Crime, COVID Aid, and Cost of Living: What Colorado Lawmakers Will Focus On In 2022 Legislative Session
It also marks the third year that lawmakers have had to do their job in the face of the challenges of the pandemic.
Some of the COVID security protocols instituted on Capitol Hill last year will still be in place. Masks are mandatory in committee rooms and for staff and media on chamber floors, but not mandatory for lawmakers. If desired, lawmakers and staff will receive two COVID tests per week.
Lawmakers will also be able to work remotely as needed.
“We have full confidence in members of the legislature to be responsible role models, to take the necessary precautions to protect themselves, to protect their constituents (and) those who work here on Capitol Hill,” Polis said.
Four things to watch out for this session
Lawmakers have a lot of money to spend (and a few caveats)
The pandemic has been a three-year roller coaster for Colorado’s budget. When it first struck, lawmakers struggled to make extreme cuts as a little understood virus shut down huge parts of the economy.
“This first budget process (in 2020) was in crisis mode, and we were very focused on protection. We were in a defensive position, ”said State Representative Julie McCluskie, the new democratic chairman of the joint budget committee.
Almost two years later, the situation is quite different.
The state has approximately $ 3.6 billion in federal COVID relief money to spend this year. But these funds come with reservations. Federal money is primarily “one-time” – so if lawmakers use it to launch ongoing programs, those can quickly become the responsibility of Colorado taxpayers. Instead, lawmakers say they hope to devote the bulk of the funding to launching “transformative change” in a few areas.
The state also collects significantly more money from its usual sources, such as property taxes and income taxes, due to economic conditions. That’s about $ 3.2 billion in “new” money in the state’s regular budget that lawmakers could spend. The governor offered his own ideas on how to spend that money, including increased funding for education and new public safety programs, as well as setting aside as insurance against future downturns.
But there are caveats: Factors like inflation will consume some of the state’s money, and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights will likely limit income over the next few years while sending billions back to the pockets of the government. Coloradans.
“It’s a bit of a dance, the budgeting process – as you learn more and understand the income and expense equation, you also need to understand the needs and priorities,” he said. McCluskie said.
For now, Democratic leaders are asking their members to monitor the results.
“If you have a new idea, can we implement it in a way that is already part of the program that we have instead of developing a whole new program? »Declared the leader of the majority in the House Daneya Esgar.
What will happen to the state economy and people’s wallets?
Meanwhile, the economy is recovering unpredictably. Employees earn higher wages and better jobs. Companies are struggling to hire for low-paying positions. Inflation affects everyone and is likely to be accelerate federal actions it could flow as far as Colorado.
To help, Democrats say they plan to cut some fees and taxes for businesses. Perhaps the most important measure would collectively save businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in impending unemployment taxes. Employers face a sharp increase in their UI premiums due to the pandemic, but Polis proposed using roughly $ 600 million in state and federal money to reduce the impact.
Democrats are also talking about delaying fees for workers and employers who would pay Colorado’s new paid family leave program.
From 2023, the state is expected to start collecting around 1% of employee paychecks. Polis proposed that the state cut the new fee by a tenth in the first six months and top it up with state money.
Other fees Democrats are targeting include driver’s licenses and professional licenses for teachers, healthcare workers and others.
“Our work will ensure that if you work hard and do your fair share, you get a fair view of the American Dream and the incredible Colorado way of life,” said the Speaker of the House. Alec garnett.
Republicans, however, have pounced on this agenda, accusing Democrats of creating many of the new costs they now want to save people from. (While many Democratic lawmakers have spent years trying to push through a paid family leave program, it was ultimately approved by voters.)
“We found out that all of these other fees and things that were piled up on Colorado families were mistakes, but I didn’t hear that two years ago,” said McKean, minority parliamentary leader. told reporters after seeing Democrats unveil their platform on Monday. “Two years ago, I heard that this is how the government was going to help you. And now we find out, long after the fact, that we really need to pull this stuff off. “
Rise in crime sparks debate over appropriate response
In recent years, Democrats have focused on reforming the criminal justice system in an effort to keep people out of the justice system. But with rising crime rate, Polis and other Democratic leaders say they want to work on crime prevention, through policies that keep people out of trouble and more funding for local departments to hire, retrain and retain law enforcement officers. order.
“We need to consider investing in good policing and public safety measures. I know that it is not only a priority of the governor, it is a priority of the General Assembly and it is a priority of our members and it is a priority for the communities ”, declared the president of the Senate. . Leroy garcia.
Republicans also say they are hearing many concerns from people who do not feel safe in their own neighborhood or in places like downtown Denver, and that if officer training is part of it. the solution, the state must also toughen the application of the law.
Republican State Senator Paul Lundeen said they heard of people calling to report a theft or other property crime and being told that police did not have the resources to deal with it.
“It is a tragedy and people need to feel safe in their community,” he said.
While Polis has said he sees a great opportunity for bipartisan collaboration on public safety this session, some other Democrats fear losing momentum in their reform efforts of recent years.
“My community is concerned that we are being targeted and blamed for the rise in crime,” said State Representative Jennifer Bacon, member of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus. “So I think for me personally I can’t just be a progressive when it’s easy and I can’t just wait for the pendulum to swing so far that it will take another tragedy to get this job done. ”
Bacon plans to work on legislation that would prevent people from being jailed for low-level crimes, and ways to further erase some criminal records to give people a better chance to enter the workforce and reduce the burden. recidivism after conviction.
Lots of money for behavioral health, but is it enough?
Behavioral health is another area where lawmakers see an opportunity to use federal COVID dollars to make big changes.
Democratic State Senator Brittany Pettersen chaired the Behavioral Health Working Group who worked during the legislative offseason to develop a list of proposals spend $ 450 million in one-off funds.
“I couldn’t be more excited that we had the committee’s unanimous support for these policies,” Pettersen said.
Among their goals are better coordination between mental and physical health care providers and better monitoring of people in crisis to ensure they get the help they need, instead of just cycling through hospitals. .
Democratic State representing Judy Amabile actively worked on ideas to improve how the state approaches mental health issues throughout his first term. Her adult son has schizophrenia and the challenges his family faces were part of what led her to run for office.
“$ 450 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you really start digging for what’s needed, it’s not a lot,” Amabile said. “But we can still make significant improvements to the system with this money. It won’t solve everything, but it will make a difference in the lives of many people. So I am optimistic that we will accomplish this.