Governor's powers, health care reform to take center stage in 2021 legislative session

State Legislature to return Feb. 16 after month delay due to COVID-19

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/8/21

Issues hanging over the 2021 session of the Colorado General Assembly include: Republicans' objections to the governor's far-reaching powers during the pandemic; an expected attempt by Democrats to …

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Governor's powers, health care reform to take center stage in 2021 legislative session

State Legislature to return Feb. 16 after month delay due to COVID-19

Posted

Issues hanging over the 2021 session of the Colorado General Assembly include: Republicans' objections to the governor's far-reaching powers during the pandemic; an expected attempt by Democrats to advance a type of health care reform known as the “public option”; a slate of gun control bills; and a push to treat cannabis-based medicine the same as any other medication in K-12 schools.

As if the state Legislature didn't have enough on its plate during the ongoing economic downturn wrought by COVID-19, other high-profile proposals are sure to draw heated debates at the Capitol.

State lawmakers convened for a three-day session in January, approving a handful of bills that — among other measures — renewed certain pandemic-related tax credits and retooled a relief program for minority-owned businesses in light of a court challenge that called its race-based criteria discriminatory.

Now, after a delay meant to protect against COVID-19, the Legislature is expected to return on Feb. 16 to continue this year's legislative session, the roughly four-month period in which bills are passed.

Asked what his biggest targets are for the session, Republican Chris Holbert, state Senate minority leader, said with a laugh that his goal is “to not be asked that question.”

“It's mathematically impossible to have goals unless the Democrats” agree, Holbert said, noting that Democrats still control both the state Senate and House and the governor's office.

In Colorado's third year of total statehouse control by Democrats after the 2018 election, here's a look at the proposals likely to grab attention.

'Not about the man named Polis'

After an 11-month stream of near-constant executive orders related to the coronavirus, Republicans such as Holbert, the state senator from Parker, are questioning whether a governor should have such a longstanding expansion of authority.

But Holbert draws a careful line: A Republican proposal may focus on how long a disaster emergency declaration — which can give a governor broader powers — can last before the governor has to depend on the state Legislature to extend it. But the proposal isn't so much about changing the authority itself that exists under such a declaration, Holbert said.

However, Holbert did call into question the type of rulemaking that has come via state order during the pandemic.

He says he's heard from constituents in Douglas County who assume Holbert decided that hair salons could only open at a certain percentage of their capacity or 10 people, or less, citing the type of public health rules Colorado has seen throughout the pandemic.

“I had nothing to do with that, and people want to know why,” Holbert said, arguing state lawmakers should have more say. A proposal might include giving the Legislature an opportunity to review rules made by executive order, he added.

“Right now, I think we understand that we don't have that authority,” Holbert said.

Senate Republicans intend to float either a state-law or constitutional proposal — if it's a constitutional change, it would come as a referred measure to state voters — to ask about the timeline for future statewide disaster emergencies, Holbert said.

“Should the Legislature have to (weigh in) in 30 days? Sixty days? Ninety? Six months? A year?” Holbert asked.

The senator framed the issue as centered on future potential emergencies — no matter who the governor is. “This isn't about the man named Jared Polis,” Holbert said.

If Republicans were to target Polis' current authority “relative to where we are right now, Democrats would kill that in (legislative) committee. So that would be a short conversation,” Holbert said.

But he took issue with Colorado's classification of certain businesses as “nonessential” or noncritical, a move that placed them under restrictions other “critical” businesses were spared. He heard of a tobacco store in the Parker area that attempted to stay open against pandemic-related orders, while nearby, big-box stores were able to sell tobacco.

“So it wasn't the product, and it wasn't the size of the store because you could see small liquor stores, and for some reason those were essential. A person could visit a small cannabis dispensary (in Arapahoe County),” Holbert said.

A potential proposal could arise on that matter, Holbert said. He added: “Again, not to interfere with what Polis has done now or to criticize him, but in the future, why can't small (businesses stay open)?”

State House Speaker Alec Garnett thanked the governor for his approach in responding to the pandemic.

“If we want to have a more robust discussion about the Legislature's role and how this is all supposed to work in the next pandemic, I don't think it's an appropriate time (for that) when we're toward the end of this crisis,” said Garnett, a Democrat of Denver.

“I don't want to cast any disparaging light on what this governor has accomplished,” the House leader added.

Health care focus amid virus

Democrats heard during election season that health-care costs remain a “No. 1 priority” for Coloradans, Garnett said.

“There is no doubt that the pandemic has underscored the gap in health (care) for Coloradans,” with costs standing as a hurdle for families trying to make ends meet, Garnett said.

Last year, Democratic lawmakers envisioned a type of “public option,” which would have added a government-overseen program alongside current private health insurance. Supporters of a public option say it would drive costs down by creating more competition for private companies.

The state government would have overseen the program, but private insurance carriers would have administered it and held the financial risk, according to a fact sheet by the state, which referred to the plan as a public-private partnership.

The pandemic upended last year's legislative session, but Democrats are back this year with a modified proposal that tweaks the possible Colorado public option — and tries a less government-driven approach first.

Dubbed the Colorado Health Insurance Option, it's what's known as a total-cost-of-care proposal that would set cost-reduction goals for health insurance premiums that Coloradans pay.

Under the plan, insurance companies would negotiate reimbursement rates — the amounts that insurance companies pay out — with hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and other health-care industry entities to enable the lower premium costs that consumers would pay, according to Jarrett Freedman, spokesman for state House Democrats.

The proposal would put the total-cost-of-care model in effect for years 2023 and 2024, and if the proposal's insurance premium-reduction goals aren't met, then in 2025, a plan for a Colorado public option would take effect.

That system in 2025 may look more like a traditional public option compared to last year's idea, with the government entirely running the program rather than overseeing private insurers' administration of it.

But if insurers are able to meet the goals, any creation of a state-backed public option would be delayed until the targets are no longer met, according to a fact sheet on the plan.

Individuals and small employers would be able to purchase insurance through the plan, the sheet says.

Holbert argued that if lawmakers want to make health care more affordable or accessible, they should “get government out of it.”

“They like to call it the public option, but it's government interference and it's price controls, and it means that some or most will pay more while fewer will pay less,” Holbert said.

Stakeholders in the health care industry have said they share the goal of cost reduction and want flexibility to meet them rather than having the state “force anything on top of us,” Garnett said.

“What we're trying to do is set goals for price reduction that are going to help Coloradans. Give insurers the option to work with hospitals and pharma and different players in the industry to set premiums … to achieve a goal,” Garnett said.

'Citizen control'

Three gun-control bills face good odds in the Democrat-led Legislature: This year could see proposals regarding requirements for storing firearms safely, a waiting period for purchasing firearms, and a duty to report lost or stolen firearms.

Holbert characterized the proposals as “citizen control” bills.

“They don't really seem to do anything about criminals but seem to (affect) law-abiding citizens,” Holbert added.

For Garnett, the focus is partly on Colorado's suicide rates and preventing suicides that involve a firearm, he said, adding: “We all support the Second Amendment.”

“I really don't understand why these proposals seem to be as partisan as they are,” Garnett said. “The goal is to improve responsible gun ownership.”

The House speaker called the proposals “narrowly focused” and ones that have been beneficial in other states. He argues they'll be tailored to address the outlined goal, as with 2019's Extreme Risk Protection Order bill, , Garnett argued. That's known as Colorado's “red flag” law.

“The number of talking points around the ERPO have not come true,” Garnett said.

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