Frozen in Place
On March 14 the legislature adjourned temporarily as it awaited a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court regarding future scheduling. The impetus for the adjournment was, of course, the pandemic caused by the COVID-19 disease resulting from the novel coronavirus. With over a thousand people in the Capitol building each day it no longer appeared safe to continue with the legislative session. The question posed to the Supreme Court was essentially “is the legislature required to complete its 120-day session in consecutive calendar days, or may it be carried out in non-consecutive days in a declared public health emergency.” Last week the Supreme Court responded that the legislature’s Joint Rule 44 (g), originally established in 2009 for an anticipated H1N1 virus emergency, was constitutional; thereby allowing the legislature to adjourn mid-session and return, not counting the intervening days of adjournment. Time counting toward the 120-day limit would be only those days during which at least one chamber was in session. The Governor had declared a public health emergency and issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 26. On April 6 the Governor extended that Order for an additional 20 days, to expire on April 26.
Under the Supreme Court decision, the legislature has approximately 50+ days left in its regular session left to complete its work. Absolute “must do” measures include passage of a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, passage of a School Finance Act, and passage of the annual rule review bill to allow rules adopted during the year prior to November 1 to continue and not expire. Other measures include various Sunset Review bills extending various state licensure and certification programs set to expire this year. Notwithstanding the ability of the legislature to continue through the remainder of the regular session, at least one special session (called either by the Governor or upon written request of two-thirds of the members of each chamber) remains a possibility.
The budget will be the biggest challenge ever faced by the General Assembly. Because of widespread business closures ordered by the Governor to halt spread of the virus, thousands of people are not working or purchasing goods. Sales tax payment dates have been deferred and income taxes have been deferred until mid-July, meaning those revenues will not be received this fiscal year. Right now, the Joint Budget Committee estimates it will need to cut at least $2 billion from its General Fund Budget. Today (April 6) the Speaker of the House named the top budgeted programs as K-12 education, Medicaid, Human Services, Corrections, and Higher Education. The Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budget has directed all state departments to review and resubmit their budgets for the coming fiscal year, seeking a 5% reversion, while not impacting COVID-19 response, cutting customer services or foregoing their “wildly important goals”. The chair of the JBC has stated that there will be no new programs funded. While federal stimulus money will be coming to the state and local governments, initial information is that it cannot be used for ongoing budgets. They will be tapping the state’s reserve and emergency accounts and looking for ways to maintain existing state programs. Legislators, while not in session, are working from home (as is everyone else) and will be reassessing legislative priorities. Those priorities when they do return will be vastly different from bills they left on the desk March 14. CMA has been monitoring the situation and our Government Affairs Committee meets weekly by conference call to share information and consider strategy for when the legislature reconvenes, currently believed to occur mid-May (based on comments made by the Speaker). CMA’s other committees continue to engage on regulatory matters before the CDPHE and DRMS, as those rulemakings continue to move forward via electronic communication platforms.