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Lawmaker didn’t attend a Colorado House floor debate in person until 45 days into session

Elisabeth Epps said she had an ‘extended health condition,’ but didn’t elaborate

State Rep. Elisabeth Epps attended her first House floor session in person Feb. 23 – 45 days into Colorado’s 120-day legislative session – after asking Democratic leadership in the chamber in mid-January for permission to participate remotely “indefinitely, unfortunately” because she said she’s “experiencing an extended health condition.”

That’s according to a Colorado Sun review of House journals, as well as an examination of emails and texts between the Denver Democrat and House leadership and staff obtained by The Sun through an open records request.

Elisabeth Epps

In requesting remote participation, Epps did not disclose her health condition. Her first day of in-person House floor attendance came a day after The Sun asked her about her absence. She refused to answer.

Epps was back on the floor Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday this week, too.

Representatives participating remotely in House floor work may only vote and present their own bills. They can’t debate legislation or offer amendments.

State Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, also participated remotely in House floor work or was excused from the beginning of the session through Feb. 22 after having a baby in January. She said showing up makes a big difference, especially because remote attendance makes it impossible to engage in debate.

“There is no real comparison,” said Luck, who continued participating remotely Feb. 23 and since then.

Epps has attended at least four meetings in person of the House State, Civic, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee – the only non-year-round committee she’s assigned to – while otherwise participating remotely in the panel’s gatherings. She didn’t claim any per diem pay, an allowance intended to cover expenses incurred during legislative work, in January.

The representative was at the Capitol on Feb. 22 after participating in that morning’s floor session remotely. A Sun reporter approached her near the elevators on the third floor and asked her several times how not appearing in person on the floor for debate may affect her ability to represent her constituents in Denver’s House District 6.

Epps didn’t respond, instead staring silently at the reporter before getting in an elevator.

There have been other examples of lawmakers participating remotely in House or Senate floor work or being excused for extended periods of time for personal reasons. Democratic Rep. Tisha Mauro, of Pueblo, was dealing with an illness last year and was frequently a remote participant, while Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, was on maternity leave for several weeks during the 2022 session.

But Epps’ absence from the House floor this year also follows an outburst during the special legislative session in November, an incident that served to further isolate her from her colleagues.

On the final day of the special session, Epps left the House floor and joined pro-Palestinian protesters in the chamber’s gallery who were calling for a cease fire in the war between Israel and Hamas. She then proceeded to shout during a speech delivered by Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg, who is Jewish. Weinberg was responding to Epps’ remarks earlier that day in support of Palestinians and in opposition to the Israeli military’s response to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that sparked the ongoing conflict.

Epps, in explaining her behavior both at the time and later on social media, said Weinberg directed an expletive at her during her remarks in support of Palestinians. Weinberg has denied that allegation.

In January, House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, sent a formal letter of reprimand to Epps, saying she violated six House rules during the outburst and that Epps had been “significantly disruptive to House business, causing extensive delays to the completion of legislative proceedings.” Before the reprimand, McCluskie removed Epps from the House Judiciary Committee, one of the Legislature’s most prestigious panels, citing the disruption during the special session.

Tension between Epps and McCluskie has been high since last year, long before the special session.

Epps posted on social media about what she alleged was McCluskie’s “gatekeeping” on a bill that would have banned the sale and transfer of a large swath of semi-automatic firearms, which the measure defined as assault weapons. Epps also sued McCluskie and both House caucuses over alleged violations of the state’s open meetings laws. The case resulted in a settlement.

Emails and texts between Epps and McCluskie from March through the end of January revealed just how fraught the relationship between the two has been.

In March 2023, Epps sent McCluskie emails questioning whether legislative leaders met to discuss her gun bill and whether such meetings should have been noticed under Colorado’s open meetings laws. The bill was rejected by a House committee that same month. (Epps is pursuing a similar measure this year.)

Epps replied to the January reprimand with an email to McCluskie saying “Free Palestine. 🇵🇸❤️🍉,” using the watermelon emoji, a symbol used to signal solidarity with Palestine.

In another email to McCluskie, Epps called her removal from the House Judiciary Committee “racist and retaliatory.”

McCluskie wrote in a Nov. 18 text to Epps that it was her understanding the representative didn’t want to meet with her in person so she would limit their communications to email.

While McCluskie provided her digital exchanges with Epps to The Sun at no cost, legislative staff estimated it would cost about $812 to review Epps’ digital communications with McCluskie and House Majority Monica Duran, D-Arvada, dating back to January 2023. The Sun opted not to pay.

The Democratic-controlled House Finance Committee late Monday overwhelmingly rejected a bill sponsored by Epps that would have repealed Colorado’s 2016 law prohibiting the Public Employees’ Retirement Association from investing in companies that boycott Israel.

The vote was 10-1. Only Democratic Rep. Lorena Garcia of Adams County voted “yes” on the measure.

Testimony on House Bill 1169 lasted well over four hours.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.