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KUNC is a member of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

6 Highlights From Colorado's 'Hellish,' 'Beautiful' And 'Strange' Legislative Session

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State lawmakers went into an emergency recess on March 14 because of the coronavirus pandemic. When they returned, the wore masks and sat between plexiglass barriers.

Colorado lawmakers on Monday ended what is likely to go down in history as one of their most difficult, dramatic and emotional legislative sessions.

During their final days at the Capitol, lawmakers wore face masks, sat between plexiglass barriers and avoided hugs and handshakes to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Some left the building late at night to find their cars smashed and totaled during protests that at times resulted in violence.

They shed tears of joy after they passed a sweeping set of police reforms in response to days of demonstrations against police brutality and the death of George Floyd and others killed by law enforcement.

And they shed tears of sorrow when they were forced to slash $3.3 billion from a budget that was devastated by the grim financial toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are some of the highlights from the final weeks of the legislative session, which lawmakers are calling "hellish," "beautiful" and "strange."

Police reform

Police accountability was not originally on the agenda when lawmakers returned from more than two months of an emergency recess during the pandemic. But that changed very quickly after thousands of people in Colorado joined a nationwide movement to demand changes in law enforcement following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

Lawmakers reacted quickly, and on Saturday Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to pass a sweeping set of reforms in response to the protests.

Senate Bill 217 bans chokeholds, requires all police officers in the state to start using body cameras and creates new transparency requirements for law enforcement. It also requires officers to intervene if they see one of their peers using force inappropriately.

"How many kids, how many souls are gonna be lost before we step in and say we have a duty to intervene? We have a duty to do something about it," Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, said during an emotional speech on the House floor before the bill was passed.

Republican lawmakers were initially skeptical of the bill, along with law enforcement agencies. But a majority supported the legislation after several amendments were made, including giving police until 2023 to get the body cameras.

The bill was also amended to prevent police from firing tear gas at protesters without issuing a warning first.

Gov. Polis says he will sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

COVID-19 relief

Lawmakers spent the final hours of the session passing more than a dozen bills that aim to help Coloradans endure the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Together, the measures will spend tens of millions of dollars on mental health support, substance abuse prevention, housing needs and small business loans.

One bipartisan bill will also allow residents to keep getting alcohol delivered with their food orders until at least July of 2021.

But while lawmakers found bipartisan support on some of the actions, others, including a paid sick leave proposal, became controversial.

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Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

Democrats advanced a bill requiring all businesses with more than 15 employees to offer up to 48 hours of paid sick leave next year.

It originally would have mandated all businesses to have the requirement, but a compromise added an exemption for small businesses until 2022.

Democrats also did not extend Gov. Polis' initial ban on evictions during the economic crisis despite pleas from some members of the state Senate.

In an emotional speech on Friday, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, shared stories of residents who were getting several calls from their landlords demanding rent payments during the pandemic.

She suggested lawmakers would start getting calls this week from residents facing evictions if they did not act to protect them.

Though lawmakers did not pass legislation on evictions, Gov. Polis issued an executive order Saturday night that will delay them for at least another 30 days.

Budget crisis

Lawmakers were forced to slash $3.3 billion from next year's budget after the coronavirus pandemic closed restaurants, businesses, ski areas and much of the state's economy.

Coloradans will soon be affected by many aspects of the budget cuts, which range from delays of major road construction projects to a reduction of human service programs.

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Scott Franz
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KUNC

Education funding took the brunt of the cuts, as lawmakers reduced the budget for K-12 schools and colleges and universities by more than $1 billion.

Federal money from the CARES Act will help soften the blow to schools, which are getting emergency funds to help with new remote learning programs and safety measures during the pandemic.

But the budget cuts are likely to stall the construction of new schools in rural Colorado and force some districts to make tough budget decisions about staffing next year.

Asking voters for help

Lawmakers are hoping voters will also help soften the blow from the coronavirus pandemic, especially to the education budget. They are asking voters to pass two tax measures in November that could generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

The first would raise taxes on cigarettes, nicotine and vaping products to generate an estimated $86 million next year.

Supporters say the additional tax would send $30 million of that money to rural schools and help support free preschool. The rest of the revenue would go to the general fund.

Another measure heading to voters is asking to repeal what is known as the Gallagher amendment, which was passed in 1982 in an effort to keep residential property tax rates lower than taxes paid by commercial businesses and oil and gas.

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Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

Supporters say the state cannot allow residential property tax rates to continue to decline when the state is losing so much revenue.

Tax reform

Democrats also passed a bill seeking to eliminate several federal tax breaks, including some in the recent CARES Act, to generate more than $180 million for the budget.

Supporters say they are targeting tax breaks that benefit wealthy residents and corporations.

Republicans who fought the tax measure say it will hurt several businesses and slow economic recovery in the state.

Vaccines

Finally, lawmakers spent their last weekend at the Capitol debating a controversial bill that aims to boost Colorado's child vaccination rates.

Democrats passed a measure that will make it harder for some parents to opt their children out of vaccines required by schools.

Under the new bill, which Gov. Polis is expected to sign, parents will either have to get a form signed by a medical professional or watch an educational video about vaccines before they can receive an exemption.

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