A short list of takeaways on the three-day special session, which concluded just 42 days before the General Assembly returns to the Gold Dome on Jan. 13:
If it didn’t come from a Democrat, don’t even try it.
One-party control under the Gold Dome stood out like Fourth of July fireworks this week. A total of 35 bills and resolutions were introduced on Monday, with 10 making it to the finish line on Wednesday. Those all had Democratic sponsors, and most, but not all, had bipartisan sponsorship.
Many Republicans were understandably frustrated by the lack of consideration for the bills they attempted to introduce in this week’s three-day special session.
But a bill with only Republicans attached was destined for the dustbin, including bills from Republicans known for their ability to work across the aisle.
The same applied to relief ideas that didn’t fit within the governor’s viewpoint.
Case in point: an amendment to add $3 million to Senate Bill 1, the small business relief bill that could direct $57 million to restaurants, bars, minority- and women-owned businesses and cultural organizations.
At first, the Senate Appropriations Committee willingly signed off on the amendment, which would assist the National Western Stock Show and other ag-related events, such as Greeley's annual Farm Show. The amendment passed unanimously on the 10-member committee.
But its passage prompted scurrying from the governor’s office and his legislative director, David Oppenheim, who Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said rallied votes against the amendment, including from the senator whose district includes the stock show, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver.
During second reading on the bill Monday evening, SB1 sponsor Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, asked the Senate to reject the committee report in order to kill Sonnenberg’s amendment. Winter said she and Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson and the bill’s co-sponsor, are committed to helping ag industries, and look forward to further conversations with Sonnenberg on how to do that. “But the spirit of this bill has been that these monies are made competitive, and we didn’t feel comfortable calling out” a single entity, such as the stock show. She also noted the bill is intended to help businesses affected by capacity restrictions.
The Senate rejected the committee report and added back the other amendments that had been approved by the appropriations committee, except for the one related to ag.
When the bill reached the House, the finance committee added to the list of cultural organizations that could apply for funding motion picture and TV industry entities.
It was that addition, and the bill’s requirement that businesses that want help must be in counties that comply with public health orders, that set off Republicans throughout the three days.
“This whole thing was orchestrated so that the legislature would ratify the governor’s agenda,” Sonnenberg said. “Any problems that arose were not dealt with. We are dealing with a governor who hates rural Colorado."
“They [lawmakers] intentionally said we need a hammer to get the rest of the state to comply” with state public health orders, Sonnenberg added. “It doesn’t matter that all of these businesses for six months complied 100% and did everything they could to follow directions to flatten the curve for a couple of months.”
To deny 1% for ag events, “which are huge economic drivers in those counties? We’re not going to give any money [to rural Colorado] that doesn’t, by God, bend down and kiss his ring!” Sonnenberg added.
On the other hand, a special session might not be the best place for message bills
Among the bills introduced by House Republicans, four — count ‘em, four — had the same title: “Tax Credits for Costs of COVID-19 School Closures.”
The bills were sponsored by, in order: House Assistant Minority Leader Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch; Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs; Rep. Kim Ransom of Littleton and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock. The bills were seen by Democrats as an attempt to provide tax credits to families whose children attend private schools, and all met a quick demise in the House's State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Monday.
State Affairs, often referred to as the “kill” committee, was true to its name: all six bills from Republicans that came through the committee Monday were promptly postponed on party-line votes.
Message bills, part two: Attempts to rein in the governor’s authority on the pandemic also went, unsurprisingly, nowhere.
It wasn't the "welcome home" kind of session
The beginning of a legislative session (and this is the THIRD TIME THIS YEAR that a session has started anew) is kind of a “welcome home” type of event.
This was not that kind of session. Tensions boiled over on several days.
Monday, it was over who wore a mask and who didn’t (mostly House Republicans), Rep. Larry Liston’s wearing a mask on his scalp instead of his face, which drew criticism both inside the Capitol and outside of it, and a scandal over a House GOP staffer who allegedly was positive for COVID-19 and promptly booted out of the Capitol by Speaker of the House KC Becker.
On Monday and Wednesday, Rep.-elect Ron Hanks, a Penrose Republican, sat on one of the benches on the Republican side of the House, which raised eyebrows among Democrats, because he wasn’t wearing a mask and is largely unknown to the other side of the aisle.
He isn’t anymore. Wednesday, Hanks was talking a bit too loudly with House members during third reading of bills (that’s a BIG no-no, even in the House), and eventually was “encouraged” (strongly) by Becker and the sergeants to leave the chamber. A Colorado State Patrol officer camped outside the chamber for a while after.
Hanks’ departure was followed shortly after by remarks from Democratic Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield, to compliment Hanks’ predecessor, term-limited Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, for Wilson’s respectful listening to every minute of debate.
Wilson — the former teacher, principal and superintendent — was attending virtually and was unaware that Hanks was the one causing the commotion.
“The rules are simple: on third readings, sit in your seat and listen,” Wilson said, in a message that was part admonishment and part motivational speech. He suggested that if members have not learned to respect the rules, they should do so before the next General Assembly convenes in January.
“I believe the behavior in this chamber has fallen far short of adult behavior,” said Wilson, urging his colleagues to be statesmen and stateswomen and to remember that “the people of Colorado are watching.”
Wilson told Colorado Politics later that he was unaware that Hanks, his successor, had caused the problems, but said that his remarks stand — for everyone.
Despite everything, a lot got done and pretty darn quickly
In 22 years of covering the Capitol, this reporter has never seen this many bills passed in just three days. The bills that passed — eight that specifically addressed the governor's call, and two more that Democrats pushed to make changes to previous measures tied to the pandemic — moved like they were part of a Black Friday sale.
Remote participation worked pretty well
More than one-quarter of the 100 members of the General Assembly participated remotely, a record. That included a high of 14 in the House and a dozen in the Senate.
Lawmakers and the governor all say the $300 million package — which sounds like a lot of money — is far short of the assistance Coloradans need to weather the pandemic through the winter and until a vaccine is available to the majority of Coloradans. They continue to call on Congress to step up with an aid package, although negotiations in Washington are happening only in fits and starts.