The Story of the 2020 Legislative Session

The Story of the 2020 Legislative Session

Yesterday was the last day of the 2020 legislative session. Over the last few months, we found ourselves called to respond to an extraordinary set of challenges in addition to continuing last year’s progress on education, health care, environment, and other priorities. Not only did we face the most significant global pandemic of any of our lifetimes, but we also experienced a major focusing event in the civil rights movement with yet another murder of an innocent black man at the hands of law enforcement officers.

This is the story of what your state legislature did over the last six months to rise to the occasion and fight for the rights, freedoms, and well-being of every Coloradan. Buckle in; it’s a long one.

It started out as an ordinary session (not that any of them are all that ordinary). The economy was growing and we were expecting a TABOR surplus, which meant that some of the proceeds of the economic growth would have to be returned to taxpayers according to an archaic formula rather than reinvested in K-12 and higher education, transportation, mental health, affordable housing, environmental protection, criminal justice reform, and other state priorities. House and Senate Democrats opened the session with bills and budget discussions oriented around these priorities on which we had made such incredible progress in the 2019 session. And we were off to a pretty decent start.

But then, COVID-19 struck. There was talk around the capitol that the pandemic was much more serious than the ones that had arisen over the last few decades. I’ll admit, I was a little slow to recognize how serious it really was and I kept pushing my legislative ideas forward until the last possible second. But after several briefings from the Department of Public Health and Environment, it hit home. We were going to have to radically change course. Not only would the legislature need to go into a multi-week temporary adjournment to protect the public (who tend to gather in large numbers at the Capitol for the more controversial debates), but state and local governments would also be considering distancing provisions, and ultimately, stay-at-home orders. And those choices to protect public health would have direct impacts on state and local government budgets, too.

On Wednesday, March 11th, we had a late-night committee hearing on one of the biggest bills of the session: the Colorado health insurance option, commonly known as the “public option.” Representative Dylan Roberts and I presented the bill in front of the House Health and Insurance Committee with hours of testimony and a half-dozen amendments that came from intense stakeholder work. But it wasn’t meant to be, and within days, we had to set the bill aside to focus on more urgent priorities.

On Friday, March 13th, House and Senate leadership made the call to go into a temporary adjournment. Thus began the “quarantine phase” of the 2020 legislative session. We all became quite familiar with several pieces of webinar software that we used for briefings from the executive branch, discussions among legislators, stakeholder meetings, and even social events with friends and family. Believe me when I tell you that the work didn’t stop just because we weren’t at the Capitol.

Meanwhile, my amazing fiancé, Kyra, and I were supposed to be planning our wedding, which was originally scheduled for the weekend of June 13th. We agonized for weeks about whether we’d need to postpone it or downsize it. All options were bad, and doing a June wedding—especially after I was likely to have gone back to the Capitol for a few weeks—meant I was very likely to be a carrier of COVID-19, and it was just too risky that I might expose our parents or our friends with small children. 

But then, at the end of April, Kyra had a brilliant idea. What if we move up the date instead? People were generally still following the stay-at-home orders, and we could safely gather 10-20 people at our own home without significantly risking anyone’s health. So with one whole week to rewrite all of our plans, we scheduled the wedding for May 2nd and pulled together a small-but-sweet ceremony and reception in our backyard. And you know what? It was perfect.

And it was a good thing we moved up the wedding, too, because I ended up being at the Capitol all day on the day we were originally supposed to get married. But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.

The Monday after our wedding day and a one-day staycation for a honeymoon, Kyra and I both went back to work. In addition to participating in the discussions about what else the state needed to be doing to address the public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, I was part of a House Democratic task force looking into the legal and technological challenges involved with allowing some legislators to participate remotely when we reconvened. You see, we have a number of members who have health vulnerabilities who could die if exposed to COVID-19, and we wanted to make sure they could continue to represent their constituents from home. We bent over backwards to bring in Republicans to help come up with the protocols, but they locked down against us and refused to help. Despite their votes against allowing remote participation, several House and Senate Republicans ultimately took advantage of the system we created and opted to participate from home in the final days of the legislative session.

On May 12th, we were presented with an updated revenue forecast from the legislative and executive branches (who typically only present such forecasts in March, June, September, and December). The news was grim. We were looking at a $3.3 billion hole in the budget, and believe me when I say that we can’t make up for that kind of revenue loss by tinkering around the edges of the budget and trying to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. To the contrary, we had to make truly painful cuts to K-12, higher education, health care, housing, human services, transportation, and every other part of the state budget. Fortunately, some of these cuts were offset by federal action. I am grateful that Congress and the President put aside their differences to pass a trio of meaningful COVID-19 relief bills, which in turn gave us resources to address the direct effects of the disease and the economic downturn. I continue to hope that they succeed in passing a fourth bill, the HEROES Act, which will go beyond the first three by giving aid to states to backfill the devastating budget cuts. Until such legislation passes, however, the cuts to education and other state programs will be deep.

As you might surmise, cutting the budget also means postponing any new legislation that was expected to have a fiscal impact. Furthermore, we were hearing that we would only have three weeks once we returned to finish all of our work, which also meant that we had to limit the number of controversial bills that were likely to generate hours and hours of filibustering. As a result, I had to set aside almost all of the legislation I was working on prior to the pandemic, including the public option. 

