SILVERTHORNE — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed four bills into law Monday, June 6, at the Silverthorne Performing Arts Center, expanding access to health care for Coloradans.
The first bill he signed, Senate Bill 20-215 the Health Insurance Affordability Enterprise, is championed by Summit County leaders.
Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, sponsored the bill, which extends the state’s reinsurance program for five years and expands coverage to those who were left out of the program.
“When I decided to run for public office three years ago, the one issue that came up most often in any of the five counties that I traveled … the biggest issue was affordable health care,” McCluskie said in an interview.
Colorado’s reinsurance program aims to drive down insurance costs by reimbursing insurers for the highest cost claims, according to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. In its first year of operation, people across colorado saved about 20% on insurance premiums on the individual market. Summit County residents have saved even more — around 47%, according to Polis — because of the Peak Health Alliance, a nonprofit insurance purchasing organization.
“The mission of Peak Health Alliance really is to make health insurance more affordable,” Peak Health Alliance CEO Tamara Pogue said in an interview. “Any strategy that does that, we support. … If there’s one thing we all know about health care, given how complicated it is, it’s going to take a lot of different strategies to really make it affordable for all of our residents.”
Pogue said the reinsurance program helps Peak Health Alliance do its job by providing a protection mechanism for insurance carriers.
“When Peak started, everyone sort of thought we were crazy,” she said. “Typically when we talk about health care, we don’t talk about local solutions to health care. We’re really grateful to this administration that they’ve recognized that these local solutions can be part of solving the problem.”
“It was an unintended consequence,” she said. “So with (the law), we have set aside dollars to protect low-income Coloradans from having that happen again.”
The law also addresses families who fall into the “family glitch,” which applies to households that had one family member eligible for health care through their employer but the rest of the family wasn’t eligible or they were eligible at a greater cost. It also expands coverage to undocumented immigrants. Funding is now in place to help those families and individuals enroll in the individual marketplace, McCluskie said.
While the reinsurance program applies to a minority of people, it helps everyone, including those who receive insurance through their employer, said Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, who also sponsored the bill.
“With this bill, we are stabilizing the entire insurance market,” he said at the event. “When we increase the number of people enrolling on the individual insurance market … we’re going to dramatically increase insurance enrollment … There will be a really positive effect on total enrollment, which is going to stabilize prices and reduce cost shifting into other markets.”
In addition to the reinsurance program, Polis signed three other bills.
Colorado has been busy fighting the coronavirus pandemic so it’s easy to forget we’re also fighting an opioid epidemic. And since many people are currently experiencing feelings of isolation and anxiety over finances, opioid addiction is expected to get even worse.
The abuse and misuse of prescription drugs in Colorado is one of the state’s major public health crises. In 2019, Colorado experienced an unprecedented 1,062 drug overdose deaths, and fentanyl overdoses doubled between 2018 and 2019. And since the pandemic began, more Americans report feeling depressed and anxious as we’ve seen the use of anti-anxiety drugs increase 34%.
None of this bodes well for treating and preventing substance abuse.
Over the last few years, Colorado has made significant investments in treating and preventing opioid addiction, which claims the lives of more than 500 Coloradans a year.
However, amidst budget troubles, many of those life-saving programs have recently sustained big cuts — millions of dollars. There is less (or no funding) for vital services like a Medicaid program to cover in-patient and residential treatment for drugs and alcohol addiction; training doctors and nurses to screen their patients for substance abuse and refer them to treatment, and funding for sober living homes.
But a potential bright spot in this challenging time is House Bill 1085, which would make treatments like physical therapy, occupational therapy, chiropractic care and acupuncture more affordable in an effort to stop opioid addiction. The proposal requires insurers to cover at least six alternative therapy visits at a cost-sharing amount not to exceed the regular amount charged for a primary care visit. HB 1085 passed the legislature on June 11. This means, if signed by Gov. Jared Polis, patients would no longer have to pay more to address underlying pain than they would to get an opioid prescription to mask the pain, potentially leading to an addiction issue.
