Colorado Democrats unveil details of their coronavirus alleviation prepare for the special legal session

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Statehouse Democrats on Sunday unveiled eight coronavirus relief bills they will prioritize during Colorado’s special legislative session, which begins Monday and will run at least three days. 

The legislation, much of it bipartisan, includes direct payments to small businesses, tax forgiveness, grants for child care centers and money to expand broadband access. 

The aid, which is constrained by the state’s budget, totals about $200 million and is aimed at providing a bridge until a much larger congressional stimulus measure is approved. Lawmakers concede that the money isn’t a silver bullet, and business leaders say it’s unlikely to revive businesses that are on the brink of demise. 

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“The amount the Colorado state government can do to alleviate the burdens of struggling communities is limited,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said in a written statement. “But it’s not nothing.”

There’s also an additional $100 million in spending related to Colorado’s public health response.

Republicans in the legislature are expected to introduce measures of their own during the extraordinary lawmaking term, though they are in the minority at the Capitol and thus would need significant support from Democrats to pass anything through. It’s also possible other Democratic pieces of legislation could be introduced. 

Here’s a look at the details of the policy in the eight priority bills heading into Monday:


Payments for small businesses and artists

The largest piece of legislation, in terms of scope and relief dollars, that Democrats have planned for the special session centers around direct payments to small businesses that have been hit hardest by coronavirus capacity restrictions. 

The bill would provide $37 million in direct relief to restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses that have been unable to reopen or severely hurt by mandates aimed at slowing the disease’s spread. Businesses like retail stores, which have been able to keep their doors mostly open, would not have access to the aid.

“This is not going to be enough money to help everyone,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is spearheading the legislation. “But it’s the money we have.”

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To be eligible, a business must be able to prove at least a 10% revenue loss since March 26 and have an annual income of less than $2.5 million. Payments are capped at $7,000, based on revenue. 

Here are the details:

  • An eligible business with annual revenue of less than $500,000 can receive up to $3,500
  • An eligible business with annual revenue of more than $500,000 but less than $1 million can receive up to $5,000
  • An eligible business with annual revenue of more than $1 million but less than $2.5 million can receive up to $7,000

Just because a business is eligible to receive a certain amount of money, however, doesn’t mean they would receive the full amount. The program would not simply be distributed on a first-come,-first-served basis. Instead, the money will be doled out with need taken into consideration.

The plan is to run the application and payment process out of counties, which in many cases already have mechanisms in place to handle the funds because they distributed federal aid earlier this year. Small counties with limited resources could ask the state for help.

“We’re working out the details today,” Winter said on Sunday. 

Counties that are under Colorado’s red- or purple-level coronavirus restrictions, as laid out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, would get the relief money first. Counties that are in compliance with state public health orders would also be prioritized. Weld County’s commissioners, for instance, have vowed not to enforce state mandates.

MORE: Weld County commissioners say they won’t enforce new coronavirus restrictions

Tony Gagliardi, who leads the National Federation of Independent Business’ branch in Colorado, said he’s concerned about the requirement in the bill that a county be in compliance with state public health orders to access the money.  

“It sounds like it’s a shot at Weld County,” Gagliardi said. “You’re penalizing the small businesses because of actions by the county commissioners that are out of their hands.”

Gagliardi says “we’re at a point where anything will help,” but he’s not sure if the money will be enough to help businesses on the brink of closure.

“That’s going to be a question in almost every one of these bills,” he said of the special legislative session. “Is it too little too late?”

This bill also includes the following:

  • An additional $7.5 million for artists to be managed and distributed by a nonprofit or nonprofits
  • An additional $6.775 million on aid to local governments with the idea that it would allow them to waive business and licensing fees
  • $1.8 million in waived state business and licensing fees 
Friends enjoy wine and a meal inside one of the greenhouse buildings created for dining use during the coronavirus pandemic at the Annette Restaurant at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sales tax relief for restaurants and bars

Another bill lawmakers will consider during the special legislative session would allow restaurants and bars to keep up to $2,000 in the 2.9% in state sales taxes they are required to collect per month for four months.

A restaurant or bar would have to make about $70,000 in monthly revenue to realize the full benefit, which means that most establishments will receive far less than $2,000 in monthly relief. 

A restaurant operator can claim the benefit for up to five sites for a total monthly relief of $10,000. 

Teocalli Cocina bartender Tim Knight prepares a to-go cocktail on June 3, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Some restaurateurs last week expressed disappointment at the tax relief, which is expected to total about $50 million, saying it won’t be enough to make a real difference. 

MORE: Will Colorado’s special legislative session save restaurants? “Probably not,” industry leader says.

“Restaurants making below $70,000 will also benefit, as they’ll get to keep whatever sales tax is collected, even if that’s just $1,000 or $1,500,” said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Is that going to save a restaurant from the brink? Probably not. But that extra cash may allow a restaurant to pay a portion of their third-party delivery fees, upgrade their contactless payment, or heat their patio – so it definitely has potential to be very helpful.”

Legislative leaders say they recognize the tax relief isn’t much, but it’s what they can do within the constraints of Colorado’s limited state budget. They hope that, paired with the direct payments legislation, the aid will be enough to help restaurants and bars weather the next few months.

Aid for renters and homeowners

Lawmakers will also debate legislation that would provide $50 million in emergency housing assistance to renters and homeowners. 

The majority of the money, $45.5 million, would go toward an emergency rental assistance program created by the legislature several months ago and run by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. That program offers aid to landlords whose tenants can’t or didn’t pay their rent and to renters who make below a certain monthly household income. 

Another $5 million will be distributed through nonprofits to people who are able to prove financial need due to the pandemic. The money can be used to help people pay overdue rent and mortgage payments.

Another $500,000 will go toward providing legal representation for people facing eviction.

“It is important to me that the funds be as flexible as possible, because a staggering number — over 40% of Coloradans — have struggled to make their rent or mortgage payments,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. “I’m also really clear that this money is critically important but won’t be enough. This is simply meant to be a bridge until Congress acts.”

A Clayton Early Learning student gets her temperature taken with hand sanitizer nearby for members of the school community to use. (Scott Dressel Martin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Help for child care operators 

The legislature will also weigh a measure to provide $45 million in relief to child care facilities that have been hit hard by the pandemic. The money would be split between two programs run by the Colorado Department of Human Services — one aimed at keeping facilities open and another aimed at helping them expand their offerings.

The money would start being distributed on Jan. 31.

For the program to keep child care centers open, $35 million would be made available. Facilities could apply for up to $35,000. The Department of Human Services would be tasked with developing an application and vetting process, as well as with creating a system of deciding how much a facility should get depending on its need and size.

MORE: How Colorado’s special legislative session could help child care providers and remote learners

The expansion program would get $8.75 million and facilities could apply for up to $50,000 to be spent on things like staff training, employee background check fees, cleaning supplies, educational supplies, and capital and facility improvement costs.

The idea behind the expansion program is to help fill gaps created by the closure of facilities because of pandemic-related economic difficulties.

Other aid bills

The four other priority aid bills that will be run by Democrats would do the following:

  • Provide $20 million toward increasing Colorado’s broadband capacity, specifically for students who are learning remotely
  • Devote $3 million to replenishing food pantries
  • Offer $5 million to a nonprofit, Energy Outreach Colorado, that helps low-income people pay their utility bills
  • Dedicate $100 million to the state’s public health response. The spending would come in anticipation of the money being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency
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