Gov. Jared Polis outlined an ambitious — and equally expensive — agenda Thursday in his first State of the State address.
The tenor of the 55-minute speech, interrupted dozens of times for applause, left the Democratic majority hopeful, but also anxious about how to deliver on all the policy priorities. Republicans, too, wanted more specifics on Polis’ plans, which included tax reform and leaps into renewable energy.
“If all this that we are talking about were easy,” Polis said, “it would have been done already. But progress is hard, and overcoming these challenges will be a journey for all of us.”
Here’s a transcript of Polis’ speech — lightly edited for length — with annotations from The Colorado Sun’s political team highlighting the important lines and explaining what it all means.
As we confront historical, social and technological changes throughout our state and throughout our country, I want to start by saying what an honor it is to serve as Colorado’s 43rd governor at this juncture, at this moment, in time.
Before I deliver the State of the State, I want to deliver a message to every child in Colorado, that in our state, you can do anything. You can dream, you can dare and you can do. Here in Colorado, we celebrate our differences, we embrace our uniqueness, and believe that what you look like, where you’re from and who you love are less important than what you are like and what you do for your community, and your values. Be proud of who we are, because all of our futures should be full of opportunity.
Polis is the nation’s first elected openly gay governor. His campaign embraced the historical nature but didn’t focus on it. And these remarks are some of the most direct comments Polis has made on what his victory means. He told CNN shortly after his inauguration, “I will be judged by the job I do as governor” rather than for what he represents.
To all the new members of the legislature, welcome. I know there is a number of you. And to all the returning members of the legislature, welcome and thank you. And as a special shout-out to the record-setting number of women who are now serving in this building.
Of the 100 lawmakers in the General Assembly, 46 are women. And in the House, the majority of the chamber — 33 members — is women.
It’s only fitting that the very first state to elect any women to its state House is now leading the way with a majority of women in our state House and the third consecutive woman as speaker. From Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock, to Pat Schroeder, my friend and mentor, Polly Baca, and of course Brianna Titone and every other trailblazing woman in this chamber today — Colorado’s barrier-breaking legacy is truly something that we should all be proud of. Colorado for all.
Clara Cressingham, Carrie Holly and Frances Klock were the first women to serve in any legislature when they were elected to the state House in 1894, one year after women received the right to vote in Colorado.
Years ago, I sat over there with the members of the state Board of Education, and I never thought I’d be up here like this, as then-Gov. Bill Owens addressed the State of the State — but you know what, this is Colorado and any of us can do anything.
Polis entered Colorado politics by winning an at-large seat for the Colorado Board of Education in 2000. He spent $1.3 million — an unheard-of sum for that race — and won by 90 votes in a recount.
As all of you know, I stand here with the big shoes of Gov. Hickenlooper to fill. But, rest assured, I’ve got my blue sneakers on and I’m ready to keep us moving forward. And you know what, I’m so proud, and Colorado is so proud, of our amazing Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, a healthcare leader, a former legislator, and one of the toughest people on the planet, working with me to help shape Colorado’s future. Thank you, Dianne.
Polis campaigned in a pair of blue sneakers and made it a trademark of his bid, even naming the inaugural celebration earlier this week the “Blue Sneaker Ball.”
The state of our state is solid. It is strong. It is successful. It is daring. And it is bold.
While my predecessor and this legislature certainly deserve some credit for so much of Colorado’s progress, we all know our strength lies first and foremost in the bold and pioneering spirit of the people of our great state.
Polis starts his term indebted to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who left behind a one of the top economies in the nation. And now Hickenlooper needs Polis to continue the work to help cement his legacy as he nears a 2020 bid for the White House.
We all know that here in Colorado, we climb the highest mountains. We look far past the horizons. We dream, we dare and we do. And that spirit has been alive and well under the leadership of Gov. John Hickenlooper as we overcame tough economic times to build one of the strongest state economies in American history.
But I’m not here just to talk about the current state of the state and all the incredible achievements of the past few years. That alone could fill the speech. I want to talk about the state of what yet is to come, and the great and bright future of our state. Because in the days, months and years ahead, we are here to do more than build on the achievements of the past. We are here to boldly forge a new path into the future. To make change work for us, rather than against us.
In an interview with The Sun just after his inauguration, Polis vowed: “I will do things differently. And we are focused on the big ideas — meaning things that will really move the dial and improve the quality of life for Coloradans.”
It’s true that our economy is strong. From agriculture, to the outdoor recreation industry, to aerospace, bioscience, renewable energy, and cannabis. We’ve watched industries succeed and create jobs in our state. We’ve become a model of how we can put politics aside and work together. But, despite all of our progress, still far too many people are either barely getting by, or even falling behind with the rising cost of living.
Polis is considered America’s first pot governor for his full embrace and support of the marijuana industry dating to his tenure in Congress. And marijuana supporters are looking for him to help advance the industry.
Our administration’s mission and mandate from the voters begins with tackling the everyday challenges that Coloradans face because of the rising costs of living and wages that simply haven’t kept up:
- Providing every single child with quality early education;
- Lowering the outrageous cost of health care;
- Creating good-paying jobs in the clean-energy sector that can never be outsourced;
- And achieving true tax reform that reduces taxes for hardworking Coloradans instead of giving tax breaks to special interests while forcing families to pay more and more.