And even better: This type of approach not only saves lives, but it also saves money.
That’s why, for example, UnitedHealthcare introduced a new benefit for people with acute low back pain that makes it more affordable to access physical therapy and chiropractic care. Based on a UnitedHealthcare analysis, by 2021, this benefit design has the potential to reduce the number of spinal imaging tests by 22%, spinal surgeries by 21%, opioid use by 19%, and lower the total cost of care for eligible plan participants and employers.
These findings align with peer-reviewed research published in the medical journal Spine that showed early physical therapy was associated with a decreased risk of: advanced imaging, additional physician visits, surgery, injections and opioid use. In fact, total medical costs for lower-back pain were $2,736 lower for patients receiving early physical therapy.
In addition, the bill requires better insurance coverage for safer, atypical opioids that often can’t be accessed by patients without jumping through hoops and paying more than they’d have to pay for traditional opioids. HB 1085 also continues the seven-day prescription limit and the mandate that doctors must check a patient’s record on the prescription drug monitoring program before prescribing a refill of opioids. In addition, among other things, the bill updates the curriculum for health care provider education programs.
House Bill 1085 is a result of a bipartisan committee of state senators and representatives who met to consider possible policies to fight the prescription drug misuse. It acknowledges that a frequent starting point for an opioid is musculoskeletal pain and that when a physician visit to obtain an opioid is cheaper than addressing the underlying pain, we have a significant problem.
That’s why I join with doctors, physical therapists, mental health professionals and consumer advocates to urge Gov. Jared Polis to sign this important legislation. Colorado’s prevention and treatment programs have taken major steps backward, and especially in light of recent budget cuts, Coloradans are counting on his signature to continue addressing and ending the opioid crisis.
By Joey Bunch and Marianne Goodland (June 19, 2020)
The 2020 legislative is marked as much by what didn’t pass as what did.
Some of the hottest items on the Democratic majority’s Christmas wish list had melted away by the time summer approached.
Coming into the session in January, for example, the public option insurance was supposed to be the biggest bill of the session. Going out, it was only a possibility for 2021, legislative leaders said, and they didn’t sound optimistic.
This session, roughly half, or about 300 bills, were scuttled to make room for pandemic relief, a rescue for the state’s budget and pet projects lawmakers were wed to, such as new restrictions on school immunization waivers that took up days.
The public option, though, was characterized as a game changer by Democrats just a few months ago.
The public-private insurance was supposed to pull down insurance premiums by offering a below-market rate built on price caps on hospitals and doctors, which proved not a politically palatable idea in the wake of a global pandemic.
Sponsors withdrew the bill, which managed to pass one committee in March before the shutdown.
“I think so,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder told a group of reporters on the last day of the session. “This is something that we went into this session wanting to work on. We’ve never said a public option is the only solution. We’ve said we want to bring down the cost of health care.
“And for us, the public option was a vehicle for us to do that, and I think it’s still on the table, but we’re making sure we’re approaching the problem with an end goal, not with an obsession over a very specific policy.”
Senate President Leroy Garcia said “there are a lot of different options we might look to, and that’s one option.”
House Speaker KC Becker is done after this session because of term limits, leaving a deep legacy of legislative success. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver, in a farewell tribute to Becker last week, pointed out that three bills define her legacy: Senate Bill 19-181, on oil and gas regulatory reform; Senate Bill 18-200, which attempts to shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association; and the most significant bill affecting rural Colorado in many years, Senate Bill 17-267.
“It’s been a wild ride, certainly an unexpected and unprecedented session,” she said.
Becker cited protests that spurred on major police reforms in the legislature in three weeks’ time, as lawmakers were simultaneously cutting or back-filling nearly a quarter of their operating budget.
