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As the Colorado General Assembly convenes a special session on Monday, Nov. 30, to pass bi-partisan COVID-19 relief legislation (see Colorado Senate Democrats legislative agenda press release below), RealVail.com reached out to the two local state lawmakers – state Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail and state Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon – to get their assessments.
Broadly, in the absence of another round of federal relief, which Vail Valley Partnership President and CEO Chris Romer called “terrifying” for local businesses in early August and “not a viable strategy” in early October, state lawmakers hope to partially fill the void with bills that “support small businesses, increase access to childcare and food assistance, help Coloradans cover their housing and utility costs, and improve broadband options for students in need.”
Real Vail: Colorado has been crushed financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, suffering massive budget shortfalls. The state has to make cuts because our constitution says we have to balance our budget every year. Given all of that, what can the state do to help if the federal government doesn’t step up with more COVID-19 relief?
Sen. Kerry Donovan: “These would normally be appropriations. Once the state goes through three quarters of its fiscal year you kind of get an idea of how accurate your budgeting was, and sometimes that means some places need more money and some places it means you had a big savings. What we found is some places that we thought would be utilized more weren’t, and so our pandemic spending response needs to adjust a little bit and that’s what this special session is about.”
RV: But don’t the feds really need to step up?
KD: “We absolutely need the federal government’s help because … the federal government is the only branch of government that can print money and make the level of significant investment that a worldwide pandemic needs. Constitutionally, [Colorado] cannot do deficit spending. We’re doing what we can.”
RV: Why is that the Democrat-controlled U.S. House has passed multiple relief bills since the first bipartisan round of relief last spring, but the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has offered only bare-bones packages?
KD: “It’s really hard to ask people who don’t believe in the goodness of government — or they don’t believe that the government’s role is to help people — so it’s really hard to then trust that what their offer is would get to our neighbors when in the past they’ve shown they’re more willing to help out the largest of corporations with a belief that corporations are going to be benevolent in this time. There’s just nothing we can point to that the richest people aren’t getting richer right now. My friends don’t have jobs, and I’m reading that the 10 richest people only got richer over these past months. This is the exact reason why people have really lost faith in government, and I can’t blame them.”
RV: What are you hearing most from your constituents in Vail and all across state Senate District 5?
KD: “Frustration from the service industry and just soul-crushing concern of restaurants really trying to do the right thing and the numbers just don’t add up. We make some of the health care advisories based on hospital capacity – they’re not arbitrary of capricious – but I understand how they can feel punishing. The restaurants are not the ones who caused this, so there’s definitely a lot of collateral damage, and I can’t expect anyone not to be angry about this stuff.”
RealVail.com put the same basic question about federal-versus-state relief actions to Roberts.
RV: If there is no lame-duck stimulus deal in Washington on unemployment, with state and local funding from the feds and eviction protections into next year, how much can the state really do to make a difference?
Dylan Roberts: “We are heading back to the Capitol now, in the midst of a spiking pandemic, because while it will not be a lot, we have an obligation to do whatever we can at the state level to help businesses, individuals, and families while the U.S. Congress sits on its hands and continues in partisan warfare when people are really hurting. We anticipate passing a package of state legislation that will provide tax relief for restaurants, provide expanded payments to unemployed Coloradans, open up more child care opportunities, provide better broadband for remote-learning students, and more. With COVID cases and hospitalizations reaching crisis levels, we decided we simply could not wait for the regular legislative session to begin in January. It is the U.S. Congress that has the financial ability to provide wide-scale relief but since they are not acting, we will do whatever we can at the state level. It will unfortunately not be enough for everyone and every business, but it will help and hopefully bridge the gap for many while we wait for the new administration and new Congress to pass relief legislation.”
Here’s the legislative lineup via a press release Sunday from the Colorado Senate Democrats:
DENVER, CO – The Colorado General Assembly will convene a special session on Monday, November 30 to pass bi-partisan COVID-19 relief legislation that will support small businesses, increase access to child care and food assistance, help Coloradans cover their housing and utility costs, and improve broadband options for students in need.
“Congressional inaction has left millions stranded – completely abandoned in their time of need. Small businesses have been drowning for months waiting for comprehensive federal aid, while hardworking Coloradans anxiously watch housing and unemployment support dissipate,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. “The amount the Colorado state government can do to alleviate the burdens of struggling communities is limited, but it’s not nothing. That’s why we are using everything in our power to deliver the support families and businesses need to make it through another couple months. I fully believe that federal relief is on its way, but Coloradans simply can’t wait any longer. This stimulus package will help cover the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the pandemic and buoy us until more help is available.”
“We have to do everything possible in Colorado to help families, workers and businesses get through the challenging months ahead,” said Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder. “This pandemic is taking its toll on nearly every Coloradan, with businesses on the brink of closing and families struggling to avoid eviction or foreclosure. Only Washington can deliver the kind of comprehensive relief our communities need, but Coloradans can’t wait any longer. Our state government will step up with every tool we have, despite our limited budget, to do what we can to help bridge the gap until Congress acts and until a vaccine is ready.”
