By Julie Pelegrin
Finally, the longest, shortest, strangest legislative session in recent memory is over. Monday, June 15, 2020 – that’s right, June 15 – the 72nd General Assembly wrapped up their second regular legislative session. The total number of bills introduced was comparable to past sessions: 427 House bills and 224 Senate bills for a total of 651. What was different about this session was that 88 of those bills were introduced in the last 16 days of the session.
There were actually several things that were different about this session.
On the 67th legislative day, March 14, the General Assembly temporarily adjourned until March 30 due to the public safety concerns raised by the COVID-19 pandemic. When they attempted to return on March 30, a quorum of legislators was not present in either house, so the temporary adjournment continued until May 26. This was the first time in 30 years that the regular legislative session did not end within 120 days after it started.
When the General Assembly temporarily adjourned on March 14, they invoked for the first time Joint Rule 44 (g) of the Joint Rules of the Senate and House of Representatives, which says that, during a declared statewide health emergency, the limit of 120 calendar days that the constitution places on the length of a regular legislative session applies only to the days on which at least one of the houses actually convenes. (Otherwise, every calendar day beginning with the first day of the legislative session counts toward the limit). Just to be sure, the General Assembly submitted an interrogatory to the Colorado Supreme Court, and the Court confirmed that counting only working calendar days complies with article V, section 7 of the Colorado constitution.
So Tuesday, May 26, when both houses reconvened, was the 69th legislative day. And the day on which the General Assembly adjourned sine die – June 15 – was actually only the 84th legislative day. Thus, in another first in 30 years, the General Assembly ended the legislative session a bit more than a month early, while also ending a bit more than a month late.
Although the session was interrupted and truncated, the General Assembly considered the usual wide range of policy issues: education, death penalty, health care, water, taxes, housing, regulation of vaping and other nicotine products – the gamut. But it seems some of the biggest issues were handled in the last 16 days after the General Assembly reconvened.
As of March 14, neither the annual budget bill nor the annual school finance bill – the only two measures that the constitution requires each year – had been introduced, although the budget bill was almost finished. Because of the unprecedented drop in the economy caused by the secondary effects of COVID-19, the Joint Budget Committee and its staff put in many, many exhausting hours rewriting the entire bill. As originally written, the budget was expected to spend approximately $800 million more in the 2020-21 fiscal year than in the 2019-20 fiscal year; as passed, the budget spends approximately $3.3 billion less. The school finance bill also had to be written to reflect the constitutionally required increase in per-pupil statewide base funding of $132 (1.9% for inflation) above the per-pupil statewide base amount for the 2019-20 fiscal year and, due to the loss in revenue, a decrease of approximately $445 million in the total amount the state will appropriate the 2020-21 fiscal year for school finance below the amount appropriated for the 2019-20 fiscal year. The school finance bill also includes a provision to potentially—but not in 2020-21—increase the amount of property tax that school districts collect to rebalance the amount of revenue contributed by school districts and by the state to fund public schools.
There were other significant tax measures passed in the last 16 days. This November, voters will consider whether to repeal the Gallagher amendment, the constitutional provision that controls the assessment rates for residential and business property, and whether to increase the taxes on nicotine products to the tune of about $83 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, about $168 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and more in subsequent years. The revenue is earmarked for rural schools and school districts, preschool programs, tobacco education programs, affordable housing construction grants and loans, and eviction legal defense costs.
The General Assembly also passed House Bill 20-1420, concerning the adjustment of certain state tax expenditures in order to allocate additional revenues to the state education fund. This bill, for purposes of state income taxes, reverses some of the effects of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) that would otherwise reduce state revenue. Also, beginning in the 2021 tax year, the bill extends the earned income tax credit (EITC) to taxpayers who do not have a valid social security number but otherwise qualify for the credit and increases the amount of the EITC beginning in 2022. For the first two years, the bill is expected to result in a net increase in state revenue of up to $126 million, all of which will be transferred to the state education fund. Beginning in the 2022-23 fiscal year, the bill is expected to cause a net decrease in state revenue of up to $92 million over two years.
And lest we think the last 16 days have been all about money, the General Assembly also passed Senate Bill 20-217, enacting landmark criminal law reforms in direct response to the public’s calls for changes in law enforcement.
Clearly it was a busy 16 days. Legislators now turn their attention to the duties of the interim and the coming elections, while legislative staff shift their focus to publishing the statutes, reviewing agency rules, finalizing the state’s 2020-21 budget, preparing the 2020 Blue Book explaining the initiatives and referenda that will be on the November ballot, and planning the training program for the new legislators who will join the 73rd General Assembly in January 2021.
Mark your calendars: the first regular session of the 73rd General Assembly will convene at 10:00 a.m., January 13, 2021.