Climate bill advanced by Senate committee as Polis issues veto threat

Governor says legislation would give ‘dictatorial authority’ to state air-quality commission

By: - April 29, 2021 11:20 am

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address in front of the House of Representatives at the Colorado Capitol on Feb. 17, 2021. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post, pool)

Democratic lawmakers in the Colorado General Assembly again voted to advance a major piece of climate legislation on Wednesday, hours after Gov. Jared Polis harshly criticized the bill and indicated that he would veto it if it reaches his desk.

The Senate Finance Committee approved Senate Bill 21-200, sponsored by Sens. Faith Winter and Dominick Moreno, on a 4-2 vote along party lines. The bill would strengthen enforcement of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions targets, which were first enacted by the Legislature in 2019, by directing the state’s Air Quality Control Commission to develop strict rules limiting pollution from many industrial sources.

“A plan without action is just a wish,” Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, said as he voted for the bill.

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The culmination of a long-simmering conflict over how best to approach state climate policy, SB-200 has pitted Polis, a Democrat elected in 2018, against much of the rest of his party and a broad range of environmental groups — and neither side is yet backing down.

In comments the editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette published Wednesday morning, Polis confirmed that he would veto the legislation if the General Assembly passes it, saying, “We’re not willing to give dictatorial authority over our economy to one unelected board that lacks the broader mandate and expertise.”

Polis and climate-action advocates reached a similar impasse during the 2019 legislative session, when the governor opposed strict mandates on polluters in a draft bill outlining statewide greenhouse gas emissions targets. The resulting compromise, House Bill 19-1261, set statutory goals that included a 26% emissions cut by 2025 and a 50% cut by 2030. But many of the bill’s sponsors and supporters have been left bitterly disappointed by its implementation by the AQCC, whose members are appointed by the governor, and two environmental groups have sued the Polis administration over claims that it failed to meet a key deadline.

“(SB-200) would essentially give this unelected board, the Air Quality Control Commission, near-dictatorial control of our entire economy.”Gov. Jared Polis, as quoted by the Colorado Springs Gazette

Administration officials released a “roadmap” outlining the state’s path to achieving HB-1261’s 2025 and 2030 goals earlier this year. But Polis has consistently opposed both comprehensive regulatory schemes like cap-and-trade and “sector-specific” rules that would enforce quantifiable emissions limits, and the AQCC has followed his lead.

SB-200, however, would direct the commission to implement rules by March 2022 that “require reductions of statewide greenhouse gas pollution on a linear or more stringent pathway corresponding to the goals established” by HB-1261. Sector-specific emissions targets outlined in the administration’s roadmap would be enshrined into law, though the AQCC would be given some flexibility to modify them.

In an April 19 letter to lawmakers expressing the administration’s opposition to SB-200, a copy of which was obtained by Newsline, Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor questioned the feasibility of achieving emissions cuts through a “singular rulemaking process at the AQCC.” He argued that the bill conflicts with the administration’s “whole of government” approach to climate policy, and would disrupt important work that the commission is set to undertake in the near future.

“The requirements in this bill would upend the ongoing work on the five AQCC rulemakings laid out in the Roadmap near term action plan,” Toor wrote.

But in his comments to the editorial board of the Gazette, one of Colorado’s most conservative media outlets, Polis put his opposition to SB-200 in more starkly ideological terms, repeatedly downplaying the role that the “unelected” AQCC should play in the clean-energy transition.

“(SB-200) would essentially give this unelected board, the Air Quality Control Commission, near-dictatorial control of our entire economy with a legal mandate to meet certain hard carbon reduction goals,” Polis said. “Many of them also rely on future technology, require a flexible approach, require expertise that doesn’t just reside in a back-door committee.”

The bill’s supporters, however, say that it’s designed to give the commission plenty of flexibility in enacting its rules, including by taking into account actions taken by other state agencies and the private sector. But they argue without a legal “backstop,” the state’s emissions targets are relying too heavily on voluntary pledges by the private sector.

“This isn’t changing anything — it’s enforcing,” Winter told her fellow lawmakers Wednesday. “To enforce rules, and make rules something more than just hopes and dreams and wishes and press releases, we need to make sure that we’re meeting them. And that’s what we’re doing.”

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.

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