Colorado Legislature temporarily opens today for critical events, will then pause

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DENVER | The Colorado Legislature, which regularly meets in January for its annual session, won’t convene in full until February due to COVID-19.

The session opens officially today for critical matters, including swearing in of new members. Officials previously said they plan to convene for only three days.

The 2021 session begins amid FBI warnings of possible protests at state capitols in the run-up to Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. Those warnings were issued after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was confirming Biden’s Electoral College victory on Jan. 6.

The Colorado State Patrol, entrusted with Capitol security, says it is prepared for any demonstrations by supporters of President Donald Trump. Other law enforcement agencies, including Denver police and the FBI, are assessing security threats.

“We feel pretty confident the state patrol is planning for worst-case scenarios, hoping it doesn’t happen,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg told reporters this week.

Colorado’s Capitol building was damaged last year during protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. Public access has been limited to lawmaking sessions because of coronavirus restrictions.

It takes at least three days for the House and Senate to pass bills. Legislators this week will consider a handful related to pandemic relief and remote participation in legislative committee hearings.

One bipartisan bill would modify a new law in an effort to ensure that $4 million in pandemic relief goes to minority-owned small businesses. A Colorado Springs business owner filed a lawsuit seeking to remove the law’s race-based requirement from qualifying for the aid, which is part of a larger $57 million package passed in December during a special legislative session designated for small businesses and arts organizations.

Lawmakers plan to reconvene on Feb. 16 to tackle school funding, bolster short-term relief for businesses and the unemployed, and map strategies for long-term recovery from the pandemic. In the interim, the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee will continue to meet to prepare a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has proposed a $35 billion budget that would restore $3 billion in cuts to the state’s discretionary general fund and make up for drastic cuts to education by seeking $621 million in K-12 funding and $852 million in higher education funding. Tuition increases for state-run colleges and universities would be capped at 3% under the proposal.

Roughly 365,000 Colorado residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and more than 5,200 people who tested positive have died, the state health department says.

Generally a nearly festive event, the somber opening occurs among surging COVID-19 infection in the state and across the country.

The opening mood is also affected by the siege last week of the U.S. Capitol and subsequent news that every state capitol in all 50 states are potential targets for more protests and violence by Trump supporters.

State capitols across the nation stepped up security Monday, deploying National Guard units, SWAT teams and extra police officers while several legislatures convened amid heightened safety concerns following last week’s violence at the U.S. Capitol.

Colorado State Patrol officials said they will be prepared for violence in Denver at the State Capitol should it occur.

“We have been monitoring events on the national level and will continue to monitor for possible events in Colorado,” CSP officials said in a statement to 9News. “Our agency is prepared for this potential acidity and emphasizes the important of a peaceful approach that allows for safe public discourse for all.”

Colorado’s Capitol remains encircled by fencing, with concrete barriers to block vehicles and its ground floor windows boarded up after vandals damaged it following Floyd’s death. Officials already planned to install stronger fencing, more security cameras and bullet-resistant glass for windows some time in future.

According to Colorado General Assembly Democrats, all lawmakers will report to the Capitol on Jan. 13 to “address urgent business and attend to certain constitutional and statutory obligations such as swearing in new members.”

Lawmakers will recess after the next few days, then officially start the legislative session in mid-February. The date is tentatively set for Feb. 16, “when the peak of the pandemic will hopefully have subsided.”

Many Democrats in leadership said in late December that the delay is a decision rooted in health and safety.

“…We’ll continue to look at the data and listen to public health experts to guide our decisions. When we return, we’ll take up the people’s work and pass laws to build back a stronger Colorado,” said House Speaker-designate Alec Garnett, D-Denver.

Many House Republicans participated in the November special session without wearing masks, and one Republican staffer was sent home after being seen in the Capitol without wearing a mask days after announcing on her Facebook page that she tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is extremely important that as we navigate returning for legislative session, we weigh the safety concerns for people’s health alongside the many changing factors that will guide our decision making,” Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo said in a statement.

“Last month, with a great deal of planning and coordination, we were able to convene a highly-effective special session aimed at alleviating Colorado’s most immediate needs going into the winter season,” he said. “Now as we approach our regular session, we are committed to acting with the same precision and forethought – diligently prioritizing what matters most to our state and completing mission-critical work before temporarily exiting the building. That’s why we have decided to delay our official legislative session until safer conditions in the state become more clear.”

Aurora region sends almost completely Democratic contingent

The existing Aurora delegation under the golden dome remained intact after the Nov. 3 Election, while several new Democratic faces emerged to win open seats.

Incumbent Democratic state Sens. Rhonda Fields, Janet Buckner, Chris Hansen and Jeff Bridges held their seats after the election , as did incumbent state Reps. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Mike Weissman, Tom Sullivan, Rod Bockenfeld and Dominique Jackson.

In the open race for House District 40, Democratic Aurora community leader Naquetta Ricks won over Republican candidate Richard Bassett. Next door in House District 41, newcomer Iman Jodeh became the first Muslim woman to hold a Legislative seat. Jodeh, who works with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, will succeed term-limited Jovan Melton.

In a traditionally conservative southern district, Democrat Chris Kolker won over Republican opponent Suzanne Staiert for an open Senate District 27 seat.

HOUSE DISTRICT 30 

Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat, has represented this area since 2017, when she ousted incumbent Republican JoAnn Windholz. This year, Jenet is defended the seat from Kerrie Gutierrez, a Republican involved in numerous conservative campaigns, and who unsuccessfully ran for an Adams County school board seat in 2017.

