How Will the 2021 Legislative Session Affect the Business Community?

The session came to a close earlier this month after 116 days of work. While technically four days short of a typical legislative session, this session felt longer. We are still recovering from a global pandemic, and the scope of legislative issues and the volume of bills really kept us hopping.

For you, our members, we know having to shift your focus away from your employees and work and toward policy can be frustrating. Even with our efforts to summarize policy and ensure you were informed, we know it took a toll on you, too. Thank you for staying engaged and sharing your views with our legislators — it makes all the difference.

We couldn’t do this work without you, or without the leadership of our board, Legislative Policy Committee, Legal Advisory Council, the lobbying team of Brandeberry McKenna and the team here at the Chamber. Thank you to everyone who dedicates their time to ensure the impacts of policy are understood.

This session, the Chamber weighed in on over 70 bills and reviewed countless more. Let’s dig into some of the most impactful work this session. And, you will see that it’s not just the substance of the policy but how constituents are treated and heard. That’s the gist of my remarks from the Chamber’s State of the State last week – you can read those here.

Employment and business regulations: How we do business matters. We know this, and our members are dedicated to protecting employees and growing opportunity. That reality makes it hard to criticize bills like Senate Bill 176, a bill that would have changed definitions and processes related to harassment and discrimination with the only impact being employees and employers spending more time in court. You can imagine how difficult it is to express our commitment to protect every employee from harassment and discrimination while also highlighting critical flaws in a policy that is intended to do just that. Ultimately, even the Colorado Civil Rights Commission opposed the bill and it died in the last days of the session.

We also worked for more than a year on Senate Bill 190, a bill that regulates the collection, process and use of Coloradans’ personal data. Together with the Colorado Competitive Council and members of our Legal Advisory Council, we were able to obtain key amendments to the opt-out process and more. We’ll have information coming to you about what it means to your business moving forward.

And we helped defeat Senate Bill 197, a workers’ compensation bill that would have driven up premiums for employers throughout Colorado while potentially making it harder for injured workers to receive care.

Health care: Health care was again a huge topic at the legislature this session. We agree with so many legislators that health care simply costs too much – it is out of reach for too many. That said, the legislation that passed this year, which will allow the insurance commissioner to impose artificial caps on what providers are paid and how much certain drugs cost, isn’t the right solution. We opposed both Senate Bill 175 and House Bill 1232 because they will negatively impact access and care in our state. In the case of public option, House Bill 1232, it will make insurance less expensive for a small percentage of Coloradans while increasing costs for the majority of us – those who get their insurance from their employers. Cost-shifting to employers and their employees isn’t a solution to the price of health care – it’s just a shift in who pays. That doesn’t work for us or the 400,000 employees who work for our members.

Transportation: If you joined us for the State of the State last week, you heard that after years and years of work a transportation package passed at the legislature. We supported Senate Bill 260, which will result in $5.3 billion in funds over the next 10 years for transportation investment. It wasn’t the perfect package, but it was a compromise crafted in a reality that recognized the multitude of stakeholders involved in this work. We think it will have a meaningful impact on our ability to move people and goods in Colorado.

Stimulus and budget: Last session, legislators were forced to cut $3.2 billion from the state budget as a result of lower projected income due to the pandemic. No one would have predicted that by 2021 we would have a budget surplus that would allow for $800 million to be dispersed via a state stimulus package. The Chamber weighed in to support House Bills 1262, 1263, 1264 and 1271 and Senate Bills 203, 204, 229, 236 and 252 to target investments in Colorado’s economic growth. This cash flow has given Colorado one of the strongest state budgets to date, and Gov. Jared Polis has additionally earmarked $1.3 billion to ensure a healthy budget moving forward.

Taxes & fiscal policy: With this influx of money, including $3.8 billion coming to Colorado from the federal government to aid in our recovery, we were surprised to see the passage of House Bills 1311 and 1312, two bills that will lead to tax increases for the business community. These tax changes might make sense if Colorado were facing a budget crisis. However, in a time of unprecedented state funding, this punishes businesses focused on creating jobs and opportunity for Coloradans.

On a more positive note, a bill championed by the Chamber, House Bill 1327 passed through the legislature. This tax code change will allow pass-through business entities to pay state income taxes at the entity level rather than the individual level so that they may recognize savings on their federal returns, a change that will net from $100 million to $500 million in savings for our small to mid-sized businesses. Our policy and lobby team delivered this bill for the business community in the 11th hour, and we owe a special thank you to Jenifer Brandeberry and Julie McKenna for their long hours and dedication to this issue.

Energy: This session, legislators worked to redefine and renegotiate the role of Colorado’s energy sector, with and without feedback and stakeholdering. We engaged on numerous pieces of legislation. Some proposed policies we opposed, for instance those that drive up costs for consumers by either not addressing policies that increase costs or by creating duplicative processes. But other, thoughtful policies that received stakeholder engagement we supported. Senate Bill 264 creates clean heat targets for “gas distribution utilities,” requiring them to develop and register a plan with the PUC to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This bill offers the flexibility utilities need to successfully implement changes that will reduce the emission of these gases. We were happy to see it pass.

Housing: We know that the cost of housing in Colorado is a major burden on our employees and it inhibits our economic competitiveness relative to other states. That’s why we supported House Bills 1028, 1134 and 1271, which together will fund new affordable housing strategies, establish accountability measures for all state-funded affordable housing initiatives and help consumers build credit via their rental payments. A single piece of legislation – or even a package of legislation – won’t solve the high cost of housing. We expect Colorado’s housing crisis to be an ongoing priority for our state and we remain committed to addressing this issue for all Coloradans.

Education: Pressure from the pandemic required legislators to address Colorado’s growing shortage of skilled workers. This session, the General Assembly started initiatives to upskill or reskill Coloradans to fit industry needs through bills like House Bill 1264 and Senate Bill 232. We also saw significant interest from the legislature to expand access to apprenticeship programs and nontraditional avenues for post-secondary education. We supported House Bill 1306, Senate Bill 106 and Senate Bill 119 and the legislature’s commitment to partnering with the business community as we work to help fill gaps in our workforce. Senate Bill 236 – which creates four new grant programs to increase capacity for early childhood care and education, encourage employer-based child care facilities, and improve recruitment and retention rates and salaries for early childhood educators – helps address one of these gaps, but we will continue to work alongside the legislature to ensure child care isn’t a barrier for our workers.

We know that even during a hectic legislative session and especially as we recover from the pandemic, employers are focused on one thing – their employees, their teams. You want to get people back to work, keep your doors open and keep your teams together.

Good policy recognizes it takes all of us to be successful. The health of our state budget, our nonprofits and our public sector depend on a thriving private sector. And, the private sector relies on strong education, transportation, health care and the support of a nonprofit ecosystem to be successful.

It takes us all. So, let’s recommit ourselves to move forward with a recognition that we can and should do better for one another and for our state.

Building an economy that works for everybody.

Kelly Brough is the president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber.