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Governors Inherited Lots Of Power During the Pandemic. We Talked To Polis About How He's Using His

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David Zalubowski
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AP Photo
Gov. Jared Polis gestures a sign of approval before he signs for delivery for the state’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, early Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in east Denver.

Gov. Jared Polis has made hundreds of decisions this year that have affected millions of Coloradans. He's the one deciding where we can eat, whether we have to wear masks and most recently, who is first in line to get the vaccine. He's also had to govern through his own COVID-19 diagnosis.

Capitol Coverage reporter Scott Franz recently spoke with Polis about his coronavirus response. Below are highlights from the interview.

Scott Franz: I recently talked to the National Governors Association and they told me one of your fellow governors said the pandemic was like a hurricane that makes landfall in all 50 states and never leaves. This hurricane has been with us now for more than nine months, and you've been the face of Colorado's response leading us through it. I'm wondering how are you holding up?

Jared Polis: I run for governor and I think anybody runs for governor to be proactive, right? I had a vision for our state that I shared during my campaign: Kindergarten and preschool for every kid. We've got that in place with the kindergarten. Voters approved preschool; it'll start in two years. Saving people money on health care, renewable energy, all these exciting things. But you also know that when you sign up for the job, it's like a marriage. It's for better or worse. And I thought the worst would include fires, which it has. And they were tragic. I thought it might include floods.

Never in the back of my mind did I ever think it would include a pandemic. There hadn't been one in a century. But it's what I signed up for. I'm doing my best to provide the stable, thoughtful leadership that the state needs, informed by science to be able to get through this with our lives and our economy intact.

You've now issued more than 260 executive orders to address the pandemic and its effects. You talk to historians, the National Governors Association, they say you'd have to go back to the Spanish flu more than a century ago to find a time when governors have actually had and used this much power. Has having this responsibility and affecting so many lives with your day-to-day decisions weighed on you at all?

Like most Coloradans, I can't wait till the day where they're all expired and we're back to normal. Each one is difficult and thoughtful and predicated by science. But I can't wait till we're out of this. Right. This is the first time in our nation's history that all 50 states are in a state of emergency. So it's a situation faced by every governor, including the territories. It's more than 50 doing what they can to prevent unnecessary loss of life.

I mean, look at the scope of this thing. We've lost over 320,000 Americans to this virus. 3,511 here in Colorado. During the floods of 2013 — which hit us all very hard in many areas of our state — we lost six people, which was tragic, six people. Now we've lost 3,511 from this deadly virus. It's just so important in these final few months, with the end of the pandemic in sight, that people wear masks when they're around others, they don't socialize with people outside of their household and keep a distance of at least six feet.

Now that the pandemic has gone on, there's been some angst in the business community against some of your executive orders. You know, I'm thinking of recent lawsuits from some businesses over capacity restrictions. In Steamboat Springs, where I'm from, I noticed there was a protest recently downtown of restaurant owners calling for restrictions to be lifted. I’m wondering what your response is to these business owners, who are starting to voice opposition to some of these orders?

Well, I share their opposition, and I think this is horrible. I think it's terrible that when there's a health risk, you know, small businesses need to reduce capacity. Of course, restaurants are open in Steamboat and across ski country at reduced capacity. I don't know if it's enough capacity for them to make it through or not. I hope so. It's why we called a special session of the legislature, Republicans and Democrats working together, providing tax relief for restaurants, direct assistance. They won't have to pay for their liquor license next year. Really, really stepping up to help some of these small businesses through this.

Speaking of the special session, Republican lawmakers used that occasion to try and pass several bills that would have stripped some of your power. They are vowing to keep up those efforts during the next session. I'm just wondering what your response is to those Republicans who think the legislature should have more oversight of the executive branch during a pandemic like this?

It's a good, thoughtful discussion in a democracy. 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. They're there for four or five months a year. But they're working and have a citizen legislature. That's a nice concept. I like it. But if you want to go that route of having them there around the clock, then it would be reasonable to have more of a consultive relationship and emergency management. But when they're not there, you have to vest that authority in somebody, a governor who's then accountable to the people, to the legislature when they do convene.

There are states like California, New York, that have full-time legislatures. There's other many other states, most of our neighboring states, that are part-time legislators. Some of them, like the one in Texas, only meet once every two years. I think it's one of the things that shouldn't be discussed at the heat of the moment. It's not about this crisis. It's just about what's best for Colorado going forward in terms of whether you want a full-time legislature or part-time legislature.