THE NEW RULE OF LAW: 11 ways during a pandemic lawmakers changed your life

1576
Colorado Governor Jared Polis wears a face mask as he waits to sign a broad police accountability bill during a press conference in the rotunda of the State Capitol Friday, June 19, 2020, in downtown Denver. Bill sponsors and family members of police shootings stand on the stairs to watch the signing. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Pool)

The 2020 Colorado Legislature began with a trumpeted charge in January and ended with weary lawmakers lining up for nose swabs in June.

Despite having to temporarily shut down the general assembly because of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, big and little changes were enrolled into law, and now they’re rolling out into Colorado.

On the final day June 15,  Legislature officials arranged for coronavirus nasal swab testing outside the Capitol for lawmakers and staff heading home after finishing their pandemic-shortened 2020 session.

The virus shortened the scheduled 120-day session by nearly 40 days and forced a 10-week hiatus. Lawmakers returned to hurriedly pass a major initiative on police accountability, a budget that drastically cuts education funding and allocates $70 million in federal relief to businesses and workers struggling in the recession.

All in three weeks. And not without further challenges, such as riots over the death of George Floyd that marred the Capitol with graffiti and broken windows, heavily damaged the Senate president’s truck and exposed lawmakers to tear gas.

Lawmakers approved a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 that cut $3.3 billion from the $13 billion general fund. The budget cuts K-12 funding by $621 million and $598 million from higher education. It also eliminates a $225 million payment into the state employee retirement fund.

Democratic sponsors of a bill to suspend or reduce business tax credits to help make up the hit being taken by public schools scaled back those changes to the tax code after Gov. Jared Polis asked for a “business friendly” version.

To help residents affected by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers passed bills drawing from the $70 million in federal relief at their disposal to address mental health and substance abuse treatment, small business grants, rent and mortgage assistance, a fund to prevent utility shutoffs and a new public-private fund to support loans to small businesses.

A signature accomplishment by both parties is a police accountability and transparency bill that drew bipartisan support and endorsements from Colorado police, sheriffs and district attorneys’ associations.

Majority Democrats passed a bill designed to lift child vaccination rates that are among the lowest in the nation. The bill adds new requirements for most parents who choose to opt out of routine vaccinations on religious or personal grounds.

They also extended a new health insurance program that lowers premiums for about 180,000 people on Colorado’s individual insurance market by covering part of the cost of insurers’ highest-cost cases.

For November’s state initiatives ballot, lawmakers referred a measure to ease property tax burdens on business and another to raise cigarette taxes and tax nicotine products such as e-cigarettes and vaping products and direct most of that money to education.

Lawmakers will return in January to again confront yawning deficits in education funding and other essential priorities amid uncertainty about the economy and the pandemic’s toll.

Here are some highlights of measures that will make changes large and small to lives in Colorado.

This May 1, 2013 file photo shows Nathan Dunlap with attorney Madeline Cohen at a hearing at Arapahoe County Court in Centennial. Convicted of ambushing and killing four employees of an Aurora pizza restaurant was on death row but now serves a life sentence after Gov. Jared Polis commuted his sentence after state lawmakers abolished the state death pentaly. (AP Photo/The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson, Pool, flle)

Death Penalty Repealed

Following years of debate among state lawmakers, policy advocates and family members of the slain, Gov. Jared Polis in March simultaneously abolished the death penalty in Colorado and commuted a trio of death sentences previously handed to convicted Aurora murderers.

Polis signed a contested state bill that outlaws sentencing Colorado convicts to death for offenses charged after July 1. At the same time, Polis commuted the sentences of three former Overland High School students convicted of murdering several people in Aurora in the 1990s and early 2000s. One of those people was Javad Marshall-Fields, the son of Aurora’s Democratic state senator Rhonda Fields, who for years has railed against attempts to nix the state’s death penalty.

“In a stroke of a pen, Gov. Polis hijacks justice and undermines our criminal justice system,” Fields wrote in a tweet after Polis’ decision.

While progressive groups like the ACLU lauded the governor’s signature on SB20-100, George Brauchler, district attorney in the Arapahoe County jurisdiction where all three men were tried, joined the chorus of those who excoriated the passage of the measure.

“Buried under the coverage of an urgent, global pandemic, Gov. Polis wiped away three separate unanimous jury verdicts for some of the worst murderers in our state’s history,” Brauchler said in a statement. ” … Combined they have murdered seven innocent people. The decision to do it during a global pandemic is disrespectful to the victims, the jurors and the public.”

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

A sheriff’s deputy walks the grounds of the Arapahoe County District Court (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

New Judicial District for Arapahoe County

Gov. Jared Polis on March 20 quietly signed a new state law that will calve Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln County cases off of current dockets in the 18th Judicial District, leaving only Arapahoe County cases in the jurisdiction that handles the majority of Aurora’s most brutal crimes.

Beginning in 2025, the three counties to the south and east of Aurora will emerge as an entirely new jurisdiction known as the 23rd Judicial District.

The remaining 18th Judicial District will then only handle cases from Arapahoe County, where more than 80 percent of Aurorans reside.

The state hasn’t added a new district to the 22 state court jurisdictions currently in its ranks since 1964.

To stand up the new district, the state expects to pay an estimated $2.2 million in one-time technology and transition costs from 2022 to 2025, with nearly $2 million in ongoing annual costs beginning in 2025, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

A pair of Democratic legislators from Aurora were among the bill’s prime sponsors: Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Rhonda Fields.

Though the new district won’t technically be formed for another five years, the machinations of the bill are slated to begin Sept. 1.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

The Mother Cabrini Shrine in Jefferson County.

A day for Cabrini not Columbus

Farewell Christopher Columbus, hello Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini.

Lawmakers formally axed Columbus Day from state calendars this spring and renamed the first Monday in October after Cabrini, an early 20th century humanitarian who founded nearly six dozen institutions in various fields, including orphanages, schools and hospitals. She opened the Queen of Heaven Orphanage for girls in north Denver in 1905.

Colorado now joins a growing coalition of states that have nixed the day named after the explorer who brutalized Indigenous populations throughout the Caribbean.

“He was welcomed by the indigenous Taino people to their homeland on the island of Quisqueya, which Columbus renamed Hispaniola,” lawmakers wrote in the bill’s text. “Fifty years later, the Taino people had been nearly exterminated by Columbus and his successors.”

Officials also explained that Columbus never stepped foot in the land that would later become Colorado, nor any portion of the future United States.

Several Aurora Democrats, including Reps. Dominique Jackson, Jovan Melton, Dafna Michaelson Jenet and Janet Buckner, as well as Sen. Rhonda Fields, co-sponsored the measure.

The change will take effect later this year.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

CROWN Act Becomes Law

State lawmakers in 2020 formally banned the practice of discriminating against a person because of how they wear their hair.

Colorado became one of the latest states to pass a version of a CROWN — Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair — Act when Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on March 6. Sponsored by Aurora Democrats Janet Buckner and Rhonda Fields, the measure outlaws housing, educational, advertising and professional discrimination against people who sport a “hairstyle commonly or historically associated with race, such as braids, locs, twists, tight coils or curls, cornrows, Bantu knots, Afros, and headwraps,” according to a summary of the bill.

Colorado now joins California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Washington in passing CROWN legislation, which has been championed by soap and hygiene brand DOVE.

Introduced by Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod, the measure will officially take effect in mid-September.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Mobile homes in the Berkeley Village Mobile Home Park near Arvada sitting beneath an electrical tower. More than a year ago, Aurora was blazing trails in how to handle the battle between mobile home park owners and helpless renters. Now, Aurora lawmakers, like so many across the state, are struggling again with whether and how to preserve the dwindling stock of affordable housing. State lawmakers have weighed in. (Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado via AP)

More Protections for Mobile Home Residents

The last few years have been big ones for residents of mobile home parks across Colorado. An alarming trend of closing parks, including one in Aurora, has prompted state lawmakers to pass a series of laws giving those residents protections.

