Polis vetoed a record number of Colorado bills in 2023

Gov. Jared Polis vetoed 10 bills this year, the most of his five-year tenure and most by a Colorado governor since Bill Owens rejected 44 bills in 2006.

The bills cover a range of policy issues: Polis’ red veto stamp blotted out bills concerning tipping, housing, the introduction of gray wolves, gambling and concert tickets. He rejected a study of the drug war and a bill to standardize how inmates apply for clemency.

Though some vetoes seemed to favor business interests and others rejected progressive policies, there was no clear ideological thread connecting the rejected legislation, legislators and lobbyists said. Four of the 10 had Republican co-sponsors.

Polis also signed 473 bills into law this year, according to his office, meaning he green-lit nearly 98% of the legislation sent to his desk since the legislature convened in early January (one other bill became law without his signature). He told the Denver Post on Friday that he had individual policy issues with the bills he vetoed and that he uses the same legal and operational review process he always has.

Polis’ previous record was five, in 2019, and he’d averaged four vetoes a year during his first term.

“I discuss whether it’s in the best interest of Colorado with my advisers and make a decision,” he said Friday. “If I feel a bill is good for Colorado or will move us forward, I sign it. If I feel on balance it’ll harm our state, I veto it.”

Legislators, he continued, represent their districts. But he’s the only one involved in law-making elected to represent the entire state.

The legislators who had their bills vetoed expressed a mix of acceptance and fury. There’s no question that Polis has the inherent authority to veto bills, and several lawmakers said he hadn’t wielded his pen against a specific ideological faction. Still, some were frustrated at how the process unfolded, and they chafed at Polis’ frequent involvement in crafting legislation before it reaches his desk.

“Throughout this legislative session in particular, the governor’s office and the first floor weighed in heavily on policy issues,” said Denver Democratic Sen. Julie Gonzales, referring to the first floor of the Capitol, where Polis and his staff work. “We have two separate branches for a reason.”

Polis’ office has long involved itself in the legislative process, making it clear what bills need to be amended if they want to clear his desk. Fort Collins Democrat Rep. Andy Boesenecker told lawmakers last year that he was stripping rent stabilization provisions from a mobile home park bill because of a veto threat. That dynamic means that looking solely at annual veto totals doesn’t tell the full story of Polis’ efforts to shape what comes out of the legislature.

For his part, Polis said legislators will often ask his office about bills to ensure they get signed into law. That doesn’t happen on every bill, he said, but legislators would often prefer amendments to vetoes.

Still, some legislators worried that Polis’ veto was used in a new, concerning way this year. On Tuesday, the governor vetoed HB23-1190, which would’ve given local governments first crack at buying for-sale apartment buildings. Polis said he had concerns about its impact on the rental market, among other concerns.

Boesenecker, who also sponsored that bill, said he had no indication from the governor’s office that Polis intended to reject the measure when the legislature was still working on it. The bill had cleared the legislature on its penultimate day, after sponsors accepted 30 amendments. Instead of engaging during the public process, the bill’s supporters said, some opponents waited until the bill had passed and then privately lobbied the governor.

“On 1190, I feel like the business community went around democracy and won,” said Sen. Faith Winter, who co-sponsored the bill. It was one of two measures she passed that Polis vetoed this year. “And I think it’s a very bad precedent.”

There’s a standard formula in the Capitol: To pass a law, legislators need 33, 18 and one. That’s the number of supporters you need in the House, Senate and governor’s office.

But Democrats have a supermajority in the House and near-supermajority in the Senate. For some bills, that’s a lot of votes to flip. Winter and Boesenecker’s fear — shared by other Democrats — is that the opponents of future bills may see it as easier to flip the last person with a say than any of the preceding 100.

Fear of that trend becoming normalized has prompted Winter to change up her tactics. Next year, she said, she plans to pass bills as quickly as possible. That way, if the governor vetoes them, the legislature will still be in session and can vote to override them. Otherwise, the legislature convenes and gives the governor 30 days to accept or reject, with no worry of a veto override.

Polis said he’s using the same precedent he always has. Asked if his office had told sponsors that the measure granting cities first crack at apartment sales was safe, he said he didn’t know what sponsors had asked his office but that the bill raised “a lot of red flags for me and my team early on.”

Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat who was elected in 2018, has only served while Polis has been in office. The governor vetoed two of Rodriguez’s bills this session. One would have allowed more workers to receive cash tips. The other would have created new regulations for event ticket sales.

The tipping bill’s veto didn’t give Rodriguez too much consternation, but he wasn’t aware of the level of concern that Polis had with the ticketing bill, he said. With the amount of work and lobbying on that bill, Rodriguez said he was frustrated with the seemingly sudden veto. He said he hadn’t heard the governor had such deep concerns.

In a letter providing rationale for the veto, the governor cited concerns that the ticketing bill would upend Colorado’s successful event economy, but he otherwise supported some of the provisions in the proposal.

“It’s complicated. Some bills might have issues that have not been contemplated at the time,” Rodriguez said. “Still, it’s hard. But I’m sure (Polis) didn’t get every bill he wanted, either.”

Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, an Arvada Democrat who carried the ticketing bill in the House, was likewise frustrated by the bill’s sudden veto. The bill sat on the calendar for weeks as sponsors and stakeholders worked through the proposal. With how much attention the bill had received, she figured it would be on Polis’ radar. She would have been happy to work on issues the governor had — had she known about them.

“If we hear from the governor’s office, that’s not something we take lightly,” Daugherty said. Another one of her bills — to regulate open-meetings lawsuits — was vetoed Tuesday. “We buckle down and find a solution. We just didn’t hear from him on these ones.”

Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican whose bill to delay the re-introduction of gray wolves was rejected by Polis, said he thought the governor’s vetoes were based on legitimate policy beliefs. There was no chance of convincing Polis on the wolf bill, he said, and he was surprised there weren’t more vetoes.

“Zooming out to the 40,000-foot level, we did expect Polis to have to veto a lot of bills,” he said, given the scale of Democrats’ majorities and the progressive policies that many pursued. “And actually he would’ve had to veto, I believe, a lot more bills had a number of Democrats, particularly in the Senate, not found their backbone to help us kill a handful of bills.”

As Daugherty said, lawmakers will typically work with requests from Polis’ office to ensure their bills pass.

Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, wondered if that would change.

“What I have seen is a growing frustration with the way the governor does business,” he said, “and a number of people — by people I mean legislators — expressing that, ‘If the governor wants to veto a bill, he can veto it. But I’m not going to compromise my principles here, especially if what he’s asking for is not something I can give.’”

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