Colorado legislators returned to work Feb. 16, ready to continue their efforts to provide relief for the state’s hard-hit businesses.
The legislature convened for three days starting Jan. 13 and then adjourned for a month, in hopes that the delay would move legislators past the holiday COVID-19 spike and into a time when the virus was less prevalent.
Lawmakers are operating under new safety protocols established during the three-day mini-session, including full remote participation on the floors and in committees, and a better process for electronic testimony, said Rep. Marc Snyder, D-Dist. 18.
“We’ve been working hard during the time off,” Snyder said, “and we’re ready to get back to work.”
Snyder, who serves as vice chair of the House Finance committee and is a member of the Business Affairs and Labor committee, said the No. 1 priority for both chambers is more business relief.
“We have to wait until we see exactly what the federal package is going to look like,” Snyder said, “We’re really looking to plug some holes and find underserved areas. I think we’re going to be looking really strategically at what the deficiencies are and where we can bolster things.”
The federal $1.9 billion relief and stimulus package was approved Feb. 22 in the U.S. Congress House Budget Committee and is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled House.
The package includes renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program for small business loans, relief for restaurants and an extension of supplemental federal unemployment benefits through August.
Congressional Democrats want to pass the package by March 14, when the current supplemental unemployment benefits of $300 a week expire, and raise that amount to $400 a week. But the legislation faces Republican opposition in both the House and Senate, especially to proposals for $350 billion in aid to state and local governments and a phased increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour.
BILLS IN PROGRESS
More than 200 bills were introduced during the first few days of the state legislative session, but most focused on social and economic disparity issues, rather than pure business matters, Snyder said.
Many of the business-related bills that will be introduced are still being drafted and refined by their sponsors.
Snyder said he expects to see a bill that seeks to allow tenants to establish a credit history through rent payments. That could be a step toward home ownership for lower-income Coloradans.
Another measure being drafted would expand apprenticeship and internship opportunities through a state council.
The legislature also will consider a bill that would phase out certain types of plastics, such as Styrofoam takeout containers and bags.
Snyder plans to personally run two bills that loosen regulations for certain business transactions.
He will reintroduce a bill that would allow insurance companies to divest themselves of particular assets so they can be competitive in the national market, while maintaining proper capitalization.
Snyder ran that bill last session. It passed out of the House business committee but died on the calendar after the pandemic took over, he said.
He also expects to introduce a bill that loosens and expands the ways in which appraisals can be performed and accepted.
The state legislature will be looking especially at the languishing tourism industry and what can be done to shore it up, Snyder said.
“And even though it’s been a tumultuous couple of years, we’re also going to want to take a hard look at what we can do to retain businesses and even attract some new and exciting types of businesses,” he said.
One aspect of that will be easing regulatory hurdles and burdens.
“Last year we passed a good portability law that allows people who have a professional license in another state to set up and practice here,” Snyder said. “That’s a good example of what we’ll be looking at to make the hurdles smaller and remove the ones that we don’t need anymore.”
Legislators will be looking to balance a healthy business environment that encourages startups with maintenance of “the protections we’ve worked hard to get in that area,” he said.
COVID relief for businesses is the top priority this year for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, Vice President for Government Affairs Rachel Beck said.
“I’ve had some conversations about a bill that would make some adjustments in the state aid funding that was authorized during the  special session,” Beck said. “I’m hearing that state and local aid is being left on the table.”
During the special session Nov. 30-Dec. 2, lawmakers passed 10 bills to provide more than $200 million in pandemic relief, including $37 million for struggling small businesses.
“There’s still money sitting in state banks that hasn’t gone to businesses, even though it’s earmarked for them,” Beck said.
Some of the aid funds allocated only $3,000-$7,000 per business — amounts that some small businesses might not find worthwhile to apply for, given that the application processes can be complex and that they may not be eligible if they have received other forms of aid.
“One of the options is making the maximum award larger,” Beck said. “Perhaps we can up that to $20,000, and then we’re talking real help for businesses.”
Beck said she expects a bill to adjust the previously allocated aid options will be forthcoming within a few weeks.
One measure that’s already been introduced is SB21-005, which exempts certain businesses from a public health or executive order to close if other businesses selling the same goods or services are open.
For example, Beck said, during the shutdown last spring, “you couldn’t buy a puzzle or a game from Poor Richard’s bookstore, but you could go to Target and buy all the books and puzzles you wanted, because they sold essential goods. Senate Bill 5 would say that Poor Richard’s could have been open.”
House Bill 21-1027 would aid restaurants and bars by making takeout and delivery of alcoholic beverages permanent and not just a pandemic relief item, Beck said. The current authorization is set to expire July 1.
“That’s been a real lifeline for restaurants, and as they continue to recover, they’d like to keep that option available,” she said.
Tax policy changes is another area the chamber will be closely watching, she said.
The regional home office tax credit, which affects companies with home offices located within the state, is on the chopping block.
“We have a number of large insurance companies that have home offices in Colorado Springs that take advantage of that tax credit,” Beck said. “We’re talking $10 million per year for a couple of our prominent regional home offices, in combination with all of the other policies that have been passed recently that are resulting in costs and administrative burdens to businesses.”
While the legislature needs to look at tax credits that cost the state revenue, “we’ve got to be very careful that we don’t tip the scales so that we are no longer a competitive place to do business,” Beck said. “I’m really concerned that we’re close to that tipping point.”
SMALL BUSINESS PRIORITIES
According to a survey conducted in November 2020, more than 64 percent of the members of Good Business Colorado said small business relief was their top legislative priority, said Debra Brown, executive director of the nonprofit, which advocates for its 320 business members.
Among other high priorities were affordable health care coverage, efforts to increase environmental accountability, affordable housing and tax reform to level the playing field for small businesses.
“Everything on our agenda I think is also centered in the minds of legislators,” Brown said. “People appreciate and understand the important role that small business plays in our economy.”
She expects a lot of legislative activity addressing those issues the first couple of weeks of March, with small business relief receiving support on both sides of the aisle.
We definitely expect the health care conversation to be much more controversial,” Brown said. “Our members are very invested in solutions that will bring down the cost of insurance. We’re also looking at policy that will bring down the cost of prescription drugs.”
Brown also expects bills on reducing environmental pollution, which were casualties of COVID, to resurface this session.
“We will again support them and have members who can testify to the impact of pollution on not only their personal and family health, but also their businesses,” she said.
Good Business Colorado is studying HB21-1117, which would authorize local governments to require construction of affordable housing without being in violation of Colorado’s statute preventing local rent control.
“I would say there’s a 99 percent chance we’ll end up endorsing it,” Brown said.
The Small Business Majority, another advocacy organization, will focus on expanding aid to businesses, especially those in rural areas, Colorado Director Lindsey Vigoda said.
“In rural areas, and especially with minority-owned firms, they don’t have historical relationships with big banking institutions that other folks may have,” she said. “So we’ve seen a huge gap in those who have been able to secure federal funds and to get the help they need.”
The legislature has started addressing that gap, she said, and needs to do more.
The organization also will be advocating for expansion of access to small group health care plans so small businesses can remain competitive, she said.
“I have seen, time and time again, small business owners who can’t afford to pay their employees’ health care and would really like to, or who cannot even afford to pay their own,” Vigoda said.
“Not only does that hurt the individual, but it also hurts the state, because if folks don’t have access to health care, the state ends up usually having to pay for it,” she said.