More budget cuts and higher taxes and fees could be on tap if the deep recession continues. A revenue forecast from state economists is slated for Friday.
“We still accomplished the majority of our goals that we set out, and we had challenges we never expected,” Fenberg said. “We passed the parts of our agenda we thought were most critical and wanted to get across the finish line.”
He lamented the need to do more on education, which legislators say almost every year. But the 2020-21 budget takes the General Assembly, and K-12 education, backward almost a decade. The spending plan that takes effect July 1 adds $621.4 million to the budget stabilization factor, the debt to K-12 that started after the Great Recession. The debt is now $1.18 billion, and higher than it’s ever been.
“We knew that going into this crisis and we know that even more so now,” he said of underfunding schools, adding about the progressive agenda, “There’s more work to do, and that’s what begins tomorrow,” Fenberg said.
Among the other bills that failed to reach the finish line:
Conservation easements. For 17 years, landowners, primarily on the Eastern Plains, have complained that they have been defrauded of their lands and tax credits by the state Department of Revenue, which canceled millions of dollars in tax credits claimed by those landowners for donating portions of land for conservation purposes. A working group tasked by 2019 legislation spent last summer and fall coming up with reparations and plans for restructuring part of the program’s provisions on orphan easements and a new way to determine land valuations. The cost of $147 million would have been covered by tax credits from revenue, but that part of the bill ran into trouble even before the pandemic. Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon told Colorado Politics a new bill had been in the works before the recess that would have covered only the orphan easements and valuation piece. That never happened.
An effort to expand the state’s laws allowing importation of prescription drugs from Canada died in the session’s final days.
A bill to remove the ability of county commissioners to draw their own district maps, which ran into trouble with commissioners in Arapahoe County, also died.
Health insurance providers won’t have to pay for the annual cost of a mental health exam, a bill passionately defended by Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet of Aurora, who sought public support to keep it off the list of bills destined for elimination.
The bill to refinance the state’s reinsurance program and extend it for an additional four years won preliminary approval from the House Friday evening, after a marathon negotiation session between the sponsors and health insurance carriers.
Senate Bill 215 would cut the fees paid into the reinsurance program by hospitals and levy a new fee for health insurance carriers to make up the difference and then some.
Reinsurance is a type of insurance that pays for health insurance plans’ most costly claims. The General Assembly adopted a bill last year to set up the two-year program, which obtained federal approval.
The program applies only to the individual market in Colorado, which is about 7% of those insured.
Last year’s law resulted in lower health insurance premiums, as much as 30% in some parts of rural Colorado, and 20% less statewide.
Under last year’s law, hospitals were slated to pay a $40 million fee beginning July 1.
Under SB215, the hospitals’ fee was cut in half and the first payment isn’t due until Jan. 1, 2022.
The bill also addresses several glitches in the insurance market, according to co-sponsor Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. One is that employees who get their insurance from employers aren’t necessarily able to include families in the employers’ plans. SB215 would cover some of the costs for family premiums in the individual market.
Another glitch has to do with the federal subsidy that helps cover some of the premiums. Those who were receiving the subsidy found that with lower premiums, their subsidies also dropped, sometimes more than the cost of the premius, leaving them with a higher net cost.
Finally, the bill does something no insurance plan has ever done: cover undocumented residents, although they would not be eligible for the federal subsidy.
The bill sets up an enterprise, to be managed by the commissioner of insurance, which pays for the program with a fee levied on insurance plans.
Bill sponsor Rep. CHris Kennedy explained Friday that the fee would replace a federal health insurance tax that was set up in 2010 to pay for the Affordable Care Act. The HIT is repealed as of Jan. 1, 2021.
For nonprofit carriers, as introduced, SB215 levied a fee of 1% of premiums and 2% of premiums on for-profit carriers, who cried foul and claimed the higher fee would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
That’s what led to the marathon negotiation session that took place Thursday and into Friday.