These four points outline the big picture legislative agenda for the Polis administration in the first year. The priorities mirror what he discussed in the campaign and it’s evident that he considers his 11-point victory “a mandate” for his policies — a point Republicans consider debatable.
Together, we’re going to build an economy where Coloradans from all walks of life across our entire state aren’t just struggling to get by, but can thrive. Whether it’s the small business owner in Eagle County whose health care costs are threatening their Colorado dream, or the farmer in Fort Morgan whose livelihood is threatened by drought, or the parents struggling to pay $400 a month for kindergarten tuition in Douglas County. To these Coloradans across our state, I want to say that our administration will work tirelessly to make our state work better for you — so that you can earn a good living, keep more and share in our special way of life. And I know that this legislature will work hard toward these same goals because every single one of us wants to see a Colorado in which everybody can succeed — a Colorado for all.
A major dynamic in Colorado politics is the urban-rural divide and the battle for resources. And how Polis navigates this divide — and what he does to reach out to rural areas that feel left behind by the economic boom in the Front Range — will color his term. “I don’t see the challenge as propping up the past,” Polis told reporters after the speech. “I see the challenge as how do we make the future work for residents in a changing state and a changing world.”
Part of what defines our Colorado way of life are the values that we live by — values like equality under the law, honesty, the value of hard work and responsibility, the sanctity of basic human rights, and a free market for exchange of goods and services. We see the erosion of some these values in many quarters of our nation today — which makes them all the more precious for us to protect.
Here in Colorado, we treat each other with respect. We reject efforts to intimidate immigrant families, or tear children from their parents’ arms. We don’t tolerate bigotry or discrimination of any kind. And we don’t accept hostage-taking as a form of governance.
Polis, who served five terms in the U.S. House, didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name here, but these strong words are a clear reference to the policies of the Republican White House on immigration and the federal government shutdown. Colorado is home to more than 50,000 federal government employees.
You know last summer, Marlon and I were having a conversation with our son Caspian, who was 6 at the time. He wanted to know the difference between all the various political parties — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Green, and so on. And at the end, he went over to his 4-year-old sister Cora and asked her, “What political party are you in?”
And Cora responded, without missing a beat, “the Happy Birthday Party.” It was one of those moments that every parent experiences, when your child shows you wisdom you can’t get from most adults. I think there are all times where we would all would rather be in the Happy Birthday Party.
If someone wanted to form the Happy Birthday Party, it’s not hard in Colorado. A minor political party must meet three criteria: file a document of organization with the secretary of state, meet once a year and certify at least one candidate to the ballot every two years. But as The Sun reported in October, it’s not easy to get elected outside the two major parties.
That kind of wisdom will guide our approach to problem-solving in this administration. Because what truly matters most is not the letter next to your name or your part, or which side of the aisle you sit on. What matters are: Will our ideas and will your ideas be good for the state of Colorado? That is always the yardstick with which we measure the legislation you pass, regardless of party. Will your ideas reduce health care costs? Will they improve our schools and help our kids get a strong start? Will your ideas expand economic opportunity to more Colorado families?
That doesn’t mean any of us should ever abandon our values. What it does mean is that mere partisanship should never stop us from embracing good ideas and taking bold action for the people of Colorado, who elected us to deliver, not to grandstand.
Polis is making a pitch for bipartisanship, but it’s easier to say than do. The way the governor frames the issues above is a Democratic lens. Republicans argue that they have “good ideas” for these issues, but Polis is not likely to sign such legislation. “The solution is not going to be more government,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, the House GOP leader. “It’s probably going to be a market-driven solution. Hopefully he’s open to some of those concepts.”
So in the spirit of putting problem-solving over partisanship, let’s work together. We all agree that every child deserves a great education, so let’s start there.
You know, If we want Colorado to be a place where every person can build a great life for themselves, where our economy can continue to grow fueled by a skilled workforce, then our schools need to provide students with the tools they need to succeed. You know, one of the greatest joys of my life was starting the New America School and the Academy of Urban Learning — two public charter schools for at-risk youth — and really getting to see first hand how kids who had fallen through the cracks in our education system could really take off and go on to achieve amazing things when they were given that opportunity.
One issue where Polis breaks from the Democratic Party is education. He supports charter schools, but the party added a plank to its platform that rejects privatization of public schools. Ironically, Republican lawmakers are excited to work with Polis to provide more educational choices for students.
It’s time for us to build a Colorado education system where every child — regardless of their ZIP code, their race, their parents’ income — gets a great education that prepares them for a bright future.
And that begins with preschool and kindergarten. And our top priority this session is empowering every single Colorado community to offer free, full-day kindergarten in our great state of Colorado.
We also look forward to working with you to expand the number of free preschool slots to thousands of additional children. Our state’s strong economic growth means we have the power to do all of this, right now, without taking resources away from other critical areas of the budget. As Uncle Ben once said to Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I know that together we can fulfill this responsibility, which many of you have been working on for years: Free kindergarten now.
