After Polis Threatened To Veto A Climate Action Bill, Colorado Climate Voters And Environmental Groups Reassess Their Support

Sam Brasch/CPR News
Demonstrators attended an event demanding Gov. Jared Polis not veto a climate action bill supported by progressive state lawmakers.

When Jared Polis ran for governor, Harmony Cummings decided to put her feet to the pavement for his candidacy.

The Denver mom made an early commitment to speak to more than 1,000 voters on behalf of the Democrat. Each time someone answered a door, Cummings focused her pitch on climate change. Polis had made a rapid shift to renewable energy a core plank of his campaign. That fit with her growing concerns about rising global temperatures.

Three years later, Cummings has lost faith in his leadership.

“I was already off the Polis train,” Cummings said. “Now it feels like the train is going off the tracks.”

Cummings was among over one hundred climate voters who joined a rally at the state Capitol Wednesday. The event came after Polis promised to veto a climate action bill working its way through the Colorado Legislature — a move that has frustrated many Democrats and former allies.

A well-funded network of progressive and environmental groups, including the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club — which endorsed Polis during the 2018 Democratic primary — is now campaigning in favor of the bill the governor has threatened to veto.

The core of the disagreement is how the state should reduce emissions from the private sector. Polis has advocated favored targeted regulations bundled with voluntary agreements. While bill advocates have applauded some of those efforts, they insist the state still needs enforceable limits as a “backstop” to hold companies accountable.

The proposed legislation caps emissions from parts of Colorado’s economy and tasks air regulators with bringing the private sector into line. Polis blasted the plan in a recent interview with the Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board, saying the bill amounts to a “top-down plan” that gives unelected air regulators on the Air Quality Control Commission “near-dictatorial control of our entire economy.” The governor appoints the panel.

While climate voters feel confused or even abandoned by Polis' veto threat, the Governor's Office calls the plan 'fatally flawed.'

Democratic voters like Cummings have started to pay attention. A recent survey showed about a quarter of Colorado’s electorate sees global warming as an animating political issue, similar to abortion for some right-wing voters. In the aftermath of the veto threat, some have reassessed their opinion of the governor.

“I felt like he was good-hearted, but the more I learned, the more I felt like I hadn’t done my research,” Cummings said.

Clare Gallagher, a professional runner and climate advocate from Boulder, has also reconsidered her support for Polis. She remembers the governor’s 2019 appearance at Protect Our Winters, an annual climate advocacy event organized by outdoor retailers. She said the crowd gave a standing ovation after Polis gave an impassioned speech on climate change.

She said it now feels like the governor has abandoned his core supporters.

“It’s almost like he’s appealing to people who didn’t even vote for him with this veto threat,” Gallagher said.

The Governor’s Office declined an interview request. In a statement, Shelby Weiman, a spokesperson for the administration, wrote the governor supports pieces of the bill to advance environmental justice and raise revenue for climate programs, but the emissions plan is “fatally flawed.”

“While the Governor agrees that the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) has a critical role to play in accomplishing our climate goals, he does not believe an unelected volunteer board deep within the state government’s bureaucracy should be tasked with regulating the entire economy. Such sweeping purview only lies with the elected legislature and the Governor,” Weiman said.

Will Toor, the head of the Colorado Energy Office and the chief architect of the governor’s climate roadmap, expanded on the point in a pair of “tweetstorms” Wednesday, listing a range of legislation and regulation the governor does support. 

Together, he said those efforts would guarantee emissions reductions to get Colorado 90 percent to its 2030 climate targets. While SB200 would center climate action around air regulators, Toor has insisted other regulatory bodies, like the Public Utilities Commission, should share the job.

“It’s a serious debate,” Toor wrote on Twitter. “What isn’t OK is misrepresenting the work that is actually going on. Dozens of people in the Polis Administration, with the full support of the governor, are pouring their time and energy and creativity to create durable climate policy for our state.”

The next step for climate activists could be a statewide ballot initiative instead, but that would bring its own unique challenges.

Labor unions, utility companies and the oil and gas industry also oppose the legislation. There are no Republican co-sponsors on the bill, and only Democrats have voted in favor as it has moved through three state Senate committees. 

Whether the climate fight has any political implications for Polis remains to be seen. The first-term Democrat is up for re-election in 2022. Ean Thomas Tafoya, an environmental justice advocate, said he’s heard people discuss a primary challenge after the veto threat, but “a name hasn’t emerged.” Outside of someone directly taking on Polis from the left, he said there’s always an option for state and local ballot initiatives.

“I truly believe in the democratic process,” Tafoya said. “I think we have to be looking to [ballot initiatives] if we can’t get it through the legislature or can’t get it past the governor.”

Joe Salazar, an environmental advocate with Colorado Rising and former Democratic state representative, said both options are unlikely. Statewide ballot initiatives often cost millions. As for a primary, he doubts anyone could overcome Polis’ willingness to spend his personal fortune on his political campaigns.

Nevertheless, Salazar fears Polis’ threat to veto the climate bill could discourage faithful Democrats ahead of an off-year election, putting down-ballot candidates at risk.

“That’s why I call his strategy junior varsity because the way he plays politics is just very amateurish,” Salazar said.

Before the conflict grows, Salazar said Polis should withdraw the veto threat and work out a deal with lawmakers.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Shelby Weiman's last name.