at options for meeting remotely, and Becker even raised the possibility of obtaining personal protective equipment for legislators to meet in person. Right now, the state is scrambling to address a shortage of protective equipment for medical workers, and Becker acknowledged it may not be feasible for lawmakers to use it.

House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said there is no constitutional prohibition on meeting remotely but there are numerous practical and procedural challenges that need to be worked out. He said Democrats will work with members of the Republican minority on those details.

Lawmakers are already running well behind schedule amid an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. The state House was scheduled to take up the budget last week and the state Senate to consider it this week. Passing a balanced budget is the one act that Colorado lawmakers are constitutionally required to complete.

The legislature suspended the session on March 14 as concerns grew about the spread of the new coronavirus. Since then, at least one lawmaker has received a positive diagnosis for the virus and another is recovering from a different coronavirus that was initially mistaken for COVID-19. Colorado schools are closed at least through April 30, and the entire state is under a stay-at-home order at least through April 11. That order could be extended.

Public health authorities are counting on social distancing measures to buy time to build up capacity in the health care system to deal with what could be thousands of seriously ill patients.

At the same time, the economic fallout from business closures is creating significant uncertainty about how much money the state has to work with. Lawmakers also need more clarity about how much federal money Colorado will get and how it can be used.

Becker noted that the legislature, as a separate branch of government, is not bound by the stay-at-home order and could meet. However, legislators want to protect the health of staff members, the public, and themselves and are watching the situation carefully, she said.

“The reality is that we may end up being back in session even when the public health emergency is still in place,” Becker said.


Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on April 2, 2020. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.