Special Sessions of the Colorado General Assembly

Article IV, Section 9 of the Colorado Constitution grants authority to the Governor to convene the legislature for purposes of a special or “extraordinary” session. To call a special session, the Governor must issue a proclamation, which must state the purpose for which the legislature is to assemble.

Special sessions of the legislature are rare in Colorado, especially following the November 1988 general election. That year, Colorado voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, which limited their General Assembly to no more than 120 general session legislative days per year. That amendment effectively converted the 100-member Colorado General Assembly to a part-time citizen legislature. Thus, calling those 100 elected officials to a special session is done only under extraordinary circumstances.

Article IV, Section 9 stipulates that, during a special session, “…no business shall be transacted other than that specially named in the proclamation.” Given the Separation of Powers, that restriction has generally been interpreted to mean that, in order to become state law as a result of a special session, the subject of a bill must fall within the scope of the Governor’s proclamation for that special session.

While legislators may introduce bills during a special session that do not relate to the Governor’s proclamation, no bill that falls outside of the scope of the Governor’s proclamation may become law. Furthermore, the constitutionality of a law resulting from special session legislation could be questioned in the Judicial Branch based on whether the subject of the bill that created said law complied with the scope identified in the Governor’s proclamation.

In addition to the Governor’s authority to call a special session, Article V, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution grants authority to members of the General Assembly to call their own special session. In order for that to occur, the Section requires “…written request by two-thirds of the members of each house to the presiding officer of each house to consider only those subjects specified in such request.” 

Thus, in order for the legislature to call its own special session, at least 44 of the 65 Representatives and at least 18 of the 35 state Senators would first need to agree in writing about the subject(s) to be addressed. Then, those legislators would need to send written notice of that agreement to the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

While that hurdle might have been challenging during the first 113 years of Colorado legislative history (1876-1988), it became far less likely to occur when Colorado voters approved the constitutional amendment to limit their state legislature to no more than 120 days of general session law-making authority each year. Starting in 1989, even the suggestion that legislators might call their own special session could be seen as an afront to the will of the people. Thus, in Colorado, when a rare special session of the legislature is called, it would likely be done via the Governor’s authority found in Article IV, Section 9 of the state constitution.

Rumors of special sessions are fairly common in Colorado, especially during the closing days and weeks of an annual general session. Those who spread such rumors generally either don’t know, don’t consider, or ignore the fact that, in the Colorado legislative process, bills cannot carry over from one session to another; there is no way to extend the clock. While that might occur in some other state legislatures, it cannot happen in the Colorado General Assembly.

Another aspect of a Colorado special session is that, in order for the General Assembly to pass even one bill, a special session must last for at least three days. The reason for that is found in Article V, Section 22 of the Colorado Constitution, which requires each chamber to consider Second and Third Reading on any bill “…on two separate days…”. Thus, the following steps represent the shortest pathway to passing a bill, which would require at least three legislative days:

Day 1

  • Introduction in the first chamber
  • Referral to a committee of reference
  • Public hearing conducted by that committee
  • Referral of the bill by that committee to chamber for Second Reading
  • Committee report delivered to and read in that chamber
  • Second Reading debate and passage

Day 2

  • Third Reading debate and passage by the first chamber
  • Introduction in the second chamber
  • Referral to a committee of reference
  • Public hearing conducted by that committee
  • Referral of the bill by that committee to chamber for Second Reading
  • Committee report delivered to and read in that chamber
  • Second Reading debate and passage by the second chamber

Day 3

  • Third Reading debate and passage by the second chamber

A given bill may also be required to route through the Finance and/or Appropriations Committee of each chamber due to its financial impact and/or appropriation requirements. During a special session, the chamber presiding officers may refer bills directly to one or those committees.

** The information provided herein is intended for general educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, please consult with an attorney.

** Civics Corner content was written with the help of former Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert.

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