Legislative report: A tale of two legislatures

No, there was really only one 2020 legislative session in Colorado but the two-and-a-half month interruption at the halfway mark due to the coronavirus emergency and the resulting fiscal fallout made it seem that we were looking at two completely different bodies.

January 8 opened with a decisive bang of the gavel and a strong progressive (read “liberal”) agenda to create and extend worker benefits, public employee unions, new environmental programs, and a host of increased fees, as well as elimination of tax exemptions extractive industries. When the session (extended until June 15) finally gasped its way to the final gavel, the state had seen itself go from riches to rags thanks to a $3.3 billion shortfall resulting from statewide business closures during the declared emergency and stay-at-home orders.

The abrupt shutdown on March 14, with a couple of sputters on March 30 while the legislature awaited the Supreme Court decision on how to count the 120 days it was allowed to meet, meant that more than 300 bills were left in the lurch waiting for hearings, floor votes, funding decisions and final actions. On May 4, the Joint Budget Committee returned to consider an updated economic forecast and patch together a new budget plan based on the diminution in anticipated revenue.

The full legislature returned on May 26, minus a few members that could not return due to health status and risk of severe complications or death if they contracted the virus. Rules in House and Senate were amended to allow members who could not be in the Capitol to be counted present and vote remotely over web platforms, although they could not participate in committees of reference. That rule change allowed the Senate to maintain its majority on key votes even when some members were not physically present; however, those rules were specifically limited to the declared public health emergency.

Only a portion of the legislative employees worked at the Capitol with the remainder continuing to work remotely to limit the number of people in the building. Budget hearings had already seen expanded video access and advance posting of decision documents to accommodate non-JBC members who were unable to attend in person as well as the public who were advised to stay away from the Capitol. In fact, until the final week of the session virtually no members of the public were seen in the Capitol complex due to social distancing requirements, temperature checks and masking.

CMA’s Government Affairs committee met weekly to review and discuss bills, focusing on key bills with the potential for major impact on our members. CMA worked with allies in the broader business community to amend or defeat the most onerous; while many other bills were ultimately amended or defeated due to insufficient time for debate or money to fund them.

The 28 or so bills tracked by CMA fell into the following categories:

  • Tax policy. Bills to repeal or significantly change requirements for tax exemptions related to mining included SB 168 (repeal coal’s 300,000 ton per quarter exemption for severance tax), HB 1025 and HB 1420 (amend or repeal exemption from sales and use tax on energy purchased for manufacturing, mining and processing). These provisions were all ultimately killed.
  • Employer/Employee Relations. HB 1089 would have prohibited firing an employee for use of marijuana outside of work. SB 216 would have created a presumption than a worker who contracted COVID-19 did so at work. Both bills were killed. Bills which did pass are HB 1415 which protects discrimination or retaliation against an employee who raises concerns about health and safety practices (particularly related to the coronavirus). SB 205, also related to public health emergencies, requires up to 48 hours of paid sick leave per year based on the number of hours worked, and additional paid time during a declared public health emergency.
  • Environment. HB 1143 increases civil penalties for violation of air and water quality laws, regulations and permits, and increases criminal penalties for water pollution that meets criminal standards. SB 204 increases fees for stationary source permits and establishes an Enterprise with a new set of fees to fund research, data collection, and monitoring for air quality programs. HB 1119 authorizes the state to regulate perfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds and SB 218 establishes a cash fund with fees collected from fuel manufacturers and shippers to support PFAS testing, technical support, and grants. Money from the fund would also support measures related to transport of hazardous materials.
  • Budget. The precipitous revenue decline resulting from statewide shutdown of business during the three month period March-May coupled with upheaval in the oil/gas market and continued pressure to force coal out of the marketplace means that severance taxes are dropping and will continue to decrease over the next year or two. Projection beyond that is difficult. Various state programs have become dependent on severance tax and are now looking to maximize what is left by eliminating credits and exemptions for extractive industries. The State Auditor’s office is conducting a review (as required by statute) on a wide variety of tax exemptions for oil/gas and mining, including threshold amounts for metal, molybdenum, and coal. Those evaluations are currently underway/their recommendations will be forwarded to the legislature for action in 2021.

Regulatory agencies continue to work, developing standards for TENORM, while the Water Quality division is pushing for a new dredge and fill program to cover the “gaps” that occurred when the new federal WOTUS rules took effect June 22. The federal rule is currently stayed in Colorado as the result of a lawsuit brought by the state against EPA.