Polis will need to convince the Democratic-led Joint Budget Committee to allocate the estimated $225 million a year to deliver on this promise. Budget writers have expressed skepticism that the money is available.
The focus during the speech drew a rebuke from House GOP leader Neville: “He kept using the word free, over and over,” the Castle Rock Republican said after the speech. “How many times did he use the word free? Nothing is free.”
Making full-day kindergarten available and accessible for all children sets kids up to be more successful in school and throughout their lives, saves parents money. It improves performance, it narrows achievement gaps, it leads to earlier identification and intervention for those with special needs and will increase the high school graduation rate down the road. And all of us will share in those benefits. It will save taxpayer money in the long run by improving incomes and decreasing the achievement gap. It will strengthen families, our communities and our economy.
But as you know, the state today only funds half-day kindergarten, leaving individual districts, and all too often parents, holding the bag for the rest. Most districts charge tuition to pay for the extra half day. Some offer it free, but only by cutting funding for other priorities, like teacher salaries or class size. As a result, kindergarten today in Colorado is a picture of inequality, where some students attend free full-day kindergarten, some must pay for tuition, and other families don’t get it free and can’t afford it because of the cost.
In Colorado, families can pay upwards of $500 a month to enroll their kids in full-day kindergarten. And that’s money that can instead could go to a good home, health care, a college fund, retirement savings, starting a small business, or maybe even a nice vacation for their family once in a while. You know what folks, Oklahoma has figured all this out a long time ago. And with all due respect to our wonderful neighbors in the Sooner state, if they can do kindergarten, we can do kindergarten here in Colorado.
Scott Wasserman, president of the liberal Bell Policy Center, applauded this line. He said: “The costs of early childhood education are among the biggest hurdles for families in our state.”
What we are proposing is a real, meaningful expansion of early childhood education. It is an essential first step in our broader strategies for early childhood education and K-12, setting kids up for success right from the start. It will free up district resources to get us even closer to the ambitious goal of making sure that every child who wants to can go to preschool in Colorado. …
And I want to be clear: when we talk about kindergarten or preschool, that’s not a mandate, either for parents or for school districts whatsoever. But for parents who believe public kindergarten or preschool are the best options for their kids — and for school districts who want to offer these vital opportunities for families — we here at the state want to work with you to do everything possible to make that happen.
School districts and education nonprofits, bipartisan state legislators have done amazing work to raise public awareness about the benefits of full-day kindergarten — to make it a top priority in this state. Now it is time for us to finally cross the finish line, after decades of your work, to fund free, full-day kindergarten by fall of 2019. Let’s get it done.
In an interview with reporters after the speech, Polis clarified that he wants to provide districts the money to implement the program, but he won’t tell them how to do it. “There’s not really any good reason districts wouldn’t do it,” Polis said, but he acknowledged each may implement it differently.
Colorado has the fastest growing economy in the country. It’s really time our students, families, and dedicated teachers shared in that success. And there are several other areas we can make real progress in education together, by valuing our students — and our teachers.
We all know about our educator shortage, particularly in many of our rural and smaller districts, often having a devastating effect on our public schools. We’re approximately 3,000 teachers down from where we need to be, and schools in too many rural communities are feeling the brunt of that impact.
I look forward to working with the legislature to offer student-loan relief for teachers who serve in high-need areas, to enable more schools to make good on their potential. This kind of targeted effort will help provide our children with the very best education and help more hardworking educators afford daily life as indispensable members of the communities where they teach. As you know, every day we entrust Colorado’s educators with our children’s safety, with helping them to grow into successful, compassionate adults. And educators deserve our respect, our gratitude and, of course, to be compensated as the hardworking professionals that they are. …
One of the first bills lawmakers introduced is a measure to expand the current program that provides financial bonuses to teachers in rural districts. The measure would remove the limit on the stipends and increase them to $4,000.
You know, more than 750,000 Coloradans are carrying over $19 billion dollars in student-loan debt. And I think it’s important that we do what we can to lessen that burden by bringing additional transparency to the student-loan process and providing basic consumer protection for borrowers to do everything we can to make sure people are not held back by what they needed to do to afford college.
Democrats are also pushing legislation on this front, which failed in the Republican-led Senate in prior years, and want to give the Colorado Attorney General purview over student loan service providers.
And another area in education where it is critical we work together to have a major impact is graduation rates. A high school diploma is more important than ever before in a 21st century economy. And it’s not even just a high school diploma, it’s also what skills or pathway you have to a career in a growing sector that allows you to support yourself with dignity. While we have made some progress over the past few years, Colorado is really in the middle the pack of states with regard to our graduation rate from high school. …
In 2016, the four-year graduation rate in Colorado was 78.9 percent, an increase from the prior two years but below the national adjusted average of 84 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Colorado ranks toward the bottom of the pack, the data shows.
We need to invest in proven programs that prevent students from falling through the cracks, and work with local communities to provide students the support they need to succeed in high school and in life. And that means recognizing that it is often hard for a student to learn if they are hungry, homeless, or struggling with trauma or mental illness. And I know there are a number of thoughtful and innovative proposals here in the legislature to improve behavioral health resources for our schools. And I look forward to working with you to help our most vulnerable students overcome the barriers they face and graduate from high school as healthy and productive adults.
In this changing economy of the 21st century, a high school degree and skills are absolutely critical for economic success. If we are going to make sure students are prepared for careers in the booming areas of Colorado’s economy — fields like technology and renewable energy — the first step is to look at innovative solutions for reducing the dropout rates and making a high school diploma more meaningful. You know, when our students rise, our state rises even more.
Another top priority — one that we know has lit a fire, not only under Coloradans but under Americans across this country — is the outrageous cost of health care. You know, Gov. Hickenlooper and this legislature did admirable, bipartisan work years ago expanding access to affordable health care through the expansion of Medicaid and expanding access to vital reproductive health services, as well as cutting the uninsured rate to an unprecedented 6½ percent in our state.
But despite all that progress we’ve made, health care costs are still rising. Most of you are recently off the campaign trail, too. And I know, Republican or Democrat, you probably heard constituents complaining about the high cost of health care.
I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb saying that you probably heard that. And you know what, families in Colorado — Independent, Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, not even registered — they’re all just fed up of being ripped off by health care costs. It is time for us to fix that.
It’s time to be bold folks. It’s time. It’s time for us to build a health care system that makes sense where market forces produce savings rather than extra costs, where no person has to choose between losing their life savings or their home and losing their life. It’s time for Coloradans to pay a fair price for the prescription drugs that they need. It’s time for people experiencing mental illness or addiction to get treatment, rather than more costly jail time.
Colorado lawmakers struggled to address this issue in recent years because the cost for providing addiction treatment is so great. In 2017, Arapahoe House, the largest provider of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse in the state, closed because of low government reimbursement rates for care and other financial losses.
And in that process of supporting families, we must make Colorado as family-friendly as possible. And as a first step, on our budget package coming up next week on the 15th, I will be including a formal request to provide parental leave for all state employees.
As a father, I know important those precious first few weeks of life are to be able to spend with your children and I encourage the legislature — and I look forward to working with with you — to take comprehensive action to establish a paid family and medical leave program in Colorado so employees don’t have to choose between keeping their paycheck and caring for their newborn child or sick relative.
Colorado is not among the few states that requires paid parental leave under law. And this is a top priority for Democratic lawmakers who plan to reintroduce a bill to create a family leave insurance plan that people could pay into and apply for funds for parental leave. The measure failed in the Republican-led Senate in 2018.
Look, if all this that we are talking about were easy, it would have been done already. But progress is hard, and overcoming these challenges will be a journey for all of us. But the people of Colorado need and deserve nothing less than our hard work to overcome these challenges and our work begins now.**
Polis made clear he will move aggressively to achieve his agenda. The question is how lawmakers, who hold significant power, respond. Lori Fox, a former legislative liaison for Hickenlooper, told The Sun: “People want to see something happen. But there is a risk of moving too fast without the normal expected stakeholder conversations.”
Another step we’re taking to save money on healthcare is the creation of the first-ever Office of Saving People Money on Health Care. We don’t want to give this office a bureaucratic or fancy name to make it sound important. We want to give it a simple name because it is important.
Led by Lt. Gov. Primavera, the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care will form the beating heart of our efforts to reduce patient costs for hospital stays and expenses, improve price transparency, lower the cost of prescription drugs, make healthcare more affordable and make market forces work for us, rather than against us.
This is one of the first executive actions Polis made since taking office Tuesday, but he didn’t offer more details on how it would work. Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike criticized Polis for not offering more specifics.
And let me say a bit about why Dianne is the very best person to take on this challenge.
Many of you in this chamber had the opportunity to serve with Dianne during her four terms in the state House. And those who did got to see her at work as one of the fiercest, most knowledgeable patient advocates that we’ve had. It comes from personal experience.
As a young woman raising her two young kids, who are here with us today, Dianne was diagnosed with breast cancer and told she had less than five years to live. She knows firsthand how our healthcare system makes getting sick even harder often by robbing people of their financial security at the same time they’re struggling to reclaim their health. Dianne survived cancer four times, got well, worked hard for Colorado, raised two amazing daughters who are here with us today, one of whom works for the state.
And she’s dedicated her life to helping others get quality, affordable health care. We couldn’t ask for anyone better to lead our administration’s efforts to reduce health care costs. For all survivors, Dianne is a fighter and living proof that with strength, courage and resilience, we all in our lives can overcome any obstacles and solve any challenge. Dianne has said that health care is something that affects everyone, doesn’t matter your political belief or faith or lack thereof, it is not a partisan issue. It truly affects everybody. We’ve all had family and friends affected.
I think another issue gripping our state is, we simply must get to work to get a grip on the opioid epidemic, which has taken thousands of lives in our state. Opioids and other illegal drugs have stretched our resources to their breaking point. They’ve torn our families apart and cost lives. In 2017 alone, more than 550 Coloradans died because they overdosed on either a prescription or illegal opioid. I look forward to working with legislators from both sides of the aisle on solutions that focus on addiction prevention and access to effective treatment, because we need to tackle these problems upfront to prevent this continual devastation of the opioid epidemic from growing in our state.
