Why does the General Assembly only meet for 120 days a year?

Article V, Section 7 of the Colorado Constitution allows the Colorado General Assembly to meet in general session each year for not more than 120 days. The people of Colorado placed that limitation of on their state legislature when they approved Referendum 3, which appeared on the statewide ballot in November 1988. The measure passed with 52.33% of the vote. Prior to that change, the Colorado state legislature had discretion to decide when it would meet during a calendar year.

Article V, Section 7 also requires the state House and Senate to convene for its general session at or before 10 a.m. of the second Wednesday of January each year. The convening day is counted as the first day and every day thereafter counts toward the 120-day limit. Then, no more than 119 consecutive days later, both chambers of the Colorado state legislature must adjourn from general session for the remainder of that calendar year.

For reference, during a general session, members of the General Assembly may introduce bills of general concern, meaning virtually any topic pertaining to state law. During a rare special session of the Colorado General Assembly, only bills relating to the topic(s) identified in the proclamation to call that special session may become law.

The 120-day limitation was tested during the COVID-19 pandemic when, for the first time, the Colorado General Assembly operated under Joint Rule 44, concerning the Rules of Procedure During a Declared Disaster Emergency. That Joint Rule of the state legislature stipulates that, during a disaster emergency as declared by the governor, the state legislature may count those 120-days nonconsecutively. The constitutionality of counting general session days nonconsecutively was challenged in 2020, but the  Colorado Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Rule on a 4-3 vote.

When the Colorado General Assembly is not operating under Joint Rule 44, legislative days are counted consecutively, and a general session cannot be extended beyond those 120 days. To clarify, in Colorado, a special session cannot extend a general session.

Also, here in Colorado, bill numbers from one session cannot carry over to another session. Thus, every bill that is introduced during a given session will have a finite ending, it will either pass or fail, during that session. While the same bill topic could be introduced in a future session, any future bill would be introduced under a new bill number specific to that new session and such a bill would start at the beginning of the bicameral legislative process; not at the point where a previous bill failed in that process. 

The first day of the First Regular Session of a Colorado General Assembly is all about restarting the law-making process. A quorum is established by swearing in those who were elected the prior November, chamber leaders are elected, and rules adopted in each chamber. Next, each chamber notifies the other, plus the governor, that they are organized and ready to conduct business. 

That’s important because the people of Colorado decided in 1988 to effectively shut down their state legislature for eight months each year. With that vote, they chose to have a part-time citizen legislature. It works that way in Colorado because that’s how the people of Colorado wanted it to work.

** 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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