General Assembly completes first week of business, as House Republicans take final stand against adjournment

By Michael Karlik & Marianne Goodland, Colorado Politics

Jan 15, 2021

The 73rd General Assembly adjourned on Friday after passing seven urgent bills, although not before Republicans in the House of Representatives lodged one final protest of the planned month-long hiatus.

“By scheduling our regular sessions in fits and starts during a declared disaster emergency, the General Assembly is effectively abdicating its duty to represent the people’s will to the executive branch," said Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, reading a formal letter of protest in the House chamber.

All 24 members of the minority caucus signed on to criticize the legislature over leaving town, including first-term Rep. Ron Hanks, R-Penrose, who has not been present for votes since Wednesday morning.

“I certainly don't agree with the words that were in the letter," responded House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, but he asked lawmakers to honor Williams' request to enter the letter into the body's journal.

Among the seven pieces of legislation sent to the governor's desk were a renewal of the law that licenses occupational therapists, enabling the electronic execution of wills and extending limitations on debt collections.

Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, spoke at length in favor of Senate Bill 1, which revises a measure passed in the extraordinary session of late 2020, expanding the eligibility criteria for $4 million in COVID-19 aid that was originally destined for minority-owned businesses.

“These companies have endured the effects of systemic discrimination that has limited their ability to be successful," she said, citing a July 2020 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reporting that Black-owned firms have been nearly twice as likely to close as others during the pandemic. Among the reasons were the higher likelihood of Black-owned businesses being in COVID-19 hotspots and those companies' weaker relationships with banks, which had implications for accessing Paycheck Protection Program loans.

Following the legislature's enactment of a broader aid package last year, the white owner of a Colorado Springs barbershop sued, claiming the race-based criteria were discriminatory.

Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs, pushed back on that argument.

"Four million out of 64 counties? I think if anybody needs to be offended, I think [minority business owners] should be offended that it’s so little," he said. 

Asserting that minority business owners would likely receive less money relative to their share of the state's population, Sandridge added, "at the end of the day, Caucasian white people are gonna get the huge lion’s share. That just happens. Whether you like it or not, those are the facts.”

Five Republicans joined Sandridge and the Democrats in passing the change, adding additional eligibility criteria for the $4 million program.

The Senate quickly dealt with the final four bills on their agenda:

Lawmakers also considered multiple resolutions. One, honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., elicited heartfelt stories and tears, especially as Rep. Dominique Jackson, D-Aurora, recalled discrimination she faced as a child, including being beaten with a broom in a grocery store because she and her mother were not allowed to be there.

"Literally last night, my husband and I were watching the news and a story came on about a Black man who was on his porch and was shot," she said. "And I told my husband, as I have done so many times, 'please, sweetheart, can you fast-forward through this? Because my heart cannot bear the pain of watching another man be gunned down.'" 

A separate resolution in the Senate, elicited this from Sen. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora: "Many of the struggles he fought for are still unresolved," she said, such as quality education, a living wage and full access to health care. "These are the basics of human existence."

She noted that 87% of Black Americans say they still face discrimination. "I am in that number. As a Black woman, I've always been treated differently than white counterparts. I have experienced more racism in my life than you can even imagine."

Buckner said she is still followed by security when she goes into department stores, or that people clutch their purses when she walks by. Workers who come to her house assume she's the help, not the owner. "But I will not give up hope."

The General Assembly also adopted a memorial to President-elect Joe Biden and others on the decision by the Trump administration to move US Space Command to Alabama, going against a recommendation by the Air Force. 

Related: General Assembly condemns decision by Trump administration to move US Space Command

In the end, House Republicans, who had begun the three-day session with extended complaints about the rules, voted nearly-unanimously against the resolution to adjourn until mid-February.

“We’ve put in place a lot of protection for members," said Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, arguing against the break, "whether it’s testing, whether it’s temperature control, whether it’s the plexiglass between the desk, whether it’s the wearing of face masks.”

"This isn’t about legislators taking a month off," countered Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. Observing that several representatives had not, in fact, adhered to safety measures, she added: "It is not safe to be in this building."

Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, sided with Esgar. "The folks who have to be here are our staff. At this moment when we have such a rise, such a peak in the cases of this vile disease ... I can support going and coming back," he said. 

Williams, who does not wear a mask, described the break as being "against the will of the people" and unconstitutional, despite the state Supreme Court's finding last year that the 120-day session could operate non-consecutively in a public health emergency.