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Colorado Lawmakers Gather For Soft Opening Of Session Amidst Pandemic, Political Unrest

The Colorado State Senate says the pledge of allegiance at the start of the 2021 session on Wednesday.
Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
The Colorado State Senate says the pledge of allegiance at the start of the 2021 session on Wednesday.

Colorado lawmakers started a legislative session on Wednesday that will be defined in its early days by a raging pandemic and a heightened sense of unrest following a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol.

There were more police on hand than usual for a session kickoff a week after extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, resulting in the deaths of five people. Colorado state troopers on bicycles circled the outside of the building, while three troopers stood guard at one point outside the House Chamber.

The heightened security was a response to warnings from the FBI about possible armed protests ahead of Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.

Lawmakers also continued to grapple with gathering during a deadly pandemic that killed more than 3,500 Coloradans last year.

The galleries were mostly empty as many friends and family members of lawmakers stayed home to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

Party leaders kept their speeches short, and somber.

“This doesn’t feel like the opening days we’re used to,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said in his first speech in the new role. “There’s a lot less pomp and circumstance, and a lot more plexiglass and hand sanitizer.”

Garnett said helping Coloradans, especially low-income residents, recover from the pandemic will be his top priority for the session.

“With so many hardworking Coloradans struggling to make ends meet, so many small businesses working harder than ever to keep their doors open, and everyone worrying about the health and safety of their loved ones, the stakes are higher than ever,” he said of this year’s session.

There were also calls for bipartisanship amidst the political unrest across the country.

But some early partisan fractures appeared on opening day.

Republicans tried to nominate one of their own for House Speaker despite knowing they lacked the votes to make it happen.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, also warned Democrats he would fight against their renewed plans to pass a so-called public health insurance option, which supporters say could lower health care costs by encouraging more competition in the market.

“No, that hasn’t worked and it won’t work,” Holbert said in his opening day speech. “If you want to make health care more affordable, then get the government out of that business, not more involved in it.”

But those bigger battles over health care, guns and other hot-button issues will not materialize at the Capitol until Feb. 16 at the earliest.

Lawmakers plan to adjourn on Friday to avoid drawing crowds to the Capitol while COVID-19 cases remain high around the state.

The first round of bills is expected to be minor and more technical in nature. For example, one measure introduced Wednesday gives cities and counties more time to apply for coronavirus relief funds that were approved during a special session in December.

Colorado State Patrol troopers patrol the perimeter of the state Capitol building at the start of the 2021 session.
Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage /
Colorado State Patrol troopers patrol the perimeter of the state Capitol building at the start of the 2021 session.

Copyright 2021 KUNC

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.