Colorado lawmakers passed a state-funded stimulus package worth more than $200 million during a three-day special session that stayed mostly cordial and bipartisan.
They also gave Gov. Jared Polis an additional $100 million to respond to the pandemic and rejected Republican lawmakers’ attempts to limit Polis’ power to issue more executive orders during the virus outbreak.
Lawmakers stressed the stimulus package is far short of what the federal government could provide.
But in the absence of a new deal in Congress, they returned to the Capitol during a surge of coronavirus cases to approve the relief they could offer before a winter that is expected to be harsh to many businesses.
As a result, tens of millions of dollars will soon reach restaurants, movie theaters, child care providers and others that are feeling the brunt of the economic toll from the virus.
Many of the bills require the money to be distributed by February, or in the summer months at the latest.
Gov. Polis, who has COVID-19, says he will take precautions when he signs the bills from the session into law. Polis told reporters he will spray an envelope containing the signed bills with Lysol before he hands them to a state trooper.
Here’s a summary of the stimulus-related bills lawmakers passed:
Direct payments to businesses hurt by virus restrictions
Restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses that rely heavily on hosting people indoors have taken severe financial hits during the pandemic because of capacity restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.
Lawmakers passed a bill that will send $37 million in direct payments to these businesses to help them survive the winter months. An additional $7 million will be made available for arts, culture and entertainment artists.
But the bill became one of the most controversial measures of the session for two reasons.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Paul Lundeen, questioned whether the maximum $3,500 payments to small businesses would really help.
“A $3,500 check to a small businesses is nice, but it’s kind of like tipping money,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not fundamentally keeping that small business alive.”
The bill also sparked a debate about counties and businesses not complying with the state’s public health orders.
As originally written, the bill would have excluded all businesses in counties that are not actively enforcing the state’s restrictions.
Supporters said the money should not go to areas where businesses have faced less restrictive measures. But opponents of that condition worried about businesses in places like Weld County that are following the rules even though their elected officials were not actively enforcing them.
A compromise amendment will allow businesses within a mile of a city or town following public health orders to apply for the grant funding.
One of the most significant bills will spend $60 million to help residents who are struggling to afford their rent or mortgage payments because of the pandemic. The spending also includes $1 million to help residents facing evictions navigate their court proceedings.
Lawmakers say that with federal housing help and eviction moratoriums set to expire, millions of Colorado residents will soon be at risk of being evicted or losing their homes.
Food pantry assistance grant program
The measure will send an additional $5 million to an existing grant program supporting food pantries around the state. The legislation also increases the maximum amount each food bank can receive from the Food Pantry Assistance Grant Program. The extra money must be distributed by July 31.
A survey from Hunger Free Colorado in late July estimated that one in three Coloradans were struggling to afford their meals.
Improving broadband access
The bill creates a new $20 million grant program to help school districts get their students and staff connected to high-speed internet during the pandemic.
The pause of in-person learning around the state has created new challenges for communities that lack broadband access.
In Norwood, a small town in southwest Colorado, librarian Carrie Andrew said families were flocking to the parking lot of the shuttered library building to use its free WiFi in the early days of the pandemic.
But even the library's high-speed broadband connection wasn’t stable enough for everyone, including a mother who was trying to help her daughter file a college assignment online.
"One day she came to the library so her daughter could upload a four-minute video. It took an hour and it didn't upload because we didn't know it, but we needed to update our WiFi," Andrew said in April. "So they ended up having to drive (66 miles) to Montrose to the lady's place of work the next day just to have good enough internet to upload this video for her daughter's college class."
In September, Polis said about 65,000 students, two-thirds of them Latino, still did not have internet access at home.
Child care support
This measure will create two grant programs providing up to $45 million to support child care centers. Grants from one program will range from $500 to $35,000 per facility, with the money awarded by Feb. 28. Child care centers with more capacity will be given higher funding priority.
A separate grant program will be used to help child care centers increase their capacity during the pandemic.
Mary Alice Cohen, the director of the state’s early childhood office, testified Monday that many child care centers would not survive the winter without the grant funding.
She added more than 4,300 employees at child care centers had already lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“Child care centers generally have a very tight operating margin, and with COVID-19 they’ve been experiencing a reduction in revenue, and an increase in expenses,” Cohen said.
Limits on food delivery fees
With indoor dining restrictions in place in much of the state, more and more Coloradans are getting their food delivered from their favorite restaurants. Lawmakers passed a bill to let cities and counties with indoor dining restrictions put a cap on the fees delivery services such as Grubhub and Uber Eats can charge restaurants for that service.
The fees must also be disclosed to customers.
The legislation was crafted after some restaurant owners complained that third-party delivery services were charging restaurants as much as a 35% fee for deliveries at a time many were depending on the method.
Some cities including Denver have already passed ordinances putting limits on delivery fees. The state’s new law seeks to protect counties and cities from any legal liability for enacting such ordinances.
Tax breaks for restaurants
This bill will let restaurants and bars keep up to $2,000 a month in sales tax revenue that would otherwise be sent to the state.
The state estimates the tax breaks will total up to $52 million this fiscal year.
Help with utility bills
The measure sends an extra $5 million to a program helping low-income residents pay their energy bills. Lawmakers say the money is needed because applications for the utility bill help have increased 25% this year due to the pandemic.
Additional COVID-19 response funds
Lawmakers also passed a measure giving Polis an extra $100 million to spend on the state’s response to the pandemic. The Polis administration has already directed more than $200 million of state funds to respond to the virus outbreak. The funds are spent on personal protective equipment and testing supplies, among other things.