Colorado conservatives take efforts to strip governor of emergency powers to the ballot box
Colorado Republicans spent this past legislative session trying to strip Gov. Jared Polis of the broad emergency powers he has been using to lead the state through the pandemic. The effort did not gain any traction in a Capitol dominated by Polis’ fellow Democrats.
Amendment 78 is a new, conservative-led effort to make the executive branch a little less powerful by giving state lawmakers more control over emergency spending.
It also aims to give the Colorado legislature final say in other spending decisions that are currently handled by the governor and other branches of government.
Supporters point to an incident last spring as the reason such a change is needed.
On May 18, with a stroke of a pen and an evening email, Polis announced he was signing an executive order spending $1 billion of federal coronavirus relief on the state’s public schools.
The sudden announcement enraged Republican lawmakers, and even annoyed some Democrats, who felt they should have a say in how to spend so much money. People pushing Amendment 78 still haven’t gotten over it.
“Just having that ability to spend that much money, a billion dollars without that normal process, I think would give anybody pause,” said Michael Fields, a conservative activist and author of the ballot measure. “And think about it, you might agree with this governor. What do you think about the next governor having that power?”
Colorado’s governors can legally spend emergency money like coronavirus relief without any input or approval from state lawmakers, who typically only meet for four months out of the year.
They are called custodial funds. The ballot measure would change the state constitution to require lawmakers to sign off on how every penny is spent.
“And so that means there's a public hearing. There are multiple legislators from around the state being involved in that process,” said Fields.
He thinks giving the legislature more oversight of the funds will lead to better spending decisions.
But opponents fear it will lead to the opposite.
Scott Wasserman leads a left-leaning Denver think tank and financial research group called the Bell Policy Center.
“You do not want these funds tied up in partisan bickering at the state legislature,” Wasserman said. “I think it will bog down the legislature. I think it will lead to more partisan bickering. And then ultimately what they'll do is, is reduce people's confidence in in the state getting business done.”
Wasserman and a Summit County commissioner filed a lawsuit last week aiming to take Amendment 78 off the ballot. They say it should not have qualified for the November election because odd year initiatives must only focus on issues related to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.
Wasserman said Monday he still was waiting to hear back from a judge on how the case will proceed. Court records show a status conference is scheduled for Wednesday in Denver.
Wasserman also filed a campaign finance complaint against a group that has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the measure, saying it should reveal its donors.
The concerns about the fundraising were first reported by the Colorado Sun.
“I think it is ironic that an organization that does not want to be transparent is talking about the need for transparency,” Wasserman said.
Non-partisan researchers at the Capitol do not know exactly how much money Amendment 78 would affect. In addition to emergency funds, it would also give lawmakers final say over spending of legal settlements, transportation funds and even gifts to colleges and universities.
“Can you imagine how much longer and more technical the process will be if they now have to allocate and appropriate every single custodial dollar?” Wasserman said.
And that’s a concern for some in a state where wildfires, road-crushing mudslides and other emergencies pop up when the legislature is out of session.
Financial analysts who work for lawmakers also estimate they would have to spend an extra $1 million each year just for lawmakers to take on the new responsibilities. Fields thinks it could be done without the gridlock Wasserman fears.
“They can give power back to the governor, for example, and say, look, this amount of money, if it comes in for an emergency, you can go and spend that or they can come back for it for a special session,” he said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle passed a law last year requiring governors give them regular updates on how emergency dollars are being spent. But some Republicans want to go further. Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland led efforts this year to scale back Polis’ emergency powers.
“There is a necessity to bring the legislature to do its job, which is to craft the laws and rules for the state,” he said.
McKean says Amendment 78 would also end what he calls “slush funds” that get spent without any public input. As an example, he points to the state health department spending a $68 million legal settlement Colorado got from Volkswagen for its role in an emissions scandal.
“And in the end, some of that money went to pay for car chargers in places like the Target parking lot right here in Loveland,” he said. “There haven't been any cars charging at the Target car charging station since it was built. And so a lot of people are asking, well, hold on, who made the decision to spend those dollars in that way? And of course, the legislature didn't. The legislature weighed in very, very little on some of these things.”
There was no organized opposition to Amendment 78 when Colorado mailed its voter guide. But legislative analysts say they have heard concerns from the governor’s office and the attorney general. A spokesperson for attorney general Phil Weiser said his office could not comment on the measure because of the pending lawsuit.
Months before conservatives gathered enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot, Polis was dismissing ongoing efforts to rein in his emergency powers.
“It’s a good, thoughtful discussion in a democracy,” he said. “I mean, if you’re going to go that route, you need to have a full-time legislature. There’s no question our legislature is a part-time legislature. Many folks don’t know that they have other jobs.”
At least 55 % of voters would have to agree to give lawmakers more control over the spending. If passed, the amendment would take effect in July.