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Colorado voters appear to reject effort to water down governor’s emergency powers

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage

Colorado voters do not appear to have embraced a conservative-led effort to give the state legislature the final say over how to spend legal settlements, transportation dollars and emergency aid from the federal government.

With nearly 1.1 million ballots counted on Tuesday evening, the unofficial results showed more than 56% of voters rejecting Amendment 78. It needed to pass with at least 55% approval because it aimed to change the state constitution.

Its likely failure means the governor and other branches of government will keep their power to spend what are known as custodial funds, or money that does not come directly from state taxpayers.

The most significant source of custodial funds is emergency aid from the federal government, which has been spent on wildfires and other disasters like the pandemic.

Amendment 78 was written by conservatives who blasted Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last year for spending hundreds of millions of dollars of coronavirus relief money without getting approval from lawmakers.

They specifically pointed to his decision to spend nearly $1 billion of emergency money on public schools.

While they didn’t necessarily fault the governor for the programs the money supported, they raised questions about his ability to spend such a large sum without public hearings or a vote from the legislature.

“You might agree with this governor. What do you think about the next governor having that power?” Amendment 78 author Michael Fields asked during the campaign.

But opponents feared Amendment 78 would slow down the government’s responses to major disasters.

“You do not want these funds tied up in partisan bickering at the state legislature,” said Scott Wasserman, who leads the left-leaning Bell Policy Center in Denver. “I think it will bog down the legislature. I think it will lead to more partisan bickering. And then ultimately what they'll do is, is reduce people's confidence in in the state getting business done.”

When the results started coming in Tuesday, Fields said those concerns likely resonated with voters, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

"It's fresh on people's minds," he said. "There there was some concerns about how quickly money could be allocated under this new process. So I think that factored in" to the vote.

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.