The rates of opioid deaths increased incrementally from 2016 (536 opioid-related deaths) and remains a major issue. The most controversial proposal to address the issue is a supervised injection sites for drug users. Polis has refused to say whether he supports the concept, which is drawing rebuke from federal law enforcement officials.
And we must tackle the outrageous health care costs facing Coloradans in rural and mountain counties in Western Colorado. There’s no reason — there is no reason — that somebody should have to lose their savings or their home simply trying to keep up with the costs of healthcare. And there is no reason a family in Glenwood Springs or Gunnison should pay twice as much for health care as a family in Denver metro area.
We will work with you and empower the Division of Insurance to protect consumers and support rural and mountain communities to reduce health care costs.
Health insurance costs in Colorado mountain communities are notoriously high. As a result, some are looking to create cost-sharing programs that fall short of being full insurance and that have state regulators nervous.
Polis has not explicitly said if he supports a bill by two Democratic lawmakers seeking to mandate the state explore creating a public health insurance option. He has supported the idea, generally, in the past, but look for this discussion to be front and center during the 2019 legislative session. One idea he has endorsed is realigning the state’s health insurance ratings areas. There are currently nine, grouped by geography, and insurers can set different rates for each of those areas based on the specific costs within them. Polis has proposed changing the boundaries to try to bring down costs in expensive areas. When the state in 2016 examined the idea of doing away with ratings areas altogether, it found that bringing down costs for some people would raise costs for others.
We will work with you to establish a reinsurance program to reduce costs and save Coloradans money. A reinsurance program for the highest-cost cases is a proven solution to reduce healthcare costs, it has worked in other states, and it’s one we should embrace in Colorado to save small businesses and individuals money.
Reinsurance in this context means, essentially, a government insurance plan for insurance companies. The state would get together a pool of money to help insurers pay for their highest-cost claims, meaning insurers won’t have to raise rates on everybody to cover those extraordinary costs. How it will be funded remains up in the air.
And finally, we will address the appalling and increasing costs of prescription drugs. Canada has the same drugs, often from the same manufacturing plants that we have here in the United States, for their residents who need them at a half, a third, even a quarter of the cost.
I look forward to working with this legislation on setting up a way for Colorado to safely import prescription drugs from Canada. The burden that prescription drug costs place on families is too crushing for us not to act boldly. And I encourage all of us to do so together.
Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Denver Democrat and freshman state lawmaker, has already introduced a bill to accomplish this goal. The measure would allow the wholesale import of prescription pharmaceuticals from Canada for resale in Colorado. But whether it will have much of an impact is debatable. Canadian experts suggest it’s not likely to provide much relief, as drug prices in their country are steep, too.
You know, of course our ultimate objective is to work together to bring universal, high-quality, affordable health care to every family in Colorado. But the work that we do has to begin with reducing cost and saving people money. We will work together in this legislative session to put us on the right path and bring us closer to our bold goal.
Pursuing a single-payer health system was a big talking point for Polis during his primary campaign for the Democratic nomination. Since then, though, he has been pretty quiet on the idea and has never explained exactly how he would see such a system operating, how much it would cost or how he would pay for it. Universal coverage in this context, though, could just mean making sure everybody is covered in some way and not necessarily through a government-run, single-payer model. In 2016, voters soundly rejected a single-payer health care ballot proposal.
Because together we can save Coloradans money, we can help small businesses across the state pay less for health care, we can clear away barriers that prevent Coloradans from receiving the needed life-saving health care.
And you know I want to say something here that I know has, I think, complete and total agreement in this room: Colorado is the best state in the nation to live. Frankly, it isn’t even close. And, you know, It’s our job to keep it that way. Here in Colorado, we pride ourselves on our unbeatable quality of life, the breathtaking beauty of the state we proudly call home. Protecting our special way of life for ourselves and future generations is one of the most sacred responsibilities that we share. It’s on us.
Not only do our majestic mountains and plains provide endless opportunities to enjoy our natural world with friends and family or to find solitude — they also are vital for our economic success. Colorado is now proudly the home of the Outdoor Retailer Show, a testament to our collective commitment to our public lands. We will continue to defend our public lands, promote access to outdoor recreation, and do everything we can to support the outdoor industry’s 230,000-and-growing Colorado jobs.
Utah’s support for the Trump administration’s effort to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument led the Outdoor Industry Association to move its conferences to Denver. And Polis appeared at the organization’s winter market in his first speech after winning the November election.
While the outdoor recreation economy continues to expand opportunity in rural Colorado, we also want to double down on supporting Colorado’s rich farming and ranching tradition. Though our agriculture exports have nearly quadrupled over the last two decades, the last few years have been a difficult time for farmers and ranchers. Volatile commodities markets, a damaging trade war from Washington, an increasingly serious water shortage are all making life harder all too often for the men and women who work in or own farms in our agriculture industry.
We need to make sure today’s farmers and ranchers, and tomorrow’s, have the tools they need to succeed. And I couldn’t be more excited that our nominee for Agriculture Commissioner, Kate Greenberg, will be the first woman to hold that position. Kate has spent her career focused on the future of farming rather than the past, which is exactly what today’s challenges call for.
The lifeblood of our agriculture industry is water — which is why we must commit to continue the bipartisan and sustainable funding for the Colorado Water Plan. Gov. Hickenlooper, along with the leadership of John Stulp, did an extraordinary work bringing together a broad coalition of Coloradans from all corners of our state to create the first state Water Plan. And we’re going to do our part by improving and implementing that plan and partnering with organizations and our legislature to meet our current and future water needs.
The water plan developed by the Hickenlooper administration faces a major obstacle: the cost. The estimates doubled to more than $40 billion and so far the state legislature has not put enough money toward fully funding the effort.
We will also partner with organizations like the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union’s Co-Op Development Center and others to reduce barriers to employee ownership and grow wages in agriculture and other sectors. And we’ll work with the Rural Colorado Venture Capital Fund to expand access to capital and help the next generation of farmers and rural communities thrive.
This is a state-run $9 billion fund focused on investing in rural Colorado that is available to businesses in 54 of the state’s 64 counties. The businesses can apply for seed money to get started or debt financing.
And we’ll make good on the promise of industrial hemp here in Colorado. With our world-class universities, like Colorado State and Adams State, which are at the forefront of hemp innovation, and with the leading hemp manufacturers and cultivators already here, we want to seize on this opportunity, under the most recent national Farm Bill, to help make Colorado the national leader in industrial hemp production. Some of you might have noticed yesterday the programs for my inauguration were printed on hemp paper.
And when we talk about protecting Colorado’s way of life, yes, we need to acknowledge and talk about climate change. Climate change is a scientific reality. It’s real. There’s no pretending otherwise for the farmers and ranchers who are facing historic water shortages. There’s no pretending otherwise for the 46,000 men and women who work in Colorado’s ski industry and see their jobs threatened by decreased snowpack.
And there will be no pretending otherwise in this administration. Because we’re going to confront this challenge head-on — not only because we must, but because we also want to take advantage of the huge opportunities associated with being a leader in the growing green-energy economy.
Democratic lawmakers share the urgency when it comes to climate change. House Speaker KC Becker told The Sun it’s her top legislative priority, and other lawmakers are working on a series of bills to address the issue, hoping a number of smaller steps can add up to something larger.
I launched my campaign for governor in Pueblo at an all-solar coffee roasting company, just 10 miles from the Vestas wind turbine factory, which employs 800 Coloradans today building out the renewable energy economy. And I did so to demonstrate that our commitment to reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 is not just about climate change. It’s also about saving money for consumers with cheaper energy, it’s about making sure that good-paying green jobs of the future are created right here in Colorado. And it’s about making the future work for us.
As The Sun has reported, talking about this goal is much easier than the walk. Xcel Energy says the technology is not yet there to reach such a high bar, though they are hopeful it will be developed in the coming decades. Polis has discussed using his authority to issue executive orders to help advance this goal, but the details remain unclear.
And today the work begins to set Colorado on a course to reach that goal. That means modernizing both our grid infrastructure and streamlining our regulatory processes to ensure that all Coloradans are able to reap the full suite of benefits associated with swift adoption of renewable energy. It means working to electrify our cars and buses and trucks. And it means taking advantage of modern technology to use energy more efficiently — cleaning our air, making Coloradans healthier and saving consumers money in the process.
Colorado adopted the low-emission vehicle standard in November, and now there’s a move to go further and adopt zero-emission vehicle standards. Republicans have pushed back on these moves saying they are burdensome and would increase the costs of buying vehicles.
As governor, my goal is to work with you to lead the statewide transition to a clean, sustainable, growing and prosperous economy because it is imperative for our climate, our security, our health, and our economic growth for all Coloradans to address climate change.
We will lead with policies that support, enable and accelerate market investments. We will work with stakeholders across Colorado on real outcome-based approaches that improve flexibility and competition, and promote innovation and deliver emissions reductions from all sources, as well as save consumers money and lead to sustainable economic growth and sustainable advantage for our industry based on lower green energy costs.
We will build upon the significant work and commitment by communities, businesses, and people across our state. Today 62,000 people are employed in advanced energy in Colorado. Xcel Energy has committed to achieving 80 percent carbon reduction by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050. Communities like Pueblo, Summit County and Fort Collins and Denver and many others across the state have embraced strong climate goals. We are already leading the way forward right here in Colorado, and we will work everyday to build on that process.
Here’s a story from The Sun about Xcel’s big announcement in December.
You know make no mistake — with price declines and technology advances, the move toward renewable energy is already taking place and it will only accelerate. But as we embrace the renewable-energy future, we also need do right by the men and women in today’s energy workforce — some of the hardest-working people in Colorado. For the men and women who work in the coal and oil-and-gas industries, we will make sure that this future works for you.
In the original draft of the speech, Polis pledged to coal miners and oil and gas workers that “we will not leave them behind.” But he changed the line when he gave the speech. The practical effect appears the same, but the suggestion he wouldn’t leave them behind carries political baggage.
We will embrace the skills and experience that Coloradans from all backgrounds bring to the table. Because we need their help, and yes your hard work will be needed and rewarded at every single step of this transition. And we will continue to support the communities these jobs have sustained, to ensure they can thrive to as part of our renewable-energy economy. Creative financing mechanisms that exist today can ensure that consumers pay lower rates as we move to renewables, and help provide for a just transition that is just and fair both for workers and for the broader communities that are directly impacted by this change.
Republican critics responded sharply to this line. “You have all these high-paid oil and gas people and now all of the sudden we’re going to shut down their jobs and retrain them?” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader John Cooke, a Republican from Weld County, the heart of Colorado’s oil patch. “They’re not going to take pay cuts. How are they going to feed their families? They are going to go to places that are … friendly to oil and gas. They are going to go to North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas. They’re going to leave this state.” As the reaction suggests, oil and gas issues are a touchpoint to watch this session.
Colorado has always been, and must always be, a place where we respect the dignity of hard work. Providing for ourselves and our families is at the core of the Colorado way of life that we all love. And a strong economy can’t be built on any one sector, or any one region of the state, on its own. Our diversity is indeed our economic strength.
Our mission is to help businesses of all kinds start, grow, thrive and create good-paying jobs across Colorado, from the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains, to the Front Range and Southern Colorado and the San Luis Valley. We will value every job. We will respect every worker and every shareholder. We will protect the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for the pay and benefits that they deserve. And we support the rights of shareholders to govern their companies.
Polis was endorsed by labor organizations and this line stands in contrast to Republican governors in other states who advocate for “right to work” legislation that undercuts unions.
And just as we stand up for workers and good jobs, so too we stand up for our communities. They have a right to have a voice when it comes to industrial activities within their borders that affect their quality of and economic vitality.And, yes, it’s time for us to take meaningful action to address the conflicts between oil-and-gas drilling operators and the neighborhoods that they impact. We will work to make sure that every community has clean air and water. And this is a vital quality-of-life issue for Colorado families.
Polis rejected a move for larger setbacks in on the 2018 ballot — despite supporting them in the past — and he’s now focused on giving local governments more control. This is a potential deal breaker for the energy industry, which suggests different rules in each jurisdiction could make it too difficult to do business in Colorado.
To keep our economy moving in the right direction, we need to upgrade our antiquated roads and highways and limited public transit options. They are simply not equipped to sustain a growing 21st century economy. Thanks to the bipartisan commitment made last year to dedicate additional funds to transportation, we have hundreds of millions of dollars to improve our roads over the next few years. Now, that’s a strong foundation to work from, but as we know it’s not enough to meet the challenge. We need to come together around a bipartisan funding mechanism to meet our current and future transportation needs that the voters of this state will accept and will continue to help our economy to grow and Colorado to prosper.
Colorado voters in 2018 rejected two competing tax measures to pay for transportation needs — one that raised the state’s sales tax and another that called for using existing tax dollars to cover the cost of a bond. A measure approved in 2018 would ask voters permission in 2019 to issue $2.3 million in bonds for road and transit expansions, but Democrats are considering moves to cancel the ballot question. Republicans are already seeking an additional $336 million for transportation this year. Everyone agrees that more money needs to go toward transportation, but no one agrees on how to pay for it.
“I’m very curious to know if he has any ideas about that,” said Sen. Zenzinger. “Those of us who have been working on transportation issues down here at the legislature have tried pretty much everything. We also believe it’s a priority. If he has some good ideas about how to do it, I’m all ears.”
We also need to expand access to high-speed internet and broadband. I’m eager to work with legislators to cut red tape that forces communities to go through costly and lengthy elections to build out their own broadband. And at the same time, we’ll continue the good work of the Hickenlooper administration in supporting the creation of strategic regional broadband plans to really make high-speed internet access a reality across our state as efficiently as we can.
Under the Hickenlooper administration, statewide access to basic broadband increased to 96 percent of Colorado households, and rural access jumped to 81 percent connectivity. But the effort to make it easier for government-run internet service is likely to face blowback. Internet service providers spent nearly $1 million trying unsuccessfully to block the effort in Fort Collins, for instance.
Because in the 21st century and the changing economy, high-speed internet access is critical infrastructure that everyone must have access to at the risk of being left behind. So let’s work together to make sure no one in our great state gets left behind.
So many of the important issues that Coloradans face today boil down to the word opportunity, a word I love. The opportunity to grow and start a business. The opportunity to enjoy Colorado’s amazing way of life, our majestic outdoors. The opportunity to get a great education that leads to a successful future.
But for Colorado to be a place where these opportunities are available for all, and not just some, we need to make our economy work better for middle-class families. And one way want to do this is by working with you to make our tax code more fair and more efficient, so that we can reduce rates for Colorado families and small businesses. Our tax code simply gives too much power to the special interests who can afford expensive lobbyists, while forcing ordinary families to pay too much in taxes. As legislators, I know that many of you find these tax giveaways offensive. Unlike budget expenditures, which you vote on every year, these tax expenditures are on autopilot, some since the 1930s, before most of you, if not all of you, were born. We need a tax code that reflects today’s realities rather than yesterday’s distortions. Let’s work together to help people keep more of their hard-earned money, rather than give it away to special interests.
The legislature and the auditor, thanks to your efforts, have gotten off to a good start by closely examining these various deductions and finding out which ones are being exploited at Coloradans’ expense. I want to work with you to close these loopholes and pass the savings on to families by lowering the income tax rate.
The tax breaks in Colorado totaled more than $4 billion in 2016. And Polis thinks he can eliminate enough to lower the tax burden in Colorado by 3 to 5 percent, he told reporters after the speech.
For instance, many of the changes in President Trump’s tax-reform law were giveaways to the most influential corporations in the country. Some big businesses pay less, while many families here in Colorado actually have to pay more. So rather than blindly copy President Trump’s policies into our state tax code, as we have done, we do not need to take the bad with the good. Instead, we should reflect the good in our tax code and change the bad to put families and small businesses ahead of special interests as nearly every other state, under Republicans or Democrats, has done but we have yet to do.
Colorado is one of only six states that use federal taxable income as a starting point for state income taxes, and one of only seven that use the federal standard deduction and personal exemption, per the Tax Foundation. Colorado also is one of 16 states that relies on federal taxable income for corporate taxes. That allows federal deductions to reduce their Colorado tax bills, as well. That makes the state among the most affected by federal tax law changes.
Also, 90 percent of the retailers in our state are small businesses. It’s time to cap the vendor fee, which is a giveaway to the largest, most influential and profitable retailers in the nation, and use the savings to lower tax rates to benefit small businesses and millions of working Colorado families.
That’s extra money Colorado families can use on home repairs, a college fund or any of the innumerable expenses that folks are having a harder and harder time keeping up with the cost of living, which seems to keep going up.
This is the one “tax loophole” that Polis identified in his address that he wants to repeal. In Colorado, retailers can keep 3.33 percent of the sales taxes they owe to offset the cost to send the tax to the state. In 2017, it cost the state $96 million in sales taxes and $6 million in use taxes, according to the state Department of Revenue, making it a $102 million tax break.
We want to make Colorado better for everyone. And broadening the tax base while lowering rates leads to more economic growth and a stronger economy for all. We look forward to working with you to seek tax efficiencies and clear-eyed policies that make everyone in our great state better off.
And to be clear, our tax-reform proposal will not change how much money the state collects or affect investment in public priorities one way or the other. It’s simply about who pays. It asks the largest, most influential corporations to start paying their fair share so that individuals, families and small businesses can pay less and don’t have to pay for the tax loopholes that others benefit from.
This is an important clarification. Polis said his tax proposal would be revenue-neutral, avoiding any implications under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights that requires any tax hikes to go to voters for approval. Still, Republicans appeared nonplussed. “I don’t know how he’s going to pay for it all and then cut taxes,” said Cooke, the Republican senator. “Unless he is just going to come out there and we are going to raise fees on everybody. I was disappointed in the fact that he didn’t say how much it’s going to cost and how we’re going to pay for it.”
As we address the inequities in our tax code, so too we must address the inequities that are built in our criminal justice system. That means tackling discriminatory practices that all too often make people of color and individuals living with mental illness, or Coloradans experiencing poverty more likely to face longer and harsher incarceration. And it means working to make sure that Coloradans who do serve prison or jail time are able to live a dignified and fulfilling life after they’ve paid their debt to society.
Criminal justice reform is an economic necessity and a human-rights necessity. We will help you lead on this issue.
Polis did not offer specifics on this front, though Democrats are working on proposals to prevent employers from asking people about their criminal history on job applications and remove prison sentences for low-level drug possession convictions. Polis did not mention gun control legislation during his speech, but he told reporters after the speech that he supports the measure — called a “red flag bill” — to allow Colorado judges to temporarily seize firearms from people they deem a risk to themselves or others.
And it’s not easy folks, but it is simple in one sense: every one of us in Colorado wants the opportunity to earn a good life. And we can break down the barriers that hold us back by bringing high-quality early education to every family, lowering health care costs, creating good-paying jobs here in Colorado and saving families money on their tax bill we can help families get ahead.
These are Polis’ four priorities for his first year in office. But he outlined many more goals in this speech that he wants to achieve. The list of demands left Democratic lawmakers feeling a bit overwhelmed, but in an interview after the address Polis remained confident that he would get what he wanted.
State Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat and budget writer, suggested it may be too much. “I would love to say we can accomplish everything he’s talked about, but I think the reality is that we have to really look at the things that absolutely need funding, the priorities of the entire state,” she said.
And what makes Colorado unique isn’t just the boldness of our ideas. It is the resilience and the spirit of our inspiring people, who make change happen, who truly bring bold ideas to life. Our shared responsibility is to turn challenges into opportunities, to turn ideas into action. Now is the time to unite in our common purpose: moving Colorado forward, taking good ideas from across the Colorado spectrum and turning those ideas into real ideas for Colorado families. Together, we will build a Colorado that works for all. Let’s get to work.
Thank you. God bless Colorado. God bless you and thank you.
Staff writers John Ingold, Jennifer Brown and correspondent Brian Eason contributed to this report.
Update: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, to correct figures erroneously published by the Colorado Department of Revenue regarding the value of the vendor fee tax break. The department issued a revised tax expenditure report this week correcting the error.
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