Colorado Democrats unveiled a COVID-19 response package to help the state recover from the worst pandemic it’s seen in more than a century.
The package, which consists of 14 bills, covers everything from housing assistance to small business grants. Some of the bills require funding from the federal CARES Act to move forward while others do not.
Colorado was allocated $1.67 billion from the federal CARES Act to help with novel coronavirus relief efforts.
Gov. Jared Polis had already allocated $1.6 billion of that money to various programs, something Republican lawmakers say he didn’t have the right to do.
“Quite frankly, that was our job and the governor told us it was our job and then yanked it away from us,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican who represents Colorado's 1st District.
The decision to allocate the money was made while the state legislature was still on a recess due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This legislature has given this governor so much power in an emergency situation,” Sen. Sonnenberg said. “The Democrat leadership does not want to challenge the governor.”
Seven of the bills Democrats unveiled will require money from the CARES Act funding:
-- $20 million would go to the Energize Colorado Fund that provides assistance to small businesses in Colorado with less than 25 employees.
-- $20 million would go to rental and mortgage assistance ($350,000 of which would be for legal aid for renters facing evictions)
-- $15 million would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment programs
-- $10 million would go to utility relief assistance programs
-- $500,000 would go to domestic violence programs
-- $500,000 would go to food pantry assistance programs
-- $500,000 would go to the state’s 2-1-1 services to help direct people to different relief options
The remaining money (about $3.5 million) would go to the unemployment insurance fund. However, that money is just a drop in the bucket with the amount the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) is giving out each week for the unemployed.
Rep. Lisa Cutter, D-Jefferson County, who is the co-sponsor of the utility assistance bill, hopes the money will help families get back on their feet.
“We’re looking at all the ways we can help people who have been devastated by COVID, and certainly the governor putting a moratorium on energy payments was helpful, but that’s going to catch up with people,” Rep. Cutter said.
She points out that along with trying to make ends meet, families who are following the safer-at-home guidelines and staying in their houses are using more utilities, meaning their bills are higher.
“This is the time where we all need to come together to take care of those basic things for Coloradans and make sure everybody can have their basic needs met so we can all together as a state get back to business,” she said.
If passed, people would be able to apply for help through energy assistance programs.
Seven other bills that are part of the COVID-19 relief package do not call for the use of CARES Act dollars. They are:
-- A small business recovery loan program to help small businesses recover from the pandemic. The loan fund would consist of $250 million ($50 million in money from the state that is generated through the sale of life insurance premium tax credits and $200 million from private lenders) over the next two fiscal years
-- Whistleblower protections for employees who raise concerns about the health and safety practices of their employer during a pandemic
-- Requiring businesses to provide a limited amount of paid sick leave for employees
-- A bill to reimburse medical providers for telehealth so that it can be a health care option for patients after the declared emergency ends
-- Expanding access to unemployment insurance benefits as well as the list of who qualifies for them
-- Expanding the Attorney General’s right to stop extraordinary debt collection actions during emergencies, such as garnishments.
-- Adding more protections against price gouging during emergencies
“I just want to make sure that the hard-working people are not spending every penny of their paycheck on essential goods that they should be able to buy when there’s no shortage of those things,” said Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Jefferson County, who co-sponsored the price gouging legislation.
The bill would not only apply to medical items likes masks and hand sanitizer, it would also apply to things like construction equipment.
Rep. Titone said there were instances after the flooding in 2013 where the price of construction equipment skyrocketed as people tried to rebuild.
“When you have an emergency situation there’s no reason for someone to charge exorbitant prices for things that are necessities for those people,” Rep. Titone said.
Right now, the Colorado Attorney General already has the authority through the Consumer Protections Act to go after some forms of price-gouging. Rep. Titone says this bill will better spell out the office’s rights, particularly during a pandemic.
On the House floor Monday, some openly questioned the need for the bill, calling it a waste of time.
Republicans say they have had little to no say on how the CARES Act dollars were being spent or the COVID-19 response legislation. They cannot introduce bills this late in the session without the majority’s approval.
Sen. Sonnenberg says there are parts of the COVID-19 response legislation Republicans can get behind, however they would like to have more of a say in how the state is responding to the pandemic.
“They are not having those conversations with us, we’re not at the table, nor is the general public and that is a problem when it comes to legislating in this last week as we rush forward,” Sen. Sonnenberg said.
He would have liked to see more of the money allocated to local jurisdictions, saying a one-size-fits-all approach to pandemic relief doesn’t work when different areas are recovering differently.
“There are legitimate local expenses, local actions that need funding,” he said.
He and other Republicans like Sen. Bob Rankin have also said they would have liked to see more money go to the unemployment insurance fund instead of having the premiums raised for already hurting businesses when the fund runs out of money.
“That fund has been decimated by a government action, so government should be responsible helping replenish that fund,” Sen. Sonneberg said.
Regardless of Republican opposition, with only a few days left in the legislative session, Democrats say they are moving quickly to try to provide some relief to Coloradans to help the state recover from a lengthy and costly pandemic.