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Legislation is moving quickly at the state Capitol. Here are the highlights with two weeks left

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

It’s crunch time at the state Capitol, where lawmakers are nearing the end of their legislative session. With less than two weeks left, several major bills are passing and the stakes are high.

KUNC’s state Capitol reporter Scott Franz joined host Desmond O’Boyle this week to talk about the highlights.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Desmond o’Boyle: Gov. Polis has signed more than 100 bills so far this year. But the biggest one so far was the $36 billion state budget he approved Monday. There’s a lot in there, but what are some of the highlights?

Scott Franz It's a record-breaking budget, the biggest we've ever seen here at the Capitol. And what's fascinating is just how quickly we've gone from the governor signing what he called the worst budget in state history to what he's now touting as the best. And this has happened in less than two years. You know, two years ago, they had to cut $3 billion, mostly education funding because of the coronavirus pandemic. And this week, they're touting education funding as the biggest win in the budget. It will increase funding for public schools by 9%. Democrats say that means smaller class sizes and pay raises for teachers on the horizon.

It also does a little bit of everything from more wildfire mitigation to money for recruiting new police officers. But despite all of this, there was only one Republican present at the bill signing ceremony. That was Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale. He helped write the budget. And he says it's going to get the state back to normal.

We always expect some surprises as legislative sessions wind down. What plot twists are we seeing at the Capitol this month? 

There was this new announcement from the governor that this summer people will be getting $400 tax refunds in the mail. This is something that stems from TABOR, more commonly known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. The short short story is this is the law passed 30 years ago that limits how much in taxes the government can take in. The government has to refund the money if it collects more than it's allowed to. And that's the case because the economy and tax collections are doing so good. They have to send it back.

The interesting piece of this, though, is those refunds weren't supposed to go out until next spring. And this new expedited timeline puts (these checks) in mailboxes right before a major election in which Gov. Jared Polis is seeking reelection. Now, Republicans are calling this an election year game on the governor's part. Polis was asked about the timing of this at the big reveal earlier this week, and he said, “It has to do with the economic pressure that the people of Colorado are facing. It would make no sense just because this year happens to be an election year to delay these refunds close to an additional year for nine or 10 more months when people need it now.”

Polis also said, “This is the summer when we're suffering from $4 per gallon gas prices. This is the summer where the supply chain issues lead to higher grocery prices. So it's critical that we act as quickly as possible to get this out to people.”

With still two weeks left, we could see another major piece of legislation.

This session started four months ago in the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, the most destructive in state history. Lawmakers promised to address the growing threats from fires this session. How much have they gotten done?

Well, we've definitely seen more wildfire bills than usual that have passed so far. Just a few days ago, they sent the governor one to force insurance companies to pay more upfront to people who lose their homes. This isn't just from the Marshall Fire. This is also from the East Troublesome where people were complaining about how long it was taking to get reimbursed and the fact that they needed detailed inventories of what was lost. So lots of hurdles, but legislation passing to help people who have survived these.

The governor has also already signed a bill to let people who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire continue to vote in their hometowns if they plan to eventually rebuild or move back. This was something that lots of folks were requesting. But even today, there's more urgency around this issue because of the fires we've seen in Boulder County and all around the state in the last few weeks because of these drought conditions. So just a couple of days ago, they announced that they would spend an additional $20 million just to prepare for the summer.

They're expecting it to be perhaps another record-breaking year because of the drought and weather conditions already seeing. Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder says the money “will go to contracts for additional air tankers and helicopters to quickly and decisively respond to fires before they get out of control.” He also says it will “ensure that we have year round and expanded dispatch services to immediately respond when a fire is spotted.”

They're also expecting this new Firehawk helicopter we’ve heard a lot about to come into play this summer. That's a Black Hawk helicopter, military grade. That is a lot faster. It can carry a lot more water. So they're hoping that also is another way to prevent some of these from getting out of control.

With less than three weeks left, what are the big things lawmakers are still working on?

There's still a long list. So the nights are getting longer here. You know, that major fentanyl bill is still moving through. It's going through lots of changes. It's perhaps the most emotional debate in the closing weeks trying to address this crisis that has killed hundreds of Coloradans in recent years. There's still several health care bills, too; one that tries to recruit nurses. We've seen some of the staffing challenges during the pandemic, the stress that health care workers are facing. This would invest tens of millions to boost that workforce. The flavored tobacco ban is also still in a sort of limbo right now. So lots and lots of initiatives. There's money for affordable housing still moving through. There's money to try and reduce homelessness. And this will all likely come down to the final hours in early May.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
Desmond O'Boyle