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10 big promises Colorado Gov. Jared Polis kept in his first term – and some he hasn’t (so far)

The Colorado Sun kept track of more than 100 of the Democrats’ 2018 campaign promises. We evaluated about 20 as he runs for reelection in November.
Jared Polis speaks to supporters during a rally in Montrose in this October 2018 file photo. (William Woody/Special to The Colorado Sun, file)

As soon as then-U.S. Rep. Jared Polis launched his 2018 campaign to be Colorado’s governor, the Democrat started making big promises about what he would do if voters elected him to lead the state.

Polis promised, for instance, to abolish the death penalty, give local governments more say over the regulation of oil and gas, and host video game nights at the governor’s mansion.

The Colorado Sun started keeping track of those vows, eventually tallying more than 100 of them.

As Polis vies on Nov. 8 for reelection to a second four-year term as governor, we revisited his 2018 campaign promises to evaluate 10 that he kept and some that he’s making progress toward keeping or hasn’t kept.

We evaluated promises we felt were his biggest or the most top of mind for Coloradans.

Here’s some of what he did and didn’t get done during a term dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters and economic uncertainty:

The promises Polis kept
Full-day kindergarten and expanded preschool

The promise: “As governor, I will bring together a winning coalition to establish universal full-day kindergarten and preschool in every community across our state within two years,” Polis promised in a 2017 campaign document outlining his education policy.

In 2019, Polis’ first year as governor, the legislature passed a bipartisan measure funding full-day kindergarten access across Colorado. It costs about $200 million a year out of the state budget.

In 2020, voters approved Proposition EE, which raised taxes on tobacco and nicotine products to fund 10 hours of preschool per week for Colorado 4-year-olds. That’s not the full-day preschool access Polis promised when he ran for governor in 2018, and the program hasn’t started yet – the preschool expansion begins in the 2023-24 school year – so he didn’t get it done within his two-year time frame.

Abolishing the death penalty

The promise: “If the legislature sends me a bill to repeal the death penalty, I will sign it,” Polis wrote in a May 2018 criminal justice policy memo.

Polis kept this promise in March 2020 when the General Assembly passed a measure abolishing capital punishment in the state.

The governor also went further, commuting the sentences of Colorado’s three death row inmates – Nathan Dunlap, Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray – to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dunlap’s death sentence was temporarily halted by Polis’ predecessor, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is now a U.S. senator.

Protecting abortion access

The promise: “It’s up to the Colorado governor to protect the rights of women,” Polis said in October 2018 during a gubernatorial debate hosted by 9News.

Earlier this year, the governor signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act into law, which guarantees access to abortions and contraception in Colorado. The measure was passed along party lines by the legislature and came ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s expected decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 precedent guaranteeing a minimal level of abortion access across the nation.

While the bill that passed this year still could be undermined by future laws and statutory changes made through Colorado’s ballot-question process, it prevents counties and municipalities from trying to enact abortion bans on the local level.

Abortion rights groups are expected to try to pass a constitutional amendment as soon as 2024 to fully enshrine abortion access in Colorado and eliminate the state’s constitutional ban on using tax dollars to fund abortions. Polis says he generally supports the idea of allowing tax dollars to be used for abortions, but he also said he wants to see the ballot measure’s text before making a full endorsement.

Pardoning people convicted of nonviolent marijuana charges

The promise: “Colorado can choose a better way and lead the nation in dismantling injustice in all corners of our government, and that includes looking at pardons for those convicted of nonviolent marijuana charges,” Polis wrote in a May 2018 criminal justice policy memo.

Polis has kept this promise, pardoning 2,732 people in 2020 who were convicted of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. In 2021, he pardoned 1,351 people who had been convicted of possessing up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

It’s unclear whether those pardons account for all of the people who have ever been convicted of possessing up to 2 ounces of marijuana in Colorado. Polis’ office did not answer a question about whether he may pardon more people in the future who were convicted of marijuana possession charges not linked to violence.

“Adults can legally possess marijuana in Colorado, just as they can beer or wine,” Polis said in a written statement explaining his 2021 pardons. “It’s unfair that 1,351 additional Coloradans had permanent blemishes on their record that interfered with employment, credit and gun ownership, but today we have fixed that by pardoning their possession of small amounts of marijuana that occurred during the failed prohibition era.”

Polis also kept a promise made during his 2018 campaign to sign a bill into law allowing medical marijuana to be used as a treatment for autism. Hickenlooper vetoed a similar measure in 2018, citing “overwhelming concerns” from the medical community about the legislation. When state lawmakers passed the bill again in 2019, the governor signed it.

Passing a red flag law

The promise: “We will empower law enforcement and close family members, and prevent people in crisis from having easy access to guns, by passing a ‘red flag’ law in Colorado,” Polis wrote in an August 2018 gun policy memo.

The governor signed House Bill 1177 into law in 2019, enacting Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order program – or red flag law. The law allows judges to order the temporary seizure of firearms from people deemed a significant risk to themselves or others.

Polis also promised during his 2018 campaign to “direct the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to conduct this research using existing state funds.” He fulfilled that promise in 2021 through the creation of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in CDPHE.

Polis has not enacted as promised a state-level ban on bump stocks, which can make semi-automatic rifles fire at a rate similar to an automatic weapon. The devices were banned, however, by the Trump administration in 2019.

Colorado has also not “strengthened penalties for illegal gun sales and for selling guns to felons” as Polis said in 2018 he would attempt to do if elected governor. In fact, state law now allows some felons to possess firearms whereas it didn’t before the governor took office.

Creating a retirement savings plan for the private sector

The promise: “We’ll help Coloradans without employer-supported retirement programs invest in their future by creating a retirement savings plan for workers,” the governor said in a policy memo released as part of his 2018 campaign.

Polis signed a bill in 2020 creating the Colorado Secure Savings Plan aimed at helping the 40% of workers who don’t have an employer-provided retirement plan save money for their post-retirement life.

The program starts next year – a pilot is about to get underway – and will require most business owners to enroll in a state-run retirement program for their workers if they don’t already offer a 401(k) or something similar. Employees are responsible for contributing to their retirement accounts and can opt out.

Paid family leave

The promise: “Making sure that every Coloradan has paid family and medical leave will be a priority for our state when I’m governor,” the governor wrote in a policy memo as part of his 2018 campaign.

Colorado voters approved a 2020 ballot measure forming paid family and medical leave program after Democrats in the legislature were unable to pass a bill doing just that. Workers and employers will start paying into a statewide fund next year – the fees will be split between the two – and employees will be able to apply for paid leave starting in 2024.

Several local government bodies are opting out of the program, but it’s mandatory for private employers.

While the governor wasn’t able to get this promise done on his own, the governor gets credit for accomplishing the promise – especially given that his administration will now be charged with implementing it.

“I had a different, and I like to think better, model that wouldn’t have cost as much to provide family leave to Coloradans,” he said at a recent debate hosted by The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Colorado Public Radio and Colorado Mesa University. “Voters disagreed. They passed another way to do it – overwhelmingly. We are getting that implemