Officially, the state legislature is in a holding pattern until the JBC is planned to start in a few weeks. It was announced this week that when the legislature does return, Representative McCluskie will serve as the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and Rep. Esgar will be vice-chair. Rep. Esgar will have her hands full serving as Chair of the Joint Budget Committee, which has nearly $3 billion in reductions to accomplish in a short time frame. Many legislators are taking time during this unexpected recess to hold town hall meetings, often with other elected officials at different levels of government, to share resources with their constituents, answer questions, and share a little about what types of policies legislators are working on during the recess.
The Title Board met for a long day on Wednesday to adjust and set ballot language for several citizen-led initiatives. Among the initiatives that moved forward were a set of initiatives that would remove the role caucuses play in nominating candidates for state offices to the primary ballot. If the measure passes, candidates would have to petition onto the ballot. The three initiatives differ slightly in the number of signatures that would be required for a candidate to make the ballot. A different set of initiatives would replace the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission with a new independent board. During the hearing, industry friendly proponents said that the intent is to create a board where decisions on new oil and gas development would be made without influence from the political process or interest groups. Initiative #315 Tobacco Tax Revenue for New State Preschool Program, mirrors another initiative #293, with one addition. Both would reallocate existing tobacco tax revenue, Amendment 35 revenue, and Master Settlement Agreement dollars away from programs currently funded by these revenue streams, using the revenue instead to fund a new preschool program. However, #315 would also add a new 10% tax on sales of nicotine vaping products to fund a new preschool program. These two measures are brought by Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute. These could compete with another set of ballot measures that propose to increase taxes on tobacco, create a new tax on vaping products, and use this to fund a pre-school program without diverting existing revenue streams for public health programs. All citizen led ballot measures that haven’t made the ballot yet face an uncertain future with a limited ability and time frame to gather enough signatures by the August deadline.
Federal Funds Start to Flow to Colorado
In the same week that Colorado saw checks from the federal stimulus package start to land in people’s bank accounts, aid for small businesses started to dry up. The Small Business Administration announced that it would no longer take applications for the Paycheck Protection Program as the $349 billion that Congress had appropriated for the PPP has run out. In addition, the $10 billion for Economic Injury Disaster Loans is also all accounted for. In response to this news, US Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Benet, along with Governor Jared Polis sent a letter to US Senate leadership asking for additional funding for the PPP, additional state and local government funding, and for modifications to the small business supports. These elected officials asked for increases in the amount of PPP loans, to expand the businesses that are eligible, to set some PPP dollars aside for the smallest businesses, to expand what businesses can use the loans for, and more.
The federal CARES Act provided $14 billion to support higher education institutions and students. As colleges shut down campuses and moved to online instruction, many students lives faced unexpected disruptions to their housing, food security, and access to technology. Late last week the US Department of Education released a portion of the funds for emergent student supports. In the coming weeks, additional funds will be made available for higher education institutions that can be used to cover costs of remote instruction and other changes caused by the coronavirus.
43,307 people tested
While the social distancing measures have flattened the curve in Colorado, the number of cases is still increasing. Late Wednesday Governor Polis signed two additional executive orders. Even though much of the state saw cold weather this past week, summer and fire season are not far away. With COVID-19 spreading government resources thin, a wildfire could pose a much higher risk this year than a typical season. Executive order D 2020 037 gives county commissioners more discretion to implement bans on open burning, and encourages these local elected officials to implement restrictions during windy “red flag warnings.” The state has been preparing health care facility capacity over the past few weeks by setting up field hospitals and increasing capacity at existing hospitals for critical care patients. Another key piece of this ramp up is ensuring there is enough and appropriate medical staff to care for an increase in the number of patients. Executive order D 2020 038 allows for licensed health care professionals—advanced practice nurses, certified nurse anesthetists, nurses, physicians, physician assistants, and respiratory therapists—to train and delegate responsibilities to other medical professionals.
Late today, Governor Polis held a press conference and announced on a number of state actions taken to prevent future outbreaks of COVID-19 at long term care and nursing home facilities. He announced an update to the public health order to require long term care facilities to create a detailed isolation plan for residents and to submit their plan to the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) by May 1. This will ensure that every nursing home and care facility has a plan for what happens when someone has COVID-19 symptoms. These plans will determine the process for isolating people who show symptoms or have tested positive for COVID-19 from other roommates and staff. The state is going to also focus more on compliance and enforcement for long term care facilities to ensure that the elderly have the best protection against the virus. The National Guard will conduct testing at 3 of the largest nursing home facilities in the state to prevent an outbreak.
He also issued another Executive Order that requires that workers in critical businesses, such as staff at grocery stores and staff at senior living facilities, to wear a mask at all times when they are working.
The state has made the first round of grants from the COVID Economic Relief Fund. Out of the $11 million in the fund, $4.8 was awarded in the first round of grants. The fund has received $21 million in applications so all of fund will be disbursed.
Polis also announced several updates on unemployment benefits as the state has worked to implement the federal guidance from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act. Gig workers and independent contractors will be able to apply for unemployment beginning on Monday, April 20. The federal CARES Act expanded eligibility for unemployment to workers who are traditionally not eligible, including gig workers and self-employed individuals. These individuals can receive up to 39 weeks of benefits, and the benefit is retroactive to February 2. Those who are eligible for traditional unemployment can apply through the normal process, but newly eligible individuals will apply through a new system. Because of how quickly CDLE worked to set up the new system, Colorado will be one of the first states set up to accept applications for the federal unemployment benefits. The extra $600 per week in benefits for anyone receiving unemployment provided by the federal relief bill will show up in unemployment checks this week. Colorado received the 12th most PPP grants of all the states, and Governor Polis thanked everyone, including banks, for working quickly to bring these dollars to Colorado businesses. A new Coronavirus Health Equity Task Force will work to ensure there is equitable access to testing regardless of where people live or their ethnicity. This new Task Force will be headed by Web Brown from the Office of Health Equity in CDPHE. Governor Polis continued his refrain of asking Coloradans to wear masks when they go in public, limit travel, and reiterated that the state will be with COVID for some time in the future, until there is a cure or vaccine.
President Trump issued guidelines to the 50 governors this week on opening up America again. Before moving to re-open, states should see a downward trajectory of COVID cases over a 2 week period and hospitals should have returned to pre-crisis conditions. In phase one, shelter in place orders are appropriate, travel is limited, and the most strict social distancing measures should be adhered to. In phase two, vulnerable individuals should stay at home. In the public, social settings should be limited to 50 people or less. Gyms, bars, restaurants and movie theater could open their doors, with some social distancing limitations. In the third phase, vulnerable individuals could go out in the public safely, but are recommended to adhere to social distancing. While talk at the federal and state level have turned toward planning how to reopen the economy, it could be months until a return of a sense of normalcy.