The Haxtun-Fleming Herald - What can we reason but from what we know? -Alexander Pope

By Marianne Goodland
Legislative Reporter 

Colorado General Assembly shuts down amid COVID-19 outbreak


March 18, 2020

The Colorado General Assembly, after a wild week of news conferences and concerns over the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, has closed its doors for the next two weeks to protect public health.

Lawmakers are tentatively scheduled to return on Monday, March 30, but legislative leaders have said that pausing of the 2020 session could be extended if public health requires it.

The best way to keep the public safe is for lawmakers to not be there, eliminating the need for people to come to the building, according to Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican.

One question that will have to be resolved while lawmakers remain out: just how many days remain in the 2020 regular session.

The divide is over a change in the State Constitution in 1988, when voters approved shortening the session from 140 days to 120 days, and whether those days are consecutive or not.

The General Assembly, under normal conditions, works on consecutive days. The first day of the session is generally the second Wednesday in January, with an ending date set by lawmakers of the second Wednesday in May.

But in a time of a public health emergency, the rules change. In 2009, lawmakers added a rule that said if the governor has declared a disaster emergency — a step he took on March 10 — the legislature operates on separate working days, meaning non-consecutive.

That’s the opinion of the legal counsel for the General Assembly, but it’s an opinion that isn’t shared by everyone. Senator Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told senators this week that a 1988 voter guide tied to the change in the constitution made it clear that the General Assembly’s calendar could not be changed by legislative rule.

The difference matters. Under a non-consecutive calendar, should lawmakers return on March 30, they would not lose any days out of the 120-day session. But the risk is that any bills passed after May 6, the original day set by the General Assembly to adjourn, could be rendered invalid and unconstitutional.

That’s led lawmakers to send a letter to the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the issue. Legislative leaders are hoping for a quick response from the State’s high Court.

If the court decides lawmakers lost 14 days (or more) out of the session, that may mean lawmakers will have to prioritize what they can accomplish with the remaining days. By law, they must approve a State budget for 2020-21, the only duty that’s set in the State Constitution. They also will have to move quickly on the School Finance Act, as well as bills considered “mission critical,” such as funding for the legislative department and 21 bills that reauthorize a variety of State programs, including the Colorado Seed Act.

In other news:

House Democrats rolled out two bills that they say will reduce the likelihood of shootings that use guns that are either lost, stolen or not safely secured in the home.

House Bill 1355 is sponsored by Representative Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, and requires households with children to put trigger locks or cable locks on firearms or secure them in a gun safe. The bill has several exceptions, including one that would allow someone to keep a gun unlocked if it is on a nightstand, for example, or to allow a person under the age of 18 to access an unlocked firearm to protect livestock. 

Duran said the bill doesn’t dictate what kind of lock or safe to use, only that there has to be one. The measure also directs gun dealers to provide a locking device at the time of purchase or incur a $500 fine.

The second bill, House Bill 1356, is sponsored by Representative Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, who sponsored last year’s red flag law. His measure requires anyone whose gun is lost or stolen to report it to law enforcement. Failure to do so could earn the owner a fine. The owner has 48 hours after discovering the gun is lost or stolen to report it. 

The information on a lost or stolen gun would be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center and could be used to flag stolen guns that are used in subsequent crimes, Sullivan said. 

The bills are an intrusion on the Second Amendment, said Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells. The bills look harmless enough, he said, but as a backer of the Second Amendment, he sees it as another bite at those rights. 

Neither bill will make Coloradans any safer, said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. He said he was glad for the exception in HB 1355 for livestock but pointed out that kids under 18 in rural communities know how to handle firearms, and are taught gun safety at an early age, and that isn’t the same way guns are viewed in urban communities. When it comes to guns in rural Colorado, “locks are just silly,” he said. 

The House Judiciary Committee on March 12 turned down an effort to repeal the red flag law. House Bill 1271 would also have amended the laws around a 72-hour hold, used to confine someone who is mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, died on a party-line vote.

