Dear Friends & Neighbors,
It’s hard to believe that 73 days have passed since the Legislature temporarily adjourned due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that we’re now back in Session. Just a few updates on where we stand and what the rest of Session looks like.
COVID-19: WHERE WE STAND
The whole world has changed.
The United States has lost over 100,000 people—friends, family members, and co-workers. At least 1,008 of these deaths occurred here in Colorado. As a State, we’ve had over 24,000 cases, seen 4,119 people hospitalized, and suffered over 260 outbreaks. The New York Times aptly described the losses this past weekend as “incalculable.”
Meanwhile our doctors and nurses have proven themselves to be honest to goodness mask-wearing heroes. Our parents, students, and teachers are finishing up remote learning, uncertain of what the Fall holds but saddled with the reality that Summer will be marked by an absence of camps, sports, exploration and fun. Our essential workers—including our bus drivers, grocery clerks, and plant workers—have courageously put themselves in harm’s way to keep supplies, food, and equipment moving. Our small businesses are fighting for survival.
For many of us, life has shifted to Zoom calls and Google hangouts. Socializing has completely new meaning and rules. Just going to Target or the grocery store now is a wholly different experience.
And while I think the Governor has done an exemplary job managing this crisis, we need to do better as a State. Our testing rates are low (second to last, actually) and yet our mortality numbers are high (we rank 13th per 1 million in population). We owe the people of Colorado our very best, and as we reopen I’m committed to working with Governor Polis and my colleagues in both parties to ensure Colorado is leads the Nation in the fight to contain the virus.
On the economic front, you’ve likely seen the headlines and already know: the forecast is horrifyingly dark. Nearly 40 million Americans are out of work. While Federal spending through the CARES Act has helped (more on that below), the shortfall is simply too great. We’ve gone from debates about new programs to severe budget cuts totaling $3.1 billion, and no portion of the State budget will be spared. Indeed, this will likely force us to consider deep cuts to K-12 education, Higher Ed, and State contributions to PERA.
It is against this backdrop that the Legislature officially returned to work this AM. Here is what the remainder of the session will look like.
THE REMAINDER OF THE SESSION
The remainder of the Session will focus intensely on responding effectively to the COVID-19 crisis and passing the budget.
First, the House Chamber looks completely different. We have dividers up to keep us safe and members may participate in Second and Third Readings of bills via remote participation. It is good to be reunited with colleagues, but it’s also kinda trippy:
As for legislation there are still three main “buckets” to think about: (1) bills that address our State response to the COVID-19 pandemic, (2) bills that we are required by law to address, including the budget (and orbital bills) and school finance formula, and (3) bills that were in the pipeline and can still be passed without fanfare or fighting (there simply isn’t time).
Starting with the first group, I have spent the past 10+ weeks working tirelessly with my colleagues in both chambers to ensure that our values are seen and heard through our response to the crisis. We have focused on housing issues, mental healthcare, and protecting workers and consumers. This includes bills to extend the foreclosure and eviction moratoria for individuals and small businesses impacted by COVID-19 as well as a new federally funded rental and mortgage assistance fund. We are also working on steering federal dollars to improve mental health for students impacted by the virus.
As for the bills we are required to address, including the budget and the school finance formula, this is where the hard decisions are going to be made and tough votes taken. As you may have read, the cuts are going to be deep and felt by everyone. At the same time, I am very concerned about where things are headed. Unless and until federal law changes, the CARES Act money cannot be used to make up for our budget shortfalls now that revenues have plunged. This ban on using the money to “backfill” the budget means that the cuts will appear worse than they are.
For example, the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) has proposed cutting K-12 education by $724 million. This could be offset somewhat by $510 million in emergency CARES spending, but there will still need to be cuts. During the last recession teachers were asked to absorb HUGE cuts which we never paid back—known as the negative factor or budget stabilization (BS) factor. Ensuring we don’t revisit that will likely trigger a debate about suspending, at least temporarily, the senior homestead property exemption—something I oppose vigorously.
We may very well need in the end, especially given the limitations imposed on us through TABOR, to make painful and difficult decisions that impact our schools and retirees. My commitment to you is to first search everywhere else for alternative funds, to leave no stone unturned—including looking into closing tax loopholes and other deductions—and to lobby my colleagues to explore these other options before we finance this calamity (again) on the backs of teachers, students, and seniors. It may not be enough. We could close $400 million in breaks and still need to cut. But I’m going to fight to close the loopholes first.
Related to the budget is the School Finance Act. I am going to advocate for a more equitable distribution of our limited resources. One way to do this is by reducing the formula’s reliance on cost-of-living, a factor that leads the State to give more money to Aspen then neighboring Lake County.
Finally, there are bills that were in the works and can still be passed. We are all weary of protracted political fights—the consensus is to find consensus and work together like adults to address the pandemic. In that spirit, some the more non-controversial bills will be advanced. I continue to work, for example, with Representatives Michaelson-Jenet and Sirota on the Holocaust & Genocide Studies in Public Schools Act, HB20-1336. The response to the crisis by certain groups has been marred by anti-Semitism and anti-Asian rhetoric and actions, and we must equip the next generation of Coloradans with the knowledge and skills to promote American values of acceptance, courage, and freedom.
The next several weeks are going to be long and difficult. The decisions we make are going to have reverberations for the next several years (which will also be painful, especially 2021). But we MUST keep the needs of vulnerable Coloradans at the top of our priorities.
It is an honor to serve you. Through the hard times and the good. As the ancient adage holds, this, too, shall pass.
Until then, I remain yours with humility, gratitude, and respect,
Representative, House District 6