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Colorado Lawmakers Battle Over Legislative Calendar During Emergency Recess

The Colorado House of Representatives adjourned on March 14. The recess is expected to go beyond Monday.
The Colorado House of Representatives adjourned on March 14. The recess is expected to go beyond Monday.

The halls of the state Capitol are so quiet and empty during the coronavirus pandemic, some state patrol troopers have been spotted biking through the halls outside of the governor's office.

But while the building is closed to the public indefinitely and lawmakers remain away on an emergency recess that is likely to extend into April, party leaders are still waging a high-stakes political battle behind the scenes.

Democrats who control the majority in the legislature are asking the Colorado Supreme Court to rule that they can extend the legislative session past May 6 to make up the weeks they are losing during the crisis.

Such a move might allow them to more easily return this summer and pass some of their biggest legislative priorities, such as a paid family leave program.

Sen. President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, says lawmakers should not "abandon all the work (our constituents) elected us to accomplish on their behalf."

Attorney General Phil Weiser and Gov. Jared Polis are also taking the position that the legislature should be able to extend the session past May 6.

But Republican lawmakers say the 120 days of the legislative session must be consecutive, and the session should still end on May 6.

If lawmakers want more time to pass bills, Republicans say Gov. Polis can call a special session this summer.

"The Colorado Constitution is meant to limit government, and the 120-day period protects the people from overreach," said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. "Those 120 days can only be read as consecutive, which means that our job as a legislature is to prioritize our work to do what is most necessary, not move goalposts to try to push through non-essential legislation."

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, told reporters earlier this month that if lawmakers had to rely on Polis calling a special session, it would give the governor the ability to set the agenda, not lawmakers.

Lawmakers would need a two thirds majority to call their own special session, a scenario that seems more unlikely with Republican lawmakers calling for the session to end May 6.

Meanwhile, it still isn't clear when lawmakers will be able to return to the Capitol to decide which of the roughly 350 bills that are still pending should move forward.

More cities in Colorado, including the Denver metro area, are adopting shelter-in-place orders and closing non-essential businesses as the virus continues to spread.

During a call with reporters last week, Democratic legislative leaders sounded resigned to the fact the recess might be extended for several more weeks.

They also were telling members that any bills to fund new programs that don't directly address the coronavirus crisis will likely not move forward.

Becker did mention paid family leave as a potential exception.

She told the Colorado Sun this week the legislature is looking to extend the recess beyond Monday, when lawmakers were originally scheduled to resume work.

Lawmakers are hoping to get a response from the Supreme Court on the length of the session as soon as next week.

More than 20 state legislatures have adjourned due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Courtesy/National Conference of State Legislatures
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More than 20 state legislatures have adjourned due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Copyright 2020 KUNC

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.
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