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Littwin: Jared Polis may be big on emission-reduction goals, but just don’t let regulators try to enforce them

The governor’s threat to veto legislation that would have mandated, not merely suggested, Polis-supported goals shows once again that when he and progressive legislators square off, Polis prevails.

If there’s anything we’ve learned during Jared Polis’ tenure as governor, it’s that whenever progressive Democrats in the legislature square off with Polis — which happens more often than you’d think — you should put your money on the governor. 

The latest example is a climate-action bill — SB21-200 — that would have enforced emission-reduction goals that Polis, in fact, embraces and has long proposed. And yet, it’s a bill he threatened to veto, which should have shocked no one. That he made the threat in a conversation with the Colorado Springs Gazette’s very right-wing editorial board was a stunning choice, though.

“I knew there were concerns,” said Sen. Faith Winter, who was sponsoring the bill along with Rep. Dominique Jackson. “I knew they were saying (in negotiations) that we weren’t going to get there. But I was surprised when he went public.”

Mike Littwin

Suddenly, passing any part of the bill in the Senate, which had already passed in the House, had turned into a rescue mission. 

As we know, Polis is big on climate goals. He’s always been very big on climate goals. He has been known as a champion of green energy and of dramatic reductions in heat-trapping emissions.

What he’s not big on is regulation or mandates (see: Polis on mandated measles vaccinations). We used to put this down to Polis’ libertarian streak, but the streak is approaching Cal Ripken-size. And if you believe that mandates are needed to meet climate goals that, science tells us, are necessary to head off global catastrophe, then you’re in line with most Democrats in the Colorado legislature and with nearly every environmental group. 

Polis definitely believes in the science. And it’s not like he hasn’t pushed progressive legislation on climate, including several important bills this session. When Polis ran for governor in 2018, he laid out what he called a bold, progressive agenda to reach 100% renewable energy by 2040. It seemed like a huge step — one also pledged by former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who was running against Polis in the Democratic primary — and whether or not it was achievable, it was clearly a step in the right direction. 

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Think back to that time. Donald Trump was busily pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accords while lifting decades-old bans on oil drilling, leaving states basically on their own. 

And when the state legislature met in 2019, it then passed Polis-backed, bold, progressive goals for reducing heat-trapping gas emissions from a 2005-level baseline. The bill, signed by Polis, set a goal of 26% reduction by 2026, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. But all was not well with that bill.

KC Becker, then House speaker, was adamant that the bill should direct the Air Quality Control Commission to set rules mandating how and when the state would meet the targets. Polis adamantly disagreed, saying industry incentives would do the job.

“The governor’s office, he’s generally saying, ‘Oh, let’s just see if this happens on its own,’” Becker said at the time. “Typically none of this happens voluntarily.”

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You can guess who won the battle.

Which is why a new bill was proposed in the legislature this year to enforce the climate roadmap released in January by the Polis administration. The roadmap gets the state only part of the way home by 2030, but outlines efforts, including incentives, to make up the gap. And while it’s true that companies like Xcel Energy have taken bold steps voluntarily, it’s also true, according to analysis by several energy policy groups, that Colorado will fall well short of its goals. 

Winter and Jackson thought that if they fashioned their bill in addressing Polis’s roadmap, there would be enough common ground to reach agreement.

But the fact that the bill would have had the Air Quality Control Commission set rules by March of next year for capping emissions in key sectors of private industry is where the ground gave way. As Winter had said in a news conference, “What we’re doing is relying on a lot of good will, a lot of press releases, that are not legally enforceable.”

And so Polis issued his veto threat, saying the bill would give unelected regulators “near-dictatorial control of our entire economy.” 

“We feel that if Colorado is going to meet these carbon goals and air quality goals, it should be in the light of day, with legislative debate,” Polis added. 

It should be noted that the unelected regulators are appointed by Polis. It should be noted that the unelected regulators work without pay on a volunteer basis. It should be noted, too, that the legislature could overturn any rules set by Polis’ mad vision of rogue AQCC regulators.

And, while we’re on the topic, blaming unelected bureaucrats for something they’ve not even done is, at minimum, a cheap shot by Polis, directed at those very people he has chosen to do the hard work of running a government. It was not Polis’ best moment. We’ve seen Republicans blast Polis for his so-called dictatorial powers, guided by unelected bureaucrats, in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. You’d think he would have noticed.

But there’s sort of a happy ending here, or somewhere around halfway happy, depending on how you measure these things. As of Friday afternoon, SB21-200 was abandoned, but not forgotten. Frantic negotiations, which Winter said included compromises from both sides, ended with folding parts of the abandoned bill into HB21-1266. 

The negotiations did save some enforcement goals — in the electric, oil and gas, and industrial sectors — that the House had, in fact, passed in the light of day. It would also set up an ombudsman and what is being called an environmental justice board to represent those whose communities are hardest hit by pollution.

In saving the bill, though, Winter and Jackson had to give up on emissions-reduction enforcement in both transportation and in building sectors. Transportation is, of course, the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Negotiations were to continue over the weekend, but it’s expected that all will be done by Monday, when the bill is set for two committee hearings, a second-reading vote and, if all goes as expected, a final vote on Tuesday. That’s how quickly these things happen in the final days of a session, which needs to be finished by June 12 but could end a few days early.

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Winter called the compromise bill a “significant step forward.” She added, “And after the bill is signed, we’ll be back again next year to see what more we can do about the climate.”

Meanwhile, we can expect raging wildfires and worsening drought conditions — visible reminders of the need for more action— to return, too. Of course the lawmakers will be back. And so will Polis with his clashing views on climate and government regulations. 

That’s what the roadmap looks like today.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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