A Tale of Two Sessions

The 2020 session at Denver Metro Chamber State of the State. 

A legislative session that began with several costly proposals later dropped, such as state-run paid family leave and a state health insurance option, ended with a battle over bills that added additional burdens and costs to business, such as unemployment insurance and roll-backs to tax relief, Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, told more than 700 attendees at the Chamber’s 14th annual  State of the State on Monday.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, as well as Joint Budget Committee (JBC) Vice Chair Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City), JBC Member Sen. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) and Chamber Board Chair David Eves, also spoke at the virtual event.

“Unfortunately, what we were told would be a fast, free and friendly second half of the session turned into a battle over costly proposals for employers,” Brough said during her remarks. “For every encouraging piece of legislation, there were three or four bills that added additional burdens and costs to business. In a different economy or in isolation, we’d be disappointed by each one of these bills, but in this environment these types of bills reduce confidence and create uncertainty, slow potential hiring and hurt our economic recovery.”

 The business community was able to negotiate for amendments that lessened the blow for several bills, including a sick leave for employers (Senate Bill 205), increases to unemployment insurance contributions (Senate Bill 207), increased fees to fund the state’s reinsurance program and other health care-related expenses (Senate Bill 215), whistleblower rules (House Bill 1415) and a tax bill that would have rolled back relief for most businesses (House Bill 1420). A bill related to essential workers that the business community opposed was postponed indefinitely (Senate Bill 216).

In his remarks, Gov. Polis mostly shared his appreciation for businesses’ efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 by requiring facemasks and practicing social distancing.

“We know that there are tough days behind us and tough days ahead,” he said. “We’ve always come out the other side stronger.”

He also voiced his support for two issues headed to November’s ballot – one that would repeal the Gallagher Amendment to bring commercial and property taxes in line and one to increase taxes on nicotine and vaping products to fund health care and education.

Moreno also said the Gallagher Amendment would help the JBC in its long-time struggle to fund education.

“It’s the Gallagher Amendment that’s required more and more education funding to come from the state’s budget,” Moreno said. “Two-thirds of funding for K-12 comes from the state budget, because the Gallagher Amendment has forced down property assessment rates for years.”

Gov. Polis signed the state’s budget Monday morning before the event. Moreno and Rankin were among the JBC members who had to work together to build a balanced budget while facing a $3.4 billion budget shortfall. The JBC worked for three weeks through over 350 decision items to completely rethink the budget. The final budget reflected cuts including $557 million to K-12 schools, $492 million to higher education, and the suspension of $225 million in a direct distribution payment to the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Some of those cuts were offset in part by the $1.67 billion that Colorado received from the federal CARES Act to fund items like public health and education.

The budget process reminded us how economics works, Brough said. “A downturn in the private sector impacts the public sector – fewer people paying income tax, fewer companies paying income taxes, fewer people and companies buying goods – all reduces revenues to local governments,” she said. “Our focus during this time is how to keep our employers viable and their employees on payroll, which in turn reduces the negative financial impact on the public sector.”

Rankin said his focus while working with other JBC members was to get people back to work. “From the business community’s perspective, recovery is to me is more important than finding ways to tax ourselves out of this situation,” he said.

Even though the session led to conflicts between some lawmakers and the business community, both Brough and Eves shared their appreciation to Speaker of the House K.C. Becker (D-Boulder) and other legislators for their leadership this year.

“These past few months have been so challenging in so many ways and your commitment to your communities and to Colorado does not go unnoticed and we’re grateful to you,” Eves said.

Premier Sponsors of State of the State were Alpine Bank, BOK Financial, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, CBRE, Centura Health, CenturyLink, Checkr, Denver Water, Dynalectric Company, HealthONE, Husch Blackwell, Land Title Grand Company, NREL, OfficeScapes, Plante Moran, PNC Bank, RK Saunders Construction, Suncor, Transamerica, United Airlines, US Bank, Wells Fargo and Xcel Energy.

Read the Chamber’s positions on various bills from the 2020 Legislative Session.