One day after insisting they would continue working through the spread of coronavirus, Colorado legislative leaders shifted course on Friday, drawing up a resolution that would recess the session after work is completed on Saturday until March 30.
The break is unprecedented and may cost legislators two weeks out of the maximum 120 days they can meet under the state constitution. In addition to drawing up a resolution that will be voted upon by the full House and Senate tomorrow, the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council drew up an interrogatory that will be sent to the Supreme Court asking if the 120-day limit applies to time when the Legislature is out of session during a declared public-health emergency or whether it applies only to days when legislators meet during the emergency.
The decision will throw into further chaos the largest and most unresolved issues of the legislative session, including the yet-to-be-introduced proposal to create guaranteed paid family and medical leave for private-sector workers and a transportation-funding package that has not reached bill form for lack of consensus. But House Speaker K.C. Becker, D-Boulder, said that stepping away from daily proceedings at the Capitol for two weeks also will give some certainty to officials who did not know how anything would move at a time when cultural institutions and professional sports leagues are shutting down in order to create social distancing between people and try to stop the transmission of the deadly disease that has sickened 72 people in Colorado and taken one life as of midday Friday.
House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, acknowledged that the suspension of the legislative session – an option that Democratic leaders said they were not ready to take as recently as Thursday morning in a caucus meeting – is a reaction to how quickly things are changing around Denver and Colorado.
“I think that in light of the rapidly spreading cases of coronavirus, or COVID-19, this is the right step to take,” Garnett said.
The next two weeks were scheduled to be heavy weeks of debate in putting together the $31 billion state budget, as well as a period in which advocates of a paid-family-leave program were expected to introduce their bill and backers of a public-option health insurance were planning to move forward their plan, which advanced out of its first committee late Wednesday.
Taking a break will allow the state’s budget drafters to soak in two more weeks of information about how drastically the coronavirus spread will impact the state’s economy and drain expected funds from its coffers in the next fiscal year, Becker remarked on Friday.
Whether legislators must rush through all of the needed bills in two fewer days will be determined by the state’s highest court. A constitutional amendment approved by voters limits the session to 120 days and specifies a designated end date annually (which is May 6 for 2020), but state statutes appear to contradict that by saying that the 120 days can be non-consecutive when a public health emergency is declared, as Gov. Jared Polis did on Tuesday.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, emphasized that the decision to take a break regardless of whether the Legislature can get back the last two weeks is not a political one. If the Legislature continued in its business, citizens would feel the need to come down and testify for or against bills the House and Senate were considering, endangering the public health as they did so.
“This is not about trying to burn the clock, run down the clock. This is doing what’s right for the people of Colorado,” said Holbert, whose caucus members oppose several major Democratic efforts that were recently introduced or have yet to be introduced this session. “People come here because they want to advocate for and against legislation. If we’re not here, there’s no reason for people to come.”