This year, the state legislature passed a bill that sets standards for the potential community purchases of a park. That’s something the residents at the Denver Meadows Mobile Home Park in Aurora wanted. Their at-market offer was rejected by the park owner.

“With this new law people will be given the opportunity to come together and purchase the land they live on before it gets sold without warning. Families will no longer be left stranded and vulnerable,” bill sponsor Sen. Dominick Moreno, of Commerce City, said in a statement.

The legislature also passed updates to the Mobile Home Park Act, which prevents forms of retaliation and being evicted for minor offenses. Sponsor Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat, said, “will protect some of Colorado’s most vulnerable populations by ensuring that mobile park owners are not allowed to retaliate against residents with unwarranted evictions – a protection people desperately need.”

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

A New State Park to Visit

Attention diehard Colorado State Parks fans: the area around Fisher’s Peak near Trinidad in southern Colorado has officially been added to the list of weekend treks. Last week Polis signed a bill allocating $6 million to the park to allow more visitors.

The new park is a welcomed addition to the state’s diverse state parks. Fisher’s Peak State Park, about three hours south from Denver, is a 19,200-acre property that fuses together everything great about Colorado’s landscape, sprawling grasslands, rolling foothills and tall mountains. The park isn’t open yet, so check the state website, cpw.state.co.us, for updates.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

Cars circled the GEO Aurora Detention Center, April 3, 2020, during a car protest. Those protesting claimed one simple demand, #FreeThemAll. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Health Inspections at the Aurora ICE Detention Center

Lawmakers from the Aurora City Council to Congressman Jason Crow have been calling for more transparency in the privately-owned immigration detention center at 3130 Oakland Street in north Aurora.

The city council mandated all infection diseases be reported to the fire department in addition to the Tri-County Health Department. Crow’s office has been performing weekly so-called oversight checks. Now, the state health department will have an eye in the facility owned and operated by GEO Group Inc. HB1409 changed the definition of “penal institutions” to include “public and private facilities that house noncitizens for civil immigration proceedings,” legal jargon for the detention facility in Aurora.

Now the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will make annual “sanitary, sewerage, and health inspections” at the facility, as it does at all other detention centers across the state.

“This has been a problem for years with detained individuals reporting a lack of medical care, moldy and contaminated food, concerns about cleanliness and health, and lack of access to legal representation and contact with their families,” bill sponsor Sen. Alec Garnett wrote in a recent newsletter about the legislation.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

An F-16 takes off from Buckley Air Force to take place in flight exercises.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

Regulating “forever chemicals”

Lawmakers turned their attention this session to the “forever chemicals” found in waterways across the U.S. and possibly leaking from Buckley Air Force Base.

HB20-1119 directs the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to regulate perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFASs. The chemicals, long used in fire-fighting foams, industry and food packaging, began to cause alarm among local governments and lawmakers across the country after the dangerous substances were widely found in drinking water and sources. CDPHE might also require local water authorities to expand testing for the contaminants, which have not been found in the Aurora water system.

The Sentinel reported last year PFASs were used widely in fire-fighting foams in Buckley Air Force Base and may have leaked underground and in seasonal water flows.

With the new law, a division of CDPHE will also set standards for firefighters to dispose of PFASs and penalties for organizations out of line with new rules.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Signs taped to a classroom door at Gateway High School in Aurora give instructions. Schools are closed because of the pandemic crisis at least through most of April. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Sneaky school funding changes

On top of a raging pandemic and health risks to teachers and students, schools also have to grapple with less money for the 2020-2021 school year.

That’s in large part because of HB20-1418, also known as the school finance act, which is the latest iteration of a gigantic school funding package lawmakers have to wrestle in place every year.

But this year, Democratic lawmakers quietly tucked major changes to the way schools might be funded, possibly shifting the burden back onto local taxpayers.

