Colorado lawmakers water down requirement that counties comply with coronavirus restrictions to get aid

On the final day of Colorado’s special legislative session, during which 10 bills were passed, Democrats in the General Assembly backtracked on one of the most controversial aspects of their $200 million-plus relief package

By John Frank & Jesse Paul, Colorado Sun

Dec 2, 2020

Colorado’s three-day special legislative session finished Wednesday with lawmakers watering down one of the most contentious parts of their $200 million-plus package aimed at providing economic relief during the coronavirus crisis. 

The Democratic-led General Assembly initially excluded businesses from being eligible for direct government aid if they were located in counties that refused to comply with public health mandates from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration. 

But a last-minute amendment to Senate Bill 1 extended the $37 million in relief to businesses in cities that adhere to the state regulations, as well as those within a mile, even if the cities are in a county that refuses to follow the regulations.

Republican lawmakers balked at the restrictions for aid dollars and struck a deal with Democrats to soften the approach to force counties to follow the guidelines. The move will spare some businesses located in Weld County, where commissioners have vowed to flout the state’s public health orders. The opponents of the bill argued the county was targeted by the compliance clause.

“I believe this amendment is essential to provide protections for businesses that are following public health orders and really want to continue to thrive,” said Rep. Mary Young, a Democrat who represents Greeley, the largest city in Weld County.

The legislation is the marquee relief measure for the special session and will be accessible to restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and more businesses with less than $2.5 million in annual revenue. The small business relief program can provide up to $7,000 in a one-time payment to those that qualify. To be eligible, businesses must have lost at least 20% of their revenue since March 26, when the state’s first stay-at-home order was issued.

Also, the bill provides $7.5 million through grants to struggling artists and sets aside $4 million for direct payments to minority-owned businesses. 

Despite the late change, the bill continued to draw opposition from some Republican lawmakers for its limited scope and coercive intent.

“I think we open ourselves up to just criticism that we are picking winners and losers in this,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, in voting against Senate Bill 1. “When we limit who has access to these recovery funds — whether it’s based on the color of your skin, or what industry you’re in, what minority status you’re in — I think that’s not our role. I think our role is to look out for all Coloradans, all taxpayers. I think we fail to do that in this bill.”

In the House, the legislation became a proxy for a debate on the merit of the governor’s orders to limit capacity or shut down certain businesses that can’t meet the requirements. The debate struck a bitter tone in the final moments of the special session.

“The government has created the problem these small businesses are now facing,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, the former Republican leader from Castle Rock, a city that is refusing to comply. “Now we are here saying, ‘Oh, the state is going to help them out.’”

Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the extension of the benefits made the bill better but it is still punitive. He encouraged more localities and businesses to defy the state’s public health orders.  

“We have come to the point where we are beginning to see the bubbling of soft tyranny,” he said. 

Williams continued: “I do believe there should be more counties and municipalities and businesses that do engage in civil disobedience. There are people going out of business — not mainly because of COVID but because of the orders being imposed upon them.”

The remark led to a rebuke from Rep. Cathy Kipp, who said it was irresponsible to ask people to rebel against public health orders. She compared it to the decisions by some Republican lawmakers not to wear masks at the Capitol and endanger their colleagues and staff.

“I am not going to tolerate people encouraging the type of civil disobedience that will cost lives,” the Democrat from Fort Collins said. “That is not OK.”