The House amended SB215 to hike the fee for the nonprofits to 1.15% and lowered the for-profit fee to 2.15%.
Kennedy explained that the fee is now higher for the nonprofits than the federal HIT was. Those nonprofits are union shops Kaiser and Elevate, a carrier operated by Denver Health.
Health insurance carriers, however, have pointed out that the fee, which would bring in $95 million in the initial years and up to $110 million in out years, will generate far more revenue than the program requires. That’s led to a claim that the fee would instead be a tax and violate the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Kennedy and co-sponsor Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, point to the “business services” in the bill that would be provided to the health carriers as justification for the higher fee.
They also amended the bill to limit the authority of the commissioner of insurance, responding to concerns that the commissioner could put in place a public option program on his own.
SB 215 will require a final vote on Saturday and then go back to the Senate for concurrence on the amendments.
Colorado’s current flat income tax isn’t quite as flat as it seems. The reality is that the highest income Coloradans pay a much lower share of their income than everybody else.
This year, we have an opportunity to ask the top 5% of Coloradans to pay their fair share while reducing income tax rates for the other 95% of us. Initiative #271 does just that, while also generating an estimated $2 billion in state revenue, with half going to raising pay for public school teachers and support staff and the other half going to addressing the impacts of our growing population on infrastructure and other state programs.
In light of the impacts of the global pandemic on our state budget, this measure is needed now more than ever. And it’s only fair to ask those whose incomes were not affected by the pandemic to pitch in a little bit more. And for those of you who have been calling for TABOR reform, this is the best shot we’ve had in years to offset TABOR’s negative impacts on state priorities.
But before it gets onto the November ballot, we need to help the campaign gather the required number of signatures. Click here to find out where you can sign a petition in the weeks ahead. Or if you live in Lakewood, super-volunteer Sarah Nelson has petitions at her home and would love to have you stop by (six feet away, of course) to sign, almost every day after 10am. She lives at 893 Oak Street. Please call/text her first at 720-579-1485 to make sure she’s home or to schedule an appointment.
If you need more information, there’s a lot available. See the links below or visit FairTaxColorado.org to explore for yourself:
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.
Historic budget cuts are on the line as lawmakers seek to balance public access with pandemic precautions at the state Capitol
By John Herrick (May 15, 2020)
Temperature checks. A closed cafeteria. Spaced seating. Lawmakers in masks separated by plexiglass. This may be the new normal at the state Capitol when the legislature reconvenes as soon as May 26.
The public health measures are needed for lawmakers to continue doing their work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down the legislature on March 14. Since then, the respiratory disease has killed more than 1,000 people in Colorado.
The pandemic also has blown an estimated $3.3 billion hole in the state’s $30-plus billion budget due to the loss of sales and income tax revenue as businesses remain on standby and unemployment spikes. The seven lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee have voted over the last two weeks to withhold a 3% pay increase for state workers, table capital construction projects and cut more than $100 million to higher education, among other cuts totaling more than $700 million. The committee is considering more cuts to the senior property tax exemption, the state’s contribution to the public employee’s retirement fund, K-12 funding, suicide prevention, substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, vaccine outreach, and health coverage for the uninsured and immigrants.
But even as decisions that will affect most Coloradans are debated, public access to the Capitol and in-person access to lawmakers will be limited to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. The options being discussed include encouraging lobbyists not to gather in the halls outside the chambers and limiting seating in committee rooms and the public gallery above the House and Senate floors.
To make their voices heard, advocates say they are sending emails to lawmakers and hosting town halls and online forums. Some have been calling, texting and sending letters. Others say they are banding together and leveraging their networks. But, even so, they say, it’s not quite the same.
“I definitely think there will be something lost. In-person communication is the best way to get to know someone,” said Dusti Gurule, the executive director of the advocacy organization Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or COLOR. “I hope it is something that [lawmakers] are thinking about — transparency and the voice of who is most impacted.”
