Coloradans need help, and instead of continuing to wait on federal aid from Congress, state lawmakers took matters into their own hands this week during a three-day special session on COVID-19 relief, ordered by Democratic Governor Jared Polis. Special or “extraordinary” sessions are rare; the last one was in 2017 to restore the taxing authority of recreational marijuana to special districts.
This session, however, focused on seven areas of relief spanning child care support, struggling small businesses, housing insecurity, broadband internet access, food security, utilities assistance, and public health aid. At the conclusion of the session, 10 bills and around $300 million in spending were passed with bipartisan support.
“This is not the end of the conversation,” Polis said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, after the session wrapped. “There’s more that the federal government needs to do. And yes, there’s more that the legislature will be able to talk about when they convene as they ordinarily do in [January]. But you know what, this is going to help a lot of people in small businesses get through the next couple months.”
Now, the bills are on their way to the Polis, which he is expected to sign (using Lysol and gloves, as he’s still recovering from his own bout with COVID-19) in order to bring immediate relief to Coloradans who are struggling right now. Here are the five biggest takeaways from the 2020 special legislative session:
Help Is on the Way for Restaurants and Bars
The restaurant industry has been hit especially hard since the onset of the pandemic, with state-mandated restrictions forcing food and drink businesses to close indoor dining and reduce capacity. House Bill 1004 will allow restaurants, bars, food trucks, and wine restaurants to retain up to $2,000 a month in state sales taxes from November 2020 to February 2021, putting some money back into their pockets.
“For every restaurant above a certain size,” said Polis in his Wednesday press conference, “you’re talking about $8,000 directly to them. Some of the smaller restaurants, it might be four, five, or $6,000.”
In addition, House Bill 1005 will give local governments the authority to restrict fees charged by third-party food delivery services like DoorDash and Uber Eats—which can charge restaurants up to 30 percent per food order—during a declared public health emergency like COVID-19.
There Will Be More Child Care and Funds for Existing Providers
For parents and guardians who have had to make the difficult choice between going to work and staying home with their children, this bill will hopefully bring some much-needed relief. House Bill 1002 creates two grant programs totaling $45 million. The first program provides aid for licensed providers in the state and the second program will give financial assistance to new child care providers.
Money Will Be Set Aside to Help Landlords and Low-Income Households
The state unemployment rate reached 11.3 percent in April. Though it has since dropped to 6.7 percent, many out-of-work Coloradans have experienced eviction and housing insecurity throughout the pandemic. (The $1,200 that some individuals received this spring via the federal CARES Act only helped a little.) Polis’ moratorium on evictions also expired at the end of November, putting many Coloradans at further risk of losing a place to stay. To help, Senate Bill 2 will add $44.5 million to the Housing Development Grant Fund, which helps both renters and landlords.
In addition to rent, homeowners and small business owners who are struggling to pay utility bills will get some relief through Senate Bill 3 which will transfer $5 million to the Energy Assistance Fund meant for “Coloradans who get hit the hardest so they don’t lose their light or their heat over winter,” according to Polis.
Cash From Colorado’s General Fund Will Be Transferred for COVID-19 Relief
Combatting COVID-19 has been expensive for Colorado. While it’s still unknown just how much the fight against the virus is costing the state, Polis has tapped into the Controlled Maintenance Trust Fund twice since the spring to transfer money to Colorado’s Disaster Emergency Fund. Senate Bill 4 will simply transfer $100 million from the state’s general fund to the trust fund, making cash readily available for emergency response expenses associated with COVID-19. Once it’s in the trust fund, the governor can move it to the disaster fund as needed.
Small and Minority-owned Businesses and Art and Cultural Organizations Will Get Aid
Colorado’s eclectic arts and cultural organizations, minority-owned companies, and small businesses have suffered more than most during the pandemic due to critical capacity constraints. In response, Senate Bill 1 will provide a $37 million relief fund for eligible small businesses (restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and fitness and recreational sports centers). An additional $7.5 million will help art, culture, and entertainment organizations, and $4 million will be allocated to relief payments, grants, and loans for minority-owned businesses.
The General Assembly plans to revisit these funds when they reconvene on January 13. “There are good ideas out there that would provide immediate relief, whether or not that’s business, personal, or property tax that the legislature could consider as we continue to figure out how to make sure the small businesses, which are the engine of our economy, survive these next couple months,” said House Speaker-elect Alec Garnett.