In theory, Gov. Jared Polis could keep Colorado under emergency-declaration status for as long as he’s leading the state, giving himself broad powers that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to wield during calmer times.
Big spending? Yes. Suspending regulations? That’s OK. Creating temporary laws? The governor has that power.
Republicans in the Colorado Legislature want to take that blank check away in the future and give lawmakers more oversight over emergency declarations and the sweeping authority they grant the state’s chief executive.
“I’m not looking to interfere with the decision making power of one person in an emergency,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County. “That would seem precarious. But at some point should the lawmakers, should the legislative branch have an opportunity to review the decisions, to modify some of the decisions?”
Holbert’s idea was presented Thursday night during a Colorado Sun event featuring Polis and four state lawmakers ahead of the 2021 legislative session, which resumes on Tuesday.
Right now, the Legislature – which is only in session for 120 days a year – can call itself into a special session and vote to terminate the governor’s emergency declaration. But that’s not likely to happen with a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor.
Republicans have been pushing a number of measures to give the Legislature more power to operate as a check on the governor’s emergency powers.
One proposal offered by Republican Reps. Tim Geitner and Rod Bockenfeld last year would have required the governor to get the Legislature’s permission every 30 days in order to extend an emergency declaration. It was swiftly rejected by Democrats.
A similar proposal from the GOP that would have asked voters to make the change in the Colorado Constitution met a similar fate.
“Let’s consider how we can possibly improve the balance of power and serve the people of Colorado a little bit better,” Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, testified in favor of the latter legislation, which he championed.
But Democrats want things left as is and argue the governor has broad emergency powers for a reason.
“We have separate branches of government for a reason,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “The executive branch has a nimbleness that we in the legislative branch just don’t have. It’s important for the health and safety of Coloradans that during emergencies the governor has an ability to act quickly to save lives, whatever the governor’s political affiliation. And now that we’re back in session, we can address whatever decisions he’s made that we in the legislative branch don’t like.”
Polis also takes issue with the idea of changing how the power structure works.
“I think if you had a full-time, around-the-year Legislature you could have more of a real-time process around emergency response,” he said. “Unless you plan to switch to that, you really have to have an executive who has that ability. There simply isn’t time to call on others and go through a process around an urgent response.”
The governor, also speaking at the Sun’s event, said he doesn’t take the Republican proposals personally.
“I think it’s important that people realize this will affect future governors more than it will affect Jared Polis,” he said.
And Holbert said he doesn’t mean for the idea to be an attack on Polis.
“This idea isn’t about the current pandemic, the current emergency disaster that we’re confronted with,” Holbert said. “It’s not about criticizing Gov. Jared Polis. But it is about using the lessons of the last 11 months.”