Questions remain about how to conduct legislative business during the pandemic. Democrats want to allow members who fear for their health to participate remotely despite objections from Republicans who say the Colorado constitution forbids it. Even if lawmakers allow remote participation by voting to amend procedural rules, it’s unclear how those tuning in from home would speak in floor debates, offer amendments or vote. And it’s still unclear whether reporters will have access to the floor of the House and Senate chambers, where they currently work during the session, in part given the need to spread lawmakers out to achieve social distancing. Unlike the current mandate for businesses in Colorado, lawmakers are planning to recommend — rather than require — that the public not enter the building with a temperature over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit and wear non-surgical face masks.
“Do we have the ability to turn somebody away because they have a fever? Those are big questions,” said Sage Naumann, the spokesperson for the Senate GOP. “It’s really hard for the government to do that. That’s why you can’t be turned away for your opinions. That’s why you can’t be turned away for what you look like or the God you worship … People have a right to have their voices heard.”
From afar, Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, said she has been watching the Joint Budget Committee cutting funding for education. She said this has created a lot of anxiety and despair. But she’s hopeful teachers are watching and will make their voices heard before further cuts are made. In previous years, the Colorado Education Association has organized rallies with thousands of teachers traveling to the Capitol.
“In some ways, I think that there actually is the opportunity to have more eyes on them than normal because we have so many people who are in stay-at-home situations because they are not working,” Baca-Oehlert said. “My hope is that the public would tune in.”
But sometimes the public may not know to tune in. A gathering of more than two elected officials is considered a quorum and subject to open-meeting laws. But many of these public meetings are not being announced and may go unnoticed, said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
“There are lots of conversations happening that the press and public has no inkling about,” Roberts said. “That’s the nature of what’s happening right now. These discussions are not happening at the Capitol. Or if they are happening at the Capitol, the press may not be allowed in there.”
Besides, he said, not everyone has access to adequate internet or a computer to watch and participate in committee hearings remotely.
The lack of remote access is just another iteration of a longstanding lack of access to state lawmakers among some communities in Colorado. Regular sessions are held during the day when working people may not be able to take time off. Others may not be able to drive hours to Denver.
“Most of our people have always had an access issue,” said Jenny Davies, the co-founder of Progressive Promotions, a liberal advocacy group. “The structure of the legislature definitely privileges people who have more freedom and economic flexibility.”
Committee meeting audio is available on each committees’ page on the Colorado General Assembly’s website. The Open Media Foundation films and records House and Senate floor debates and makes them available on the Colorado Channel website.
On Monday, the eight-member Executive Committee plans to begin finalizing a plan for how to manage the pandemic for the second half of the session. And lawmakers say they are confident they can strike the right balance between public access and safety.
“The public is such an important part of this. The legislature is the people’s house. We are there to be transparent and accountable to the people of this state,” said Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood who has been helping work on the plan for remote participation among lawmakers. He said there will have to be greater emphasis placed on calling, texting and acknowledging written forms of communication.
“I think that we don’t lose a lot as long as every legislator puts in the effort.”
This has been a strange time to be a state legislator, and it’s kind of amazing how quickly the days fill up with new tasks. I have been on dozens of Zoom calls with fellow legislators, the governor’s office, various executive branch departments, local governments, and our federal delegation about our COVID-19 response. Every day, I hear from constituents and local organizations about new issues and challenges they’re facing. I spend time following up to get them connected to the state agencies leading the response for that particular issue. We’re constantly assessing the federal, state, and local responses to date and identifying gaps that we need to figure out how to fill.
On top of that, we’re preparing to go back into session in mid-May in order to fulfill our constitutional obligation to pass a balanced budget by the end of the fiscal year. This is a challenge in the best of years, but the reduced revenue projections this year are setting up some very difficult decisions and some likely cuts to priorities that are already underfunded. It’s going to be painful, but we will be doing everything we can to minimize the harm and prepare to bounce back when this crisis is over.
