Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Alexander Hamilton didn’t think too much of states. He didn’t think your rights as an American should vary based on the accident of the geography of your birth. A person born, say, in Colorado should not have significantly different treatment from the government than a person born in Georgia. In his famous six-hour speech to the constitutional convention in 1787, Hamilton suggested states be reduced to what he called “mere administrative units.”

Hamilton also favored a strong executive branch, asserting (correctly in my view) that legislative branches can take far too long to address an issue, especially a crisis. Should, say, the Canadians invade North Dakota, we need an executive who can quickly order a military response before those pesky invaders can take over and declare a new province of Baja Manitoba.

 So, Hamilton liked the idea of a strong executive on the national level (go Joe Biden!) but was not so fond of such “energy and dispatch” in the hands of state governors. History has shown that Hamilton was both right and wrong, of course, and the issues of how much power governors should have continues to be argued to this day.

Therefore, Hamilton came to mind when I read two recent stories on Colorado Politics. Both stories had to do with governors, one here in Colorado and the other in New Mexico, taking executive actions and the legislatures of those states being a tad grumpy about said actions.

The first story comes from one of my favorite CP sections, Out West. It seems the lawmakers in New Mexico are unhappy with the executive orders issued by that state’s Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan. In the wake of COVID, Lujan has acted (like many governors, including ours) with quite a bit of energy and dispatch when it came to executive orders. Now, I think most reasonable folks (and by reasonable, I mean those who accept that COVID is real, face masks reduce the spread, and big social gatherings are stupid right now) would likely agree with most of the executive orders, but that’s not really the point. While nearly everyone would agree that governors should have some executive powers, there often is little agreement across political aisles when it comes to the issue of how much power, usually depending on the party of the person sitting in the governor’s chair.

The Republicans in New Mexico want to limit the Governor’s orders to two weeks duration with no ability to renew them absent legislative buy in. The Dems there are willing to consider 90-day limits. As an aside, I do think it is interesting how many GOP-led legislatures are interested in limiting Democratic governors’ powers, but don’t seem to think any such limits are needed on GOP governors, but I digress…

I think it is fair to say that those who first crafted state governments, to include creating executive powers, likely did not imagine year-long pandemics, and the concomitant need for lots of executive orders as a crisis grows, and months turn into years. But, sadly, that is the world in which we find ourselves. And so, the question comes down to what level of executive order power should a governor have? I admit I don’t have the answer, other than to say, “it depends.”

Which brings me to the other CP story I want you to take a look at, which notes that Gov. Polis (full disclosure: I think he’s doing a great job) extended his emergency declaration tied to COVID, the 45th executive order issued since the new year, which comes out to nearly one per day. Now, not all of them have to do with the pandemic, as some are routine and trivial in their importance. But many are connected to COVID, and this recent order amends the first COVID order for the 20th time. It’s quite reasonable to suggest that as our knowledge and insights regarding COVID grow, it makes sense to alter the state’s approach to the illness, based on the evolving science. But wow, that’s a lot of executive orders.

I am a Hamiltonian (heck, just check out HamiltonLives.com if you don’t believe me) and I’m OK with strong executives. But I admit that my own partisanship colors that point of view. If, say, a Ken Buck clone was the governor, I might well object if he issued a similar number of executive orders, but from the far-right side of the political divide. So, to be honest, I am mostly OK with the executive actions because I’m mostly OK with Polis.  

I find actions like the efforts going on in New Mexico to limit gubernatorial powers to be power grabs for partisan reasons rather than for overall good governance. I do want a governor (and a president) to have healthy executive powers to act. When legislatures will not or cannot act in a crisis, someone needs to step up. Perhaps a year-round legislature would be a good idea here, so that Polis would have a group of sitting lawmakers available to him. But until we get there, executive orders will continue to be a mainstay of governance, and that is either good or bad, depending on your take of the current political scene.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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