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The Colorado State Capitol building. Photo by Sarah Boyum
Politics

Colorado’s 2021 Legislative Session Starts Today. Here’s What You Need to Know

Ahead of the session, we caught up with a few leaders and members of the General Assembly to talk about coming together and issues they anticipate debating in 2021.

After originally kicking off in January—and adjourning for a month to allow COVID-19 cases to dwindle—the 73rd General Assembly is back in session on Tuesday with a long list of agenda items spanning COVID-19 relief, transportation, climate change, police reform, and more.

“Let me just tell you how truly eager we are to return back to session tomorrow and for all the right reasons,” Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) said in a media event on Monday morning. “Coloradans are really faced with a number of challenges and I’ve been very happy of how the Senate’s been able to—over the last year especially during the in the midst of the special session and in other instances—rise up to the occasion.”

Since passing some pressing legislation during a special session in December, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are eager to pick up where they left off before the pandemic hit, while also introducing some new bills. In addition to the special session, the General Assembly met briefly in January to swear in new members, with representatives from both parties indicating how important this session is amidst the fallout from the nearly year-long pandemic. But with Democrats controlling a majority in both the House and Senate, most of the legislating is likely to be done on their terms.

Prior to the session starting, 5280 caught up with some legislative leaders to talk about their goals for the session.

COVID-19 Relief on a Tight Budget

COVID-19 brought attention to issues affecting marginalized communities—putting some extra pressure on Colorado legislators to provide relief. “The pandemic has left Coloradans hurting. In my district and across the state, small businesses are barely making ends meet and families are struggling to stay afloat,” Representative Leslie Herod (D-Denver) told 5280. “That’s why my Democratic colleagues and I will work hard to quickly provide economic relief and support to Colorado. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, I’ve been hard at work for months ensuring that our priorities are reflected in our budget.” Lawmakers will have to be strategic as only $1.5 billion is available in uncommitted funds for COVID-19 relief.

While the abrupt end to the 2020 regular session left a lot of issues unresolved, the 2021 session will not be a do-over of 2020, according to members of the General Assembly. “Our number one focus is going to be on building back from the COVID devastation. It’s not just the health crisis but very much the economic crisis of it,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder). Democratic lawmakers hope to restore the budget cuts made after COVID-19 devastated Colorado in addition to getting the state back to where it was pre-pandemic. “The best example is probably K-12 education, higher ed, and mental health support,” Fenberg said.

Bills from the Lost Year

With the new year bringing new challenges, some unresolved bills from 2020 will get picked up while others will die. In this session, legislators will mainly focus on how to build the state back while the pandemic still rages on. “In terms of other bills that were put on the back-burner last year, I think several of them will come back, I also think the world has changed like 10 different times since then,” said Garcia.

At the same time, even if bills that were dropped in the middle of 2020 and are reintroduced in 2021, Colorado’s budget isn’t in the same shape as it was last year—and Colorado’s legislators have to work with the limited money they have now. According to Garcia, this could mean going back to the drawing board; not to change the goal for specific policies but to adjust legislative language since COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life.

One of the Democrats’ top legislative priorities—creating a public option for health care—is expected to be revived this year. In 2020, lawmakers were forced to abandon a health care bill that would have given Coloradans an affordable option to purchase health insurance through an individual market. But now that COVID-19 has further exposed significant disparities in the state’s health care system, party leaders feel a greater sense of urgency to try again.

“It’s no secret that the pandemic has only exasperated the longstanding health care accessibility issues that have plagued our state for decades,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar (D-Pueblo). “I think our sponsors have been working hard on the new public option proposal for months now, and they’re meeting with stakeholders from all sides of the issue to create a solution that works for Colorado.”

The public option for health care has been a contentious issue since it was introduced two years ago and will likely remain so as long as groups that oppose the bill, like the Colorado Hospital Association, remain vocal. While the the 2021 version of the bill is expected to look a bit different from last year’s draft, the overarching goal of the legislation will remain the same.

Possible Tension Between Agendas

Although members of the General Assembly anticipate some tension between parties, Garcia is optimistic that the session will remain civil. “My goal is…that we don’t have a lot of controversy and a lot of pushback. Obviously, from time-to-time we might have some difference of opinion,” he says. Garcia attributes Colorado’s resiliency to the COVID-19 pandemic to the legislature’s storied bipartisanship—traditionally, legislators from both sides have been willing to work together to find common ground.

However, fiscally contentious bills—like those related to the health care and transportation—will likely see Republican pushback. According to Senator Dennis Hisey (R-Fountain), any opposition to “bad bills” will either be to kill them or make them better, but as the minority party, he says it’s pretty difficult for Republicans to get a bill killed. “As minority members, you’re only allowed to nibble around the edges,” he said. “There are some bills that I would hope that we could make less bad and that [Democrats] would be willing to work with us and to consider our point of view, but I’m not even sure what all of those are yet. We’ve got some big stuff coming; possibly public option and a transportation bill that sounds like it’s gonna carry a pretty big fee.”

Although we’re guaranteed to see some heated debate, members are eager to get back to work, pass legislation, and get Coloradans the help they need. “This legislative session will be among the most consequential in Colorado’s history,” House Speaker Alec Garnett (D-Denver) said. “Our constituents are demanding that we help usher in a swift, robust economic recovery that gives every Coloradan a fair shot at success, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

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