Colorado lawmakers thin down need that areas follow coronavirus limitations to get aid

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Colorado’s three-day special legislative session finished Wednesday with lawmakers watering down one of the most contentious parts of their $200 million-plus package aimed at providing economic relief during the coronavirus crisis. 

The Democratic-led General Assembly initially excluded businesses from being eligible for direct government aid if they were located in counties that refused to comply with public health mandates from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration. 

But a last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 1 extended the $37 million in relief to businesses in cities that adhere to the state regulations, as well as those within a mile, even if the cities are in a county that refuses to follow the regulations.

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Republican lawmakers balked at the restrictions for aid dollars and struck a deal with Democrats to soften the approach to force counties to follow the guidelines. The move will spare some businesses located in Weld County, where commissioners have vowed to flout the state’s public health orders. The opponents of the bill argued the county was targeted by the compliance clause.

“I believe this amendment is essential to provide protections for businesses that are following public health orders and really want to continue to thrive,” said Rep. Mary Young, a Democrat who represents Greeley, the largest city in Weld County.

The legislation is the marquee relief measure for the special session and will be accessible to restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and more businesses with less than $2.5 million in annual revenue. The small business relief program can provide up to $7,000 in a one-time payment to those that qualify. To be eligible, businesses must have lost at least 20% of their revenue since March 26, when the state’s first stay-at-home order was issued.

Also, the bill provides $7.5 million through grants to struggling artists and sets aside $4 million for direct payments to minority-owned businesses. 

Colorado State representatives and staff mingle in the Colorado State Capitol’s House chamber during the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Despite the late change, the bill continued to draw opposition from some Republican lawmakers for its limited scope and coercive intent.

“I think we open ourselves up to just criticism that we are picking winners and losers in this,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, in voting against Senate Bill 1. “When we limit who has access to these recovery funds — whether it’s based on the color of your skin, or what industry you’re in, what minority status you’re in — I think that’s not our role. I think our role is to look out for all Coloradans, all taxpayers. I think we fail to do that in this bill.”

In the House, the legislation became a proxy for a debate on the merit of the governor’s orders to limit capacity or shut down certain businesses that can’t meet the requirements. The debate struck a bitter tone in the final moments of the special session.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers’ coronavirus aid plans include distributing $22.5 million in taxpayer money through nonprofits

“The government has created the problem these small businesses are now facing,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, the former Republican leader from Castle Rock, a city that is refusing to comply. “Now we are here saying, ‘Oh, the state is going to help them out.’”

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the extension of the benefits made the bill better but it is still punitive. He encouraged more localities and businesses to defy the state’s public health orders.  

“We have come to the point where we are beginning to see the bubbling of soft tyranny,” he said. 

The Colorado House chambers on the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Williams continued: “I do believe there should be more counties and municipalities and businesses that do engage in civil disobedience. There are people going out of business — not mainly because of COVID but because of the orders being imposed upon them.”

The remark led to a rebuke from Rep. Cathy Kipp, who said it was irresponsible to ask people to rebel against public health orders. She compared it to the decisions by some Republican lawmakers not to wear masks at the Capitol and endanger their colleagues and staff.

“I am not going to tolerate people encouraging the type of civil disobedience that will cost lives,” the Democrat from Fort Collins said. “That is not OK.”

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What else passed during the special session

Polis — who recently tested positive for COVID-19 — called lawmakers back to the Capitol in the middle of the pandemic for a special term focused on economic relief rather than health care issues. 

In addition to small business aid, the Democratic governor pushed efforts to reopen the economy by providing targeted payments to child care facilities as a way to help parents get back to work. 

Other legislation provided tax breaks for restaurants and bars and more money for food pantries. In total, lawmakers approved 10 bills before adjourning midday Wednesday.

In addition to Senate Bill 1, the legislation headed to the governor’s desk includes:

  • Senate Bill 2: Provides $54 million to the state’s housing relief grant program, $5 million to nonprofits to aid people living in the U.S. illegally with economic hardships, and $1 million to an eviction legal defense fund.
  • Senate Bill 3: Allocates $5 million to Energy Outreach Colorado to help Coloradans struggling to pay utility bills because of the coronavirus crisis.
  • Senate Bill 4: Transfers $100 million from the state budget to the coffers from which Polis is pulling to cover Colorado’s public health response to the pandemic.
  • House Bill 1001: Sends $20 million to a grant program that school districts can tap into to expand high-speed internet access for students.
  • House Bill 1002: Spends $45 million on two grant programs to help child care facilities stay open and expand.
  • House Bill 1003: Gives $5 million to food pantries to replenish their stock.
  • House Bill 1004: Allows restaurants and bars with up to $70,000 a month in revenue to keep sales taxes they would normally have to pay to the state for November, December, January and February.
  • House Bill 1005: Permits local governments to limit the fees that third-party food delivery service providers, like GrubHub, may charge a restaurant.
  • House Bill 1006: Authorizes insurance companies to pay lower quarterly estimated tax payments, though they must still pay the full amount at a later date. 

A number of other measures were rejected during the special session, including efforts by Republicans to place checks on the governor’s emergency powers and to provide direct relief to parents whose children have been forced to learn remotely because of the pandemic.

One notable measure that failed aimed to fix a mistake that lawmakers made earlier this year during the regular session when a bill inadvertently repealed the regulations for occupational therapists. A new measure to recreate the rules failed in an apparent disagreement between Democratic leaders.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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