Of the twelve bills I had introduced (plus five more that were still in the drafting/stakeholding phase), I was only able to preserve five of them. One was a technical clean-up that passed before the crisis; three were referred from the Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Interim Committee, which I was able to pass after removing all of the pieces that cost money (House Bills 1017, 1065, and 1085); and one was a priority health care bill to restructure the financing for the reinsurance program, which became even more important after the economic downturn took away the original funding stream. Lastly, I introduced one new bill with Representative Lisa Cutter to allocate some of the CARES Act money to helping low-to-medium income families impacted by the recession to afford their utility bills.

Lest you think that is the end of the story, think again. We resumed session on Tuesday, May 26th—one day after the murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers. Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of Michael Brown by the Ferguson, MO police in 2014, we have seen far too many deaths of people of color at the hands of law enforcement officers. There were far too many prior to 2014 as well, but Ferguson was a focusing event that generated a real response. Colorado passed a series of laws that year to try to rein in abuses by law enforcement officers, but those laws didn’t go far enough. And 2020 was different. Perhaps it was because there were too many similar events that had happened in Colorado over the last year—most notably De’Von Bailey on August 3, 2019 in Colorado Springs and Elijah McClain on August 30, 2019 in Aurora. Perhaps it was because the protests didn’t fizzle out in one day, but continued day after day after day. Perhaps it was because the Colorado legislature currently includes a remarkable team of black and latinx leaders who helped the rest of us see what we could do to save lives of innocent people of color. Whatever the reason, the majority of us at the legislature knew that we needed to find a meaningful set of policy changes that would break away from the status quo and prevent the further loss of life. While there were several legislators who contributed to the success of the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act, I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the courageous leadership of my colleague and friend, Representative Leslie Herod. She was the driving force, the builder of the coalition, and the principal negotiator who engaged with stakeholders from communities across the state as well as law enforcement leaders. And at the end of the day, the bill passed with the support of every Democrat and nearly 2/3 of the Republicans. Learn more about what was in the Law Enforcement Integrity and Accountability Act here.

Over the course of the three-week session, we passed a balanced budget, allocated all of the federal dollars to help families and small businesses get through the pandemic and its economic repercussions, passed the aforementioned police accountability bill, and passed several dozen other pieces of legislation that will help Coloradans get through this difficult time. At a later date, I’ll share a comprehensive list of what we got done, but for now, I’ll finish this email with just a few more highlights. 

We finally passed the bill to improve our state’s low vaccination rates. We mandated licensure of all tobacco retailers across the state to ensure no one under 21 will be able to buy cigarettes or vape products, and we referred a nicotine tax increase to the voters this November. 

While the cuts to K-12 schools were really painful, we did three big things to offset those costs in the future. First, we built a provision into the school finance act that will allow school districts in future years to go back to the mill levies they had in place at the time they passed their de-Bruce measures (which were subsequently reduced because of the Gallagher amendment until the 2007 mill levy freeze). Second, we referred a measure to the voters to repeal the Gallagher amendment itself, which if passed will stabilize school district and other local mill levies against future downward ratcheting. Finally, we ran a bill to close several corporate loopholes that primarily benefited huge businesses so we could reallocate those dollars to the state education fund (as well as an increase in support to working families through the earned income tax credit). Unfortunately, pressure from the business lobby was intense and we had to scale back the measure considerably in order to get the governor’s commitment to signing it. But even with the compromise, we were able to retain $190M over two years to reinvest in education and working families. And that’s a big deal.

Last but not least, I want to talk about the bill that occupied the bulk of my time and energy over the last three weeks. Together with Senators Dominick Moreno and Kerry Donovan and the remarkable Representative Julie McCuskie, we passed a bill to restructure and expand the Colorado reinsurance program, Senate Bill 215. In 2019, we passed the first bill to establish the reinsurance program, funded by a combination of general fund and hospital assessments. The program allowed for more effective spreading of risk between insurance markets, reducing premiums in the individual market by an average of 20%, and stabilizing the group markets by avoiding an increase in uncompensated care, which drives hospitals to shift costs to those other markets. When the recession struck, hospitals were hit so hard that they could not afford the assessment, and we needed to find another funding stream to avoid the general fund expense that we needed to transfer to stabilizing education funding. We learned that a federal assessment on insurance plans was set to expire in January 2021, and we knew it was very likely that insurance companies would be able to keep those dollars as windfall profits. Instead of letting that happen, we stood up for people over insurance industry profits and passed a bill to collect those fees at the state level instead. What that means is that, without increasing costs for businesses, we have replaced the bulk of the funding stream for the reinsurance program so that it can continue for another five years in Colorado, stabilizing insurance markets and increasing health insurance enrollment. On top of that, we allocated funding to provide additional subsidies to low and middle income Coloradans, including those impacted by the “family glitch” and, for the very first time in Colorado, undocumented residents of our state. These families have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic and recession, and I’m so proud that we finally took action to make sure they’re not left behind to go without medical care, food, or housing in these difficult times.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of the work we did this year, but since I’ve already written a newsletter about five times longer than most people will read, I’m going to stop here. 

Hard times are ahead for too many Coloradans, but today I feel gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m lucky enough to have a job in which I get to focus my energy every day on trying to help people. I’m grateful that the voters elected Democratic majorities in the State House and Senate in 2018, without which we would not have accomplished half of what we did. I’m grateful for the staff, advocates, and protestors who made all of our progress possible. And I’m grateful for the remarkable legislators (including a handful of thoughtful, compassionate, and courageous Republicans) who came together to solve problems for the people of Colorado this year. I’m so proud to serve as one of 100 Representatives and Senators who were sent to the state Capitol from all across the state to do this work for all the beautiful people of our beautiful state.


May we all continue moving forward with patience, wisdom, courage, and grace.

Chris


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