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Leadership defends keeping Colorado Senate open during bomb cyclone

Despite warnings to stay home during the mega snowstorm passing through Colorado, the Senate stayed open - meaning committee meetings continued even if citizens couldn't be there to testify.

DENVER — Schools, city and county offices and the Colorado House closed Wednesday because of the Bomb Cyclone, but state senators reported for work.

"It's a firm belief of mine, I spent six years in the Marine Corps, that we have to get the job done. That's a Marine spirit," Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) told Next with Kyle Clark. "It's extremely important that with a 120-day legislative session that we have that taxpayers are utilizing us to the best of their ability."

On the day’s calendar was the third and final Senate reading of Senate Bill 181 - the oil and gas reform bill, which passed on a 19-15 vote - as well as a committee hearing for the paid family leave bill.

"We have armed service members every single day, who are working every day, seven days a week. They don't get holidays. We have law enforcement out there. We have EMS personnel. We have firefighters who will be out there today. There are a lot of people in this country who show up to work every single day. And for me, it's not good enough just because we have a little bit of snow, again we're watching the weather," said Garcia.

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At the time of that comment, around 10:40 a.m., the rain in the metro area had turned to snow and was already collecting on the roads.

The decision to continue with business as usual or to close the Senate for the day is in Garcia’s hands. Garcia told Next that remaining open has nothing to do with Senate Republicans who called for bills to be read at length earlier in the week, delaying votes by hours. Republicans said that was an effort to get Democrats to slow down legislation, as Democrats – the majority – have been able to quickly move bills forward during this session.

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We asked Garcia if the Senate is open as payback to the Republicans.

"No, the Senate is open today as an opportunity to finish the work that we haven't been able to finish this week. This is Colorado. We probably don't even have an inch on the ground yet. We're watching the weather to see where we get," said Garcia.

Before conditions worsened throughout the day, we asked Garcia if there were blizzard conditions when the Senate ended business for the day, if that meant he made the wrong decision.

"I'm not going to speculate on whether or not it'd be a right or wrong decision. As I said earlier, I'm monitoring the conditions right now. I'm not a meteorologist, as I don't think most of my colleagues are," said Garcia.

But 9NEWS' Becky Ditchfield is a meteorologist, and on Monday she was recommending people to stay home, if they were able to.

"Brother, it pains my heart to admit on camera that the House is much more prudent than the Senate in this decision," said Sen. Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs).

Hill has to drive over Monument Hill to get home to Colorado Springs tonight.

"I don't mind showing up to work. I drive a Jeep, not a big deal. I signed up for work, but we have said effectively, if you want to testify in any of these important bills, you have to drive through this mess just to get your voice heard," said Hill.

He was referring to the committee hearings that were still scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, including the hearing on the paid family leave bill that would require employers and employees to pay into a state fund that would offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family-related issues. Employees would pay .32 percent more out of their paycheck to contribute to the fund. Employers would also pay .32 percent of the employee's salary into the fund.

Some citizens did show up to testify at committee meetings, but many seats remained empty. State Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) said on Twitter that she was willing to testify for or against two of her bills on behalf of anyone who didn’t feel safe enough to travel.

“Send me your testimony and I will read into the record. Be safe please!” she wrote.

At the start of the paid family leave debate, Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) encouraged anyone listening to the live-streamed broadcast to send in testimony.

"If anyone listening online right now wants to send in their testimony," Winter said.

Commentary: Commentary: Senate Democrats put public safety at risk by not calling snowday

It turns out, 100 people emailed testimony. However, the testimony itself was not read out loud, but only put into the record for lawmakers to consider. The person's name, organization and if they were for or against the bill was read out loud, but not the testimony that they would have been given three minutes to read themselves, had they shown up at the Capitol.

In a statement, the Colorado Republican Party slammed Garcia for keeping open the legislature.

"Passing SB 181 in the midst of today's Bomb Cyclone shows just how much Senate Democrats really care about putting 'public health and safety first,” said Chairman Jeff Hays. “However, Sen. Garcia blaming Republicans for his own negligence goes beyond the pale. There is no reason Senate business could not have waited until it was safe for state employees, press, and concerned constituents to travel.”

Xcel reported that up to 200,000 customers didn’t have power during the storm. While the Capitol building did not suffer a full outage, an email to lawmakers told them the elevator service in the Capitol was "risky" and “unstable… likely due to intermittent power losses."

A spokesman for the Department of Personnel and Administration told Next that there were power blips to the Capitol elevators, which would cause a small surge resetting the buttons on the elevator.

The House hasn’t said if it will open again Thursday.

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