Colorado lawmakers plan to delay the 2021 legislative session for at least a month because of coronavirus concerns, Democratic leaders announced Monday.
The legislature will reconvene Jan. 13 as originally scheduled to swear in new members and meet technical and constitutional requirements, but then it will go into recess — tentatively until Feb. 16. It’s unclear how long legislators will meet initially. It could be as little as a day or as long as three, depending on what needs to get addressed.
Ceremonial activities also will be delayed, according to the announcement. The governor’s office said the annual State of State address, which usually is given in January, shortly after the legislature convenes, will be postponed and won’t happen until at least February after the session resumes.
“From the very beginning, we’ve worked hard to find ways to protect the health and safety of the public, legislative staff and lawmakers while allowing for public participation,” said Speaker-designate Alec Garnett, D-Denver, in a statement. “Recessing until mid-February will place us farther out from the holiday spike in COVID cases and will allow the bulk of our legislative work to take place when we hope it is safer and more Coloradans will have received the COVID vaccine.”
Garnett said leadership will keep track of the data and talk to public health experts to guide their next moves.
Prior to the pandemic, during legislative sessions, the Capitol building in Denver was typically filled with hundreds of people in addition to the 100 state representatives and senators, from lobbyists to staff to members of the public coming to testify. But since the arrival of COVID-19, interactions and in-person participation have been limited. Temperature checks, mask-wearing among visitors and some lawmakers, and partitions between lawmakers’ desks have become the norm.
While Colorado has administered the first coronavirus vaccine to some frontline workers, the general public isn’t expected to have access until the summer, and experts urge residents to continue safety measures until reaching immunity.
The delay comes at the heels of a three-day emergency session during which lawmakers worked quickly to pass legislation related to coronavirus relief.
“Last month, with a great deal of planning and coordination, we were able to convene a highly-effective special session aimed at alleviating Colorado’s most immediate needs going into the winter season,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, in a statement. “Now as we approach our regular session, we are committed to acting with the same precision and forethought – diligently prioritizing what matters most to our state and completing mission-critical work before temporarily exiting the building.”
The legislature also went into a recess last year at the height of the pandemic’s first wave in March before returning in May and ending in June. The General Assembly is required to meet for 120 days, beginning by the second Wednesday in January, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that those days do not have to be consecutive during a public health emergency.
Both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Democrats, and the announcement came from Democratic leadership. Although House Minority Leader-elect Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said his caucus was consulted about the decision, Colorado Senate Republicans on Twitter asked, “Is it too much to ask that (Colorado Senate Democrats) pick up the phone before announcing these big decisions to the press?”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, said he spoke to Garcia, the Senate president, about a potential delay in the past week and had suggested the new executive committee for next year meet to discuss the issue, but Holbert didn’t know a decision had been made until the announcement Monday.
“I understand not being there, giving the vaccine more time to be distributed,” Holbert said. “It’s just we worked really well together during the special session — Democrats and the governor commented on how much they appreciated it. It seems like we have an opportunity to talk through these things and make decisions together.”
McKean said his members really want to get back to work and accomplish what they were elected to do for their constituents and that the decision most affects rural lawmakers because they have to make plans to be in Denver for extended periods of time and that’s now in limbo.
But, he said, “I understand the desire for giving time for this latest spike to lessen and we’re ready to get back in there and go to work as soon as everybody thinks it’s time and safe to do so.”
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