What’s especially tricky is that the pandemic won’t exactly be over by the time we have to resume legislative business, so we have set up working group to figure out how legislators with health conditions or vulnerable family members can debate and vote from home, and how the rest of us inside the capitol can maintain safe distances and other best practices.
Safer-at-Home On Monday, April 27th, 2020, Colorado will likely enter the“Safer-at-Home” phase of our COVID-19 response. Because our COVID-19 response must be a marathon and not a sprint, Governor Polis is emphasizing sustainability and individual responsibility in this new phase. Vulnerable individuals should continue to stay home through the safer-at-home phase. Key changes include:
The general population will no longer be ordered to stay at home. You are encouraged to stay at home except when absolutely necessary and strongly advised to wear face coverings in public.
Retail may open for curbside delivery, with phased-in public openings with strict distancing precautions.
Personal services like hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, dog grooming, personal training, etc. can reopen with strict precautions.
Visit cpr.org to see the full list of changes that will likely come into effect next week. Please also note that local public health officials may implement different COVID-19 response strategies at the local level to better meet the needs of our community. Jefferson County Public Health officials, county leadership, and businesses are currently working on determining what a gradual and safe opening will look like. Please continue to stay home as much as possible and stay tuned for Jeffco updates.
Unemployment Expansion Applications for unemployment insurance benefits for independent contractors, self-employed workers, and other persons in similar situations went live this week. Visit the CDLE website for more information and to apply.
If you are or will be receiving unemployment benefits, you will soon start receiving an additional $600 per week as a result of the CARES Act. This additional benefit, known as Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation or FPUC, does not require you to take any action. It is retroactive to March 29th, 2020.
Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) The Small Business Administration is currently unable to accept new applications for PPP loans. We at the legislature recently learned that when the PPP went live, banks and credit unions were not given adequate guidance on how to administer the loans. As a result, bank policy will likely dictate how these loans will be processed. I understand that this uncertainty is frustrating and we are working with our Congressional delegation to address this very serious issue. We are also advocating that franchises who may not qualify as a small business still be considered for PPP. If your small business is in need of a loan, please explore these resources in the meantime. Additionally, try contacting the Small Business Navigator with your questions: Hotline: (303) 860-5881 (Mon – Fri, 8am – 5pm) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Federal Legislation I want to take a moment to thank Congressman Ed Perlmutter for introducing new federal legislation that would provide additional financial support to states as we manage the economic impacts of this COVID-19 pandemic. If passed into law, the Coronavirus Relief for States Actwould provide $500 billion in flexible funding to states to respond to the current crisis, backfill state budgets, and support economic recovery. These dollars could be especially meaningful for our K-12 and higher education budgets where they could help reduce the cuts that will be coming due to the economic downturn. This is an important conversation and I am grateful for Congressman Perlmutter’s leadership in making state and local aid a priority during this pandemic.
This is an incredibly difficult time for our country, and I am grateful every day for the front line health care workers, the government workers, the grocery store and food delivery workers, and everyone else who is doing work that we couldn’t live without.
Before the pandemic suspended normal life in Colorado, state lawmakers were getting ready to debate bills on two very big topics: health insurance reforms and paid leave for workers.
The COVID-19 crisis has lent a new sense of urgency to both those issues — while also making it less likely that lawmakers will act on them before the November elections.
“That’s not something that Republicans are celebrating or spiking the football. We realize that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle wanted to advance policies that they consider to be good, but the financial reality is probably working against those two bills,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.
“If it doesn’t happen this year, it would be disappointing, but it certainly would make sense to focus on other things,” said Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon, a sponsor of the “state option” health bill. “However, a public health crisis makes it abundantly clear that more people need access to health treatment.”
More than 16 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic started taking off in the US. Because many Americans’ health insurance is tied to their work, that suggests a huge number of people are losing their coverage in the middle of a public health crisis.