“The lack of federal leadership during the coronavirus pandemic has claimed more than just human life, it’s claimed careers, financial stability, mental health, and our way of existing in community,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “This package of bills cannot replace what we’ve lost and it can’t make up for the lack of nation-wide relief, but it can offer a lifeline to those who find themselves fighting to stay afloat. We are committed to implementing any and all solutions that get us over this next hurdle, which will be one of the biggest ones we have faced yet, but together we can make it through.”
“Restaurants and bars, small businesses, and hardworking families across our state are struggling to make ends meet as the virus spreads at record levels and essential federal aid has run out,” said Speaker-designate Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “Our state legislature will get to work Monday on a relief package to support small businesses, help families avoid foreclosure or eviction, and increase access to safe child care options. While we still need Congress to pass a meaningful relief package, we have a responsibility to do what we can to boost our economy and help Coloradans get through this pandemic.”
The General Assembly will address seven key areas aimed at providing immediate relief to Coloradans who have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each area will include policy proposals focused on meeting the most essential needs of families and businesses.
Small Business Aid (Sens. Winter & Priola and Rep. Herod): Capacity limits have severely impacted small businesses across the state, especially bars, restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues. To buttress these industries for the difficult winter months ahead, two bills are being proposed. The first will begin in the Senate, sponsored by Senators Winter & Priola and Representatives Herod. This bill will send $57 million in direct aid, grants, and annual fee waivers to struggling small businesses – prioritizing those operating in counties experiencing severe capacity restrictions. It will also create grant programs and allocate funds specifically for art and cultural organizations as well as minority-owned businesses.
Sales Tax Relief (Reps. A. Valdez & Van Winkle and Sens. Bridges & Tate): Eating establishments have been hit particularly hard by capacity restrictions. This bill will allow restaurants, bars, and food trucks to retain state sales tax they collect from November 2020 through February 2021. This will provide bars and restaurants from $2,000 to $10,000 in tax reliefeach month to help them make ends meet.
Child Care Support (Reps. Kipp & Landgraf and Sens. Pettersen & Sonnenberg): Colorado’s economic recovery depends on its workforce having access to stable child care. But due to temporary closures and the increased costs of health and safety precautions for child care providers, many are on the brink of financial collapse. This legislation will distribute $45 million to enable existing providers to keep their doors open and new providers to open and meet the needs of working parents, especially in child care deserts. These grant programs are estimated to support 2,600 child care facilities, preserving child care for over 100,000 children and creating capacity for tens of thousands more. Moreover, research shows that for every dollar spent on early childhood programs, $2.25 is contributed to our state’s economy.
Housing and Direct Rental Assistance (Sens. Gonzales & Holbert and Reps. Exum, Sr. & Tipper): The impending expiration of federal assistance programs such as enhanced unemployment benefits, leaves millions of Coloradans vulnerable to eviction or foreclosure in the coming months. In fact, according to recent surveys, over 40 percent of Coloradans are living in a household that is behind on their rent or mortgage and at risk of foreclosure or eviction. This legislation will provide $50 million for emergency housing assistance to individuals and households who are in financial need due to the COVID-19. Of the funding, $500,000 will support the Eviction Legal Assistance Fund, which will help Coloradans stay in their homes this winter.
Increasing Broadband Access (Sens. Donovan & Coram and Reps. Young & Soper): Internet access is absolutely essential for students during this difficult time. But many families who are struggling with financial stability simply can’t afford to cover the cost, while numerous school districts lack the infrastructure to educate their students remotely. This proposal will dedicate $20 million towards increasing our state’s broadband capacity – connecting more students to their teachers so that they can learn safely in the months ahead.
Food Pantry Assistance (Rep. Cutter & Bockenfeldand Sen. Story): 1 in 3 Coloradans are struggling with food insecurity as more and more families are being forced to choose between paying their bills and putting food on the table. Food banks and their partners need additional assistance to meet the rising demands, especially as the December expiration for federal hunger-relief looms. A bill beginning in the House would devote $3 million to replenishing these essential community services to increase access to food for Colorado families that fear they’ll go to bed hungry.
Utilities Assistance (Sens. Fields & Crowder and Reps. Duran & Landgraf): As unemployment numbers remain high and federal resources continue to dwindle, many Coloradans are at risk of losing their utilities – a dangerous outcome in the winter months. This bill will appropriate $5 million to the Energy Outreach Colorado Low-Income Energy Assistance Fund in order to meet the 25% increase in applications that Energy Outreach Colorado has seen this year.
Public Health Response (Sens. Moreno & Rankin and Reps. McCluskie): With many hospitals across Colorado reaching critical capacity in recent weeks, additional funds are needed to continue the State’s robust public health response. This legislation will allocate an additional $100 million to ensure the State can continue to protect public health while we await additional federal stimulus and reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The legislature will convene with the same overall composition and legislative leadership as the 2020 regular legislative session. Lawmakers will have the option of participating remotely for floor work, and there will be limited committee work with remote public testimony options. Other measures will also be adopted to mitigate the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, including the provision of additional safety measures in the building, such as daily rapid testing and KN95 masks for legislators and staff as well as increased social distancing.