The Act is an annual exercise in divvying dough to local school districts who can’t cover the full cost of their programs with local property taxes. Those property taxes used to be the main method for governments transforming the money in your pocket into a kindergartner’s desk. But because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights a nest of complex amendments and court rulings, districts can’t capture dollars from the metro-wide property value boom, so the state legislature dollars make up the biggest share of local school system revenue.

It’s a long-standing problem, according to educators. And this year, the pandemic-induced recession made quick work of statewide tax coffers, which is largely made up of sales taxes and other pickings from commerce.

That’s reflected in this year’s Public School Finance Act. The bill strips $1.17 billion that schools were entitled to as part of the so-called “negative factor,” compared to $572 million last year.

On the ground, that shortage forced new realities for the Cherry Creek School District and Aurora Public Schools. The first district is sounding alarm bells amidst a $28 million funding loss. APS also lost about $25 million.

The lost dollars are a big blow to schools around the state.

In an attempt to fix decades-long issues with the current arrangement, the Democratic leadership sponsoring the omnibus education bill also pioneered major changes to the funding arrangement this year to the chagrin of Republicans.

Chalkbeat reported that the law would raise local mill levvies — the local property taxes that help fund schools — for many school districts. Typically, districts mull possible tax raises themselves because of political risks.

But for the time being, the state established a line of credit for districts to keep their taxes low and will continue to shell out dollars as it has for more than a decade. However, it’s possible that the state will revoke the credit eventually, force local taxpayers to pay out more and reduce the state’s spending share.

It’s a complicated but ambitious move and one likely to land in court, according to Chalkbeat.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Higher ed funding tweak

Amidst budget cuts, lawmakers also quietly changed the way state government funds higher education institutions including state universities.

HB20-1136 doesn’t change the total amount of money that will flow to the University of Colorado and other higher education systems, but it does change how the money will be doled out — including by attaching a “performance” metric to the mix.

Under the new law, a higher education system will be rewarded with funding contingent on student demographics compared to other systems. Universities and colleges with a larger share of minority students and students eligible for federal Pell Grants, for example, will receive more dollars. Graduation rates will also be factors.

Although this law didn’t change other facets of the funding arrangement, higher education funding still took a nearly $600 million budget cut this year because of the pandemic-induced recession.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

Colorado State Senator Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, makes a point during a news conference on the west steps of the State Capitol after Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed a broad police accountability bill Friday, June 19, 2020, in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Police reform on the fastrack

With the stroke of a pen on June 19, Gov. Jared Polis signed into law what’s been heralded as the most sweeping police reform package in the country.

Known as the “Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity” bill, the legislation addresses a slew of policies that criminal justice reformers have backed for decades.

Notably, the measure ends the qualified immunity defense for police officers, meaning they could be subject to civil rights lawsuits in court. Officers found in violation of civil rights claims can now be forced to pay for 5 percent of a judgement, or up to $25,000.

The measure, sponsored by Aurora Democrat Sen. Rhonda Fields, will also require that nearly all officers and deputies in the state wear body cameras by 2023. Aurora is currently working on re-upping its own body camera contract for more than 500 local officers. The program has been a magnet for scrutiny since several cameras fell off during the arrest of Elijah McClain in north Aurora last year. Cops who fail to intervene in an instance of excessive force could also now be subject to a misdemeanor charge, and controversial chokeholds —including the carotid hold applied to McClain’s neck before he died last August — are now banned.

Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson added those same stipulations to Aurora police guidelines, further solidifying how local cops should operate, last month.

Additionally, the bill makes it harder — nearly impossible — for officers found guilty of inappropriate use of force to remain as law enforcement professionals. Such officers will be entered into a state database with a slew of other, new statistics starting next year.

The Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police all backed the final version of the bill.

Several pieces of the measure will take effect on Sept. 1, though others, such as the body-worn camera requirement, will be slower to roll out. That won’t be a mandate until July 1, 2023.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer