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Colorado lawmakers kick off a new session clouded by pandemic, election season

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
A new coronavirus testing station has been set up outside the state Capitol during a surge of infections attributed to the omicron variant.

Colorado lawmakers have kicked off a new session that will be heavily influenced by the coronavirus pandemic and an election year that will determine whether Democrats get to maintain their control of the state government.

In many ways, opening day of 2022 was similar to opening day of 2021, which also took place during a spike in coronavirus cases.

Most Democrats continued to wear masks in the building this week in response to the surge of coronavirus cases attributed to the omicron variant, while most Republican lawmakers did not.

The plexiglass barriers that were installed earlier in the pandemic are gone, but a new rapid testing site has been installed at the entrance of the building.

And a handful of lawmakers from both parties are continuing to vote and work remotely because of virus concerns.

After a summer that saw lawmakers from both parties work together to advance a plan to spend hundreds of millions of coronavirus relief dollars on affordable housing and mental health initiatives, it did not take long for the day to devolve into partisan bickering that is common in the Capitol.

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
Republican state lawmakers say they will pursue 44 bills that aim to lower the cost of living and reduce crime, among other initiatives.

Republicans used their opening day speeches to blame rising crime rates, inflation and other woes on Democrats over the last three years.

“The state of the state is not good,” said House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland “We are going to have to spend every day of the next 120 days fighting to make it better.”

Democrats agreed that the session is beginning at a time of great hardship for many Coloradans, including those who just lost their homes in the state’s most destructive wildfire.

But they said their initiatives over the last two years, including more money for workforce development and education programs, have helped the state move forward despite the pandemic.

“For far too many families across our state, the going has gotten really tough and it's gotten tougher over the last few years,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “Despite the incredible work we've done to make health care more affordable, create a more fair tax code and support small businesses during their times of need, life in Colorado has gotten more and more expensive. That's why my number one priority this session is to bring down the cost of living in Colorado and make life more affordable for families in our state.

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
Colorado lawmakers in the House of Representatives greet each other Wednesday at the Capitol.

Minutes after the opening day speeches concluded, several Republican lawmakers gathered in the west foyer of the Capitol to unveil their own agenda.

They said they were introducing bills that would spend more on the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and allow residents to deduct their rent from income taxes, among other initiatives.

More than 40 bills were introduced on opening day.

In the Senate, the first bills include a measure to boost funding for fire departments by $5 million, and another bill to create a $10 million grant program aimed at reducing crime in communities by purchasing improvements like better street lighting.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.