This House District is wildly diverse, wrapping around Denver International Airport to encompass the booming Anschutz Medical Campus, low-income north Aurora neighborhoods, vast swaths of prairie and the town of Henderson. 83,000 people live in this district in 25,000 households.

HOUSE DISTRICT 36 

Democrat Mike Weissman won re-election over Republican Dustin Bishop in the race to represent the district that covers a broad swath of east Aurora. Weissman is an attorney and two-time incumbent. He has been an advocate for regulatory and criminal justice reforms, and he served as chair of the house’s judiciary committee in the most recent legislative session. Bishop is a political tenderfoot who has never held political office, but has volunteered for local Republican campaigns.

HOUSE DISTRICT 37

Former labor union representative and postal worker Tom Sullivan won re-election over Caroline Cornell.

In his pair of sessions as a legislator, Sullivan has largely promoted bills to protect the rights of workers and victims of crime, and curb gun violence.

He’s been a pervasive face in Colorado politics since his son, Alex, killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting massacre.

He made national headlines last year when he successfully shepherded a law establishing the use of extreme risk protection orders in the state to passage. The measure allows judges to restrict people’s access to personal firearms if they are deemed to pose a risk to themselves and others.

Last year, he was assigned to the house’s business affairs and labor and finance committees.

HOUSE DISTRICT 40 

Democrat Naquetta Ricks won her first election bid for House District 40 a densely-populated and diverse jurisdiction that includes bits of Denver, Aurora, Greenwood Village and the waters of Cherry Creek reservoir.

A trio of would-be lawmakers are vied for this spot: Republican Richard Bassett, who former lawmaker Janet Buckner trounced in the 2018 election; Democrat Naquetta Ricks, an Aurora community leader and Liberian immigrant; and Libertarian Robert Harrison, who won few votes in a bid to unseat former state Senator Nancy Todd in 2012.

HOUSE DISTRICT 41

Democrat Iman Jodeh had secured about double the votes of Republican Bob Andrews.

Jodeh now represents this swath of the southeast Denver metroplex, which spans from the intersection of South Quebec Street and Leetsdale Drive to the intersection of South Chambers Road and East Hampden Avenue.

Jodeh is a staffer with the Colorado Interfaith Alliance, a first-generation American and a longtime politico and activist.

HOUSE DISTRICT 56 

Republican Rod Bockenfeld won re-election to his seat from Democratic challenger Giugi Carminati and Libertarian Kevin Gulbranson.

More than 83,000 residents of Arapahoe and Adams counties live in House District 56, which wraps from Aurora’s southeastern tip to include the prairie east of the Denver metroplex. Bennett, Strasburg and Byers are represented in this vast district along with Brighton to the north.

This jurisdiction is one of Aurora’s wealthiest house districts. Here the median household income is $75,000, buoyed by higher-income residents in southeastern Aurora.

SENATE DISTRICT 26 

Democrat Jeff Bridges fended off Republican challenger Bob Roth to represent Senate District 26.

The jurisdiction includes a piece of Aurora at the Ptarmigan Park, Dam West and Dam East neighborhoods. The district also includes Cherry Creek State Park and south-central Denver suburbs including parts of Littleton, Englewood, Cherry Hills Village, Greenwood Village and Sheridan.

SENATE DISTRICT 29 

State Sen. Rhonda Fields has easily fended off a challenge from Libertarian Michele Poague in the race for Arapahoe County’s Senate District 29.

Fields has been a stalwart face of Aurora politics for more than a decade. She has been an outspoken advocate for criminal justice and gun control reforms, supporting bellwether gun control measures enacted months after the Aurora theater shooting and sponsoring the recently passed package of policing reforms known as senate bill 217.

She has represented the area since 2016, when she jumped to the state senate after a trio of terms in the house.

SENATE DISTRICT 27 

In SD 27, a hotly contested race in Centennial, Democrat Chris Kolker won against Republican opponent Suzanne Staiert as of 9 p.m.

The race had attracted heavy outside spending from dark money groups and no shortage of harsh campaigning.

SENATE DISTRICT 28

State Representative Janet Buckner, a Democrat, won a Senate seat against Republican former neurosurgeon Karl Stecher.

Buckner will become a state Senator after representing House District 40.

SD 28 includes a swath of Aurora and Centennial, and 144,000 residents from the intersection of South Peoria Street and East Mississippi Avenue all the way to the Aurora Reservoir.

Buckner clocked one of the largest fundraising leads in Aurora region races. She’d raked in more than $75,000.

SENATE DISTRICT 31

The historically blue state Senate District 31 stayed blue after the election. Sen. Chris Hansen defeated Republican challenger Doug Townsend. 

Hansen was appointed to Senate District 31 in January after the former seat holder, Lois Court, stepped down citing her recent diagnosis of Guillain-Barré syndrome. A vacancy committee appointed Hansen to the seat in January — 95 of the 120 votes cast in that committee were for Hansen.

The district runs parallel Interstate 225 and reaches down Parker Road between Aurora and Denver. While the district mostly covers Denver, there are four precincts in Arapahoe County. 

The district has voted overwhelmingly Democratic in recent elections. In 2012, former Sen. Pat Steadman earned nearly 70% of the vote. In 2016, Court was elected by about the same margin. Despite those outcomes, Townsend told the Sentinel he knocked thousands of doors in the district, talked to hoards of voters, and thought they were ready to see a change. 

He said Hansen was a one-issue lawmaker, focusing solely on green energy. Townsend said he would have made his big focus education. 

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