In other news:

Governor Jared Polis has signed into law House Bill 1019, the prison bill that allows the Department of Corrections to open two towers at Centennial South in Fremont County and which commissions a study on prison bed capacity. The bill also contains language on criteria that would apply to the pending contract between the State of Idaho and CoreCivic, which wants to take in up to 1,200 inmates for the Kit Carson Correctional Facility in Burlington. 

Rol Hudler, director of economic development for the City of Burlington, said reopening Kit Carson would bring in 300 jobs that would pay as much as $20 an hour, “huge for a rural community,” he said. The prison’s property taxes would boost school funding and reduce the amount of money that State has to provide for local school districts. The prison also pays the city for its water, sewer and electric utilities, he said. 

During his 2020 State of the State, Polis said Colorado would invest “in every corner of our State,” including enhancement to rural economic development. However, Polis also has made closing private prisons a campaign promise and has already succeeded in forcing the closure of the private Cheyenne Mountain Re-entry Center in Colorado Springs. That facility’s last day was March 7.

But statements from the Governor’s office after the bill signing indicated that his view of rural economic development doesn’t include private prisons.

Spokesman Conor Cahill said the Governor was supportive of closing Cheyenne Mountain due to the serious operational challenges that persisted at that facility. (Note: years of annual reports by the Department of Corrections do not raise any concerns about management of Cheyenne Mountain or any other private prison.)

“While there’s no current plan to close any additional private prisons in Colorado, the manner in which GEO severed its contract with the State demonstrates the perils of being overly reliant on private prisons,” Cahill said. “The Polis administration is committed to a Colorado for all and expanding opportunity including making sure our rural communities have a vibrant and diverse economy. In November, the Polis administration released its Rural Economic Blueprint, which is about helping all Coloradans thrive, wherever they live.”

But does that apply to Burlington and the Kit Carson facility? Cahill responded that Polis supports the growth of “diversification and a strong rural economy as a good economic development strategy.” He continued that the State has seen “time and time again how risky and vulnerable an area’s economy becomes when it is reliant on one employer. When our communities become reliant on one employer and that employer pulls out, it is devastating.”

The Polis administration is “committed to aggressively supporting rural economies through diverse industries that embrace the unique assets of Colorado,” Cahill concluded.

Sonnenberg told this reporter that Polis’ view shows “a total lack of understanding” on how rural Colorado and rural economic development works. Many small towns have just one major employer or industry, he said, pointing to, for example, grain elevators in communities like Haxtun and Holyoke. “You take that elevator away, the town dries up,” he said. 

“We’d love to have three or four different employers that can hire all these people and sustain rural Colorado, but the fact is, that’s just not the way it works.”

Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, agreed. “We would all love” that diversity, he said. Every community has things that will attract business, but some will never come, which means that “our opportunities are not for that diversity. It’s not realistic,” he said. “You can’t just say that and expect it to happen,” and added that it points to the disconnect between rural and urban Colorado. 

The State Department of Human Services has awarded $4.6 million in grants to managed service agencies to expand substance use disorder treatment and two centers tied to the Signal Behavioral Health Network in Northeastern Colorado will get almost $1 million of that.

The money, which came out of 2019 legislation, will pay for hiring more certified addiction counselors, launching withdrawal management centers and opening new recovery residence programs, according to a statement from the department.

Advocates for Recovery Colorado was awarded $128,000 to expand its peer recovery support services in Sterling for those ages 18 and over. But the organization doesn’t yet have an office in northeastern Colorado, although they are hoping to open one up in Sterling “soon.”  The department did not respond to a request for comment.

The one facility that does currently work in northeastern Colorado is the Centennial Mental Health Center, which received a grant of $818,844 to develop and implement two “treatment-enhanced recovery residence programs” for those in Logan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Morgan, Yuma, Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Lincoln and Elbert counties. Centennial has a number of offices throughout northeastern Colorado.

The conservation easement reparations bill, Senate Bill 135, cleared the Senate Finance Committee on March 12 on a 4-3 vote, with Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, voting with the committee’s Republicans. The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, but its future, and that of any bill with a cost, is uncertain due to the rapidly changing economy and fears that the March 16 State revenue forecast could portend a recession or other dramatic changes in the availability of State revenues.


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