Gov. Jared Polis last week vetoed six bills that had passed with substantial majorities in both chambers of the Colorado Legislature. In a General Assembly dominated by Democrats, one of the bills even boasted bipartisan support, and another was co-sponsored by a Republican. All of the bills had been subjected to the laborious legislative process, including committee hearings, public input, floor debate, amendments and votes.

None of the votes among the 100 members of the Legislature were even close. Yet the fate of the doomed bills, the first to be vetoed this year, came down to one person — Polis.

Veto power can be a crucial check on a misguided or rogue legislature. In recent years, for example, some Democratic governors have vetoed legislation that would have weaponized election misinformation or marginalized LGBTQ residents. We have a James Madison veto to thank for reinforcing the separation of church and state. Vetoes are sometimes deployed to thwart unconstitutional bills.


Polis takes a more expansive view of his veto power. He told The Denver Post last year that he vetoes bills based on whether he thinks they’re “in the best interest of Colorado.” The six vetoed bills last week can simply be understood as losers in that policy-preference test. But Polis also explained to the Post that, while legislators represent discrete districts around the state, “he’s the only one involved in law-making elected to represent the entire state.”

The vetoes make no sense under that logic. Here’s why.

Polis vetoed House Bills 1008, 1010, 1080, 1260 and 1307, and Senate Bill 150. Of those, SB-150 received the fewest “yes” votes in both the Senate and House — but even it passed by an overwhelming margin, 21-10 in the Senate and 41-17 in the House. The other vetoed bills all earned a greater number of “yes” votes in both chambers. HB-1010 — which supporters said would have restricted the practice of “white bagging” by making it easier for patients who need special drugs to get them from their doctor’s office rather than specialty pharmacies — passed the Senate unanimously and was co-sponsored by a Republican, Sen. Perry Will.

If you add up the “yes” votes and “no” votes of the six vetoed bills, you find that lawmakers favored them 417-156, a massive margin of approval.

Individual lawmakers who voted for the vetoed measures might represent particular communities, but together they exercise the will of millions of Coloradans from around the state. Collectively they have a greater claim to general state representation than any single person, and the burden falls squarely on the governor to demonstrate the superiority of the choices he makes on the people’s behalf.

Polis, a Democrat, did not point to unconstitutionality as a justification for his vetoes. And he didn’t indicate that he thought the Legislature had egregiously erred. His opposition, as stated in his veto letters, was that he thought the bills would lead to unintended consequences, or they were “unworkable,” or they had terms that were poorly defined, or they created too much red tape.

In other words, the vetoes concerned policy disputes.

Polis has wielded his veto pen with comparative restraint. But that pen has a huge amount of anti-democratic potential.

Take the HB-1008 veto, the one that received the most press attention and caused the most anguish among statehouse Democrats. The bill would have cracked down on wage theft in the Colorado construction industry by making general contractors liable for payment to workers even if they’re employed by a subcontractor. Construction workers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft. Employers pocket more than $700 million a year that’s owed to more than 400,000 Colorado workers, say bill sponsors.

Polis objected that the bill “misaligns incentives for subcontractors to pay their workers by making general contractors liable,” even when the general contractor is “not at fault.” He added that the bill sponsors “were unwilling to entertain more targeted measures” that would have allowed him to sign the bill.

Bill sponsor Rep. Meg Froelich, an Englewood Democrat, had a different view of the negotiations.

“I think by that he means the general contractors had a list of demands that, generously, you could call them amendments to the bill. But they were a list of things they wanted to see done differently that essentially made the bill useless,” Froelich told Newsline this week.

She emphasized that the bill had broad support, undercutting the notion that a veto was necessary to better represent Colorado as a whole. 

“It’s not like we didn’t win over even our moderate and business-friendly Dems. Especially the Business Committee, when they heard the testimony, they were like, ‘Oh yeah, man, this is wrong.’”

Froelich voted in favor of all six vetoed bills.

“I don’t feel like these issues have a regional component. You know, they’re not Front Range-centric,” Froelich said. She wonders if when Polis says he represents the entire state he actually means “the whole state business community” or “the whole state chamber of commerce.”

Polis acted well within his rights. The Colorado Constitution says he can reject a bill if he does not “approve.” Policy differences are fair game for vetoes under the law.

And he’s hardly profligate with their use. His veto record is 10 in a year. That’s nothing compared with former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who spiked 44 bills in 2006. Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs last year set a state record when she vetoed 143 bills that came out of a Republican-majority statehouse. 

Polis has wielded his veto pen with comparative restraint. But that pen has a huge amount of anti-democratic potential. Some vetoes are a triumph of justice and the public interest. Others are just the work of a one-man legislature.

This article initially appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.