“If the epidemic is still raging and we’re still looking at pretty significant distancing measures, then we’re going to limit the scope of what we do,” said Democratic House Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, co-sponsor of the state option bill.
The General Assembly must pass the state’s budget before the state’s next fiscal year begins on July 1. Once they’ve done that though, lawmakers could temporarily adjourn once again, depending on the severity of the outbreak.
The budget could have a big impact on the fates of other major bills. Forecasters have cut $1 billion from the state’s expected revenues already, and as the pandemic drags on, further damage may force deep cuts to the budget. That could make the cost of setting up a public insurance option or a paid leave program unaffordable until things improve.
In the meantime, lawmakers are connecting by phone and Zoom to suss out whether their bills can move forward.
“Our bandwidth as a general assembly is going to be significantly narrower than we thought it would be a month ago,” Gray said. “The path for anything gets harder when you have significantly narrower bandwidth.”
CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS: We’re fortunate to have several organizations in JeffCo that are working to provide food to those who need it. In order to continue providing this essential service, they need volunteers or donations. Stay-at-home and workplace restrictions do not apply to volunteers at these organizations. Please visit one or more of the following websites to see how you can help feed our community: The Action Center * ECCHO * JeffCoEats * Mountain Resource Center * Food Bank of the Rockies * BgoldN *** If you are a medical or public health professional, you can sign up to volunteer here. To donate or volunteer in another capacity, visit HelpColoradoNow.org.
If you have urgent questions regarding COVID-19, please contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE).
Apply for P-EBT (P-EBT provides families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals with funds to help buy food since schools were closed this Spring due to the pandemic. You can receive up to $279 per eligible child to stretch your food budget.)
JeffCoMakes! – ideas for family activities while everyone is social distancing
Newsletter, March 16, 2020
Neighbors and Friends,
You’ve probably heard that Governor Polis declared a state of emergency in Colorado to address COVID-19 (coronavirus). The Colorado General Assembly has been doing everything in its power to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado and protect those who have come in contact with coronavirus. We are working closely with the Governor’s office to take swift and necessary actions as we continue to monitor COVID-19 in our communities, state, country, and across the world.
This is an uncertain time to say the least, and I know that most of us have never experienced anything like it in our lifetimes. That said, we will be able to minimize the harm and protect our most vulnerable populations by taking smart precautions and following the advice of experts. We will all need to make short term sacrifices, but by working together, we’re going to pull through this together.
One of the measures that the General Assembly found necessary was pausing the legislative session for at least two weeks. We are scheduled to reconvene on March 30, 2020. The Capitol building is closed today and tomorrow for cleaning. It will reopen on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, but public tours are not available until further notice. The Lakewood legislators have also decided to cancel our Town Hall that was scheduled for March 28, 2020.
If you have urgent questions regarding COVID-19, please contact the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE).
COVID-19 symptoms include coughing, fever, and shortness of breath. If you have symptoms and believe that you may be exposed, please contact a health care provider immediately.
According to the CDPHE, certain people are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, including:
People over the age of 60, especially those over 80
People who have chronic medical conditions (heart, lung, or kidney disease; diabetes)
Individuals who are at higher risk should avoid crowds and practice social distancing. Regardless of your risk level, please review the recommended prevention strategies below:
Frequently and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash. If no tissues are available, use your inner elbow or sleeve.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
Stay home if you’re sick and keep your children home if they are sick.
Clean surfaces in your home and personal items such as cell phones.
We are facing this uncertainty together and it is crucial that we all do our part to protect each other. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me with your concerns and questions: call (303) 866-2951 or email email@example.com.
Thank you for staying safe,
P.S. For any of you who were elected delegates to your county assembly/convention, the General Assembly passed emergency legislation to give the parties the ability to allow remote participation or mail voting. Please look for information from your county party soon on how to participate.