DENVER–As the special session of the Colorado General Assembly called by Governor Polis raced forward Monday and Tuesday, lawmakers pushed forward with 37 bills addressing a variety of COVID-19 pandemic responses.
But while the majority Democrats sped spending, and other bills through committee after committee one subject they were unwilling to approve was limitations on the power of the governor to continue to indefinitely extend his health emergency declarations and executive orders.
Seven bills and resolutions put forward by Republicans all appear unlikely to get further than the first committee hearing.
House Bill 20B-1011, sponsored by Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon and Rod Bockenfeld, R-Watkins, assigned to the Public Health Care & Human Services committee, lost on a 6-3 party line vote Monday.
The bill would have changed the existing 2012 law giving the governor broad authority to issue disaster declarations and executive orders. Those orders must be renewed every 30 days by the governor, but they have no statutory time limitations after which the governor is compelled to bring further extensions to the state legislature.
There is a provision in the current law that allows the General Assembly to call itself into a special session after the first 30 days, where a majority-vote joint resolution by both chambers terminates the governor’s emergency declaration. The problem, says Geitner, is that in the current situation the Democrat majority is not willing to do so.
Geitner and Bockenfeld believe that the law must change so that the governor can still act quickly and decisively in an emergency, for up to 30 days, but after that must bring the matter to the people’s representatives for permission to extend that authority.
Geitner spoke with Complete Colorado Monday.
“As the representative for House District 19 I have received I don’t even know how many emails, text messages and phone calls with concerns about how the governor has been managing the pandemic through executive orders, “ Geitner said. “This bill said if we’re going to have an emergency declaration across the state due to a health related issue, then any time it needs to be extended, let’s bring the legislature back. What that gets you to is a place where the voice of the people can be heard through the legislative process, and that could have a more equitable outcome.”
He believes that the advice and consent of the General Assembly must be mandatory and must be triggered automatically at the end of the governor’s first declaration of a disaster emergency.
Another problem, says Geitner, is the way the existing statutes are constructed. Even if the legislature terminates the emergency declaration, there is nothing preventing the governor from immediately enacting another disaster declaration, starting the clock all over again.
Geitner’s bill specifically addressed “infectious disease, medical or other health-related situation” and provided that after the initial 30 day period the governor could not renew the declaration, but the legislature, by joint resolution, could extend the declaration for up to 60 days at a time and do so indefinitely.
Senator Paul Lundeen, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 20B-001, which was defeated Tuesday in committee. Lundeen’s resolution would have referred an amendment to the Colorado Constitution “concerning legislative oversight of a state of disaster emergency declared by the governor” to a vote of the people on November 8, 2022.
The resolution was fundamentally the same as Geitner’s, stipulating that an emergency declaration by the governor automatically terminates at the end of 30 days and can only be extended by a joint resolution of both chambers passed with a two-thirds majority.
Lundeen was pragmatic about the chances of success of any of the current Republican measures to strip the governor of some of the power he currently enjoys. But he said he is encouraged by “interest among the legislative leadership” to “restore a greater sense of balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch of government.”
“This particular constitutional amendment was arguably outside the [governor’s] call, so it was difficult for the Democrats to get on board,” Lundeen told Complete Colorado Tuesday. “But in the private conversations I had with them, and in some of the public conversations, there was an interest to restore some balance, to get the people’s voice through their elected representatives in the General Assembly, back into the conversation, especially during emergency times–there’s an appetite for that.”
“I always say you don’t want 100 legislators trying to manage the challenges you face in the in the moment of crisis. You want one clear voice executed as the executive of the state should do,” Lundeen said. “We are many months into this and it’s clear that the voice of the people is needed in order to shape more customized policies than the one-size-fits-all government edicts from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.”
Lundeen is clear that none of this is intended to interfere with the governor’s authority to react rapidly in disaster situations, or to disparage the scientists and epidemiologists who are doing their best to deal with an unprecedented situation.
“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re an epidemiologist, everything looks like a virus you’re trying to control,” Lundeen said. “But we’ve got other aspects of society to represent. We’ve got all sorts of small businesses that are trying to stay open and survive. It’s not that the epidemiologists are bad, they’re not, but they are singular in their focus. We need more perspectives brought into the conversation.”