In what would have been big news pre-pandemic, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis late last month declared a state of emergency, his 18th since March and one of more than 320 executive orders he’s issued during the coronavirus crisis.
Those numbers feel much too high to Republicans in the Colorado legislature, who this week again made clear their intent to try to curtail the governor’s unprecedented authority and hand some power back to other policymakers. Four GOP bills to this effect have been introduced already, and lawmakers say more are likely coming.
“One of the most basic, fundamental bedrocks of our republic is representative government,” said Sen. Rob Woodward, a Loveland Republican who is sponsoring a bill designed to protect small businesses from being ordered to close if and when big-box stores can stay open.
“When you have a single individual making law, executing law, making all these decisions, that’s not a very healthy way to run things,” Woodward added. “That’s why we left England back in the day.”
Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Andres Pico, meanwhile, is pushing a bill to limit gubernatorial disaster declarations to 60 days, saying “the legislative and executive branch working together, and I don’t think we are right now.”
Those two bills, and others that will follow, will surely die since Democrats control the legislature. The party of Polis has shot down similar proposals throughout the pandemic and there’s no evidence that’ll change.
Polis’ power and prominence over the last year aren’t unique: Governors around the country are in the spotlight like never before. Unlike his colleagues in states with split-party control — Michigan and Kansas, for example — Polis has rarely had to negotiate. Democrats have grumbled at times about Polis leaving lawmakers out of the loop on key decisions concerning the state’s COVID-19 response. But for the most part, they’ve been glad to cede power.
“There’s probably a partisan element to this,” acknowledged Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and the legislature’s chief budget writer. “That’s the reality when you control all three — the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.”
For the majority of the pandemic, the executive branch has been the only fully functioning branch of government in Colorado. The legislature, which is part-time, has met for about a month total since COVID shut down the Capitol in March. The judiciary is deeply backlogged; Chief Justice Brian Boatright told lawmakers Thursday that a “tsunami” of 14,635 jury trials await for when operations return to normal.
Barring COVID-related public health setbacks, Capitol leaders say the legislature will meet through the spring, meaning critical questions that were settled largely by Polis throughout the pandemic can in theory fall to lawmakers.
They could pass bills to override his authority, change operational rules for struggling businesses and freeze evictions, among other actions. But they’re not looking to pick many fights. GOP bills like Woodward’s and Pico’s are as good as dead on arrival.
“I know that some folks have issues with how long it’s lasted,” Moreno said of the governor’s reign. “But I don’t really think it’s our role to manage a crisis of this magnitude.”
That is, except for the budget.
Polis has plans for a state stimulus package in excess of $1 billion, and earlier this year sought what would have essentially been a rubber-stamp from the Joint Budget Committee, a bipartisan (but Democrat-controlled) group of six lawmakers. They declined.
Polis now appears more interested in making new investments to kickstart economic recovery with job-creating projects like broadband service expansion and major road repairs. The legislature, Moreno said, may be more interested in restoring budget cuts made in 2020, when the state’s economy was projected to tank much more than it actually has.
And as for who might decide whether and how another round of federal stimulus money might be allocated in Colorado?
“Good question!” said Sen. Bob Rankin, the Carbondale Republican and a state budget writer. “I believe it should go through (the legislature). I don’t know. I hope. I am trying as hard as I can to convince Moreno and the other Democrats to push back very hard on the governor.”
He and his GOP colleagues will keep trying, but evidence from the past year shows they may not get far. Polis told The Denver Post this week he doesn’t like having so much power — “the worst nightmare,” he said — but sidestepped a question about whether the GOP proposals are appropriate.
“We’re always happy to have a discussion with the legislature about the proper role of the legislative, executive and judicial branches in an emergency,” he said, “but nobody will be more thrilled than I am to give up those emergency powers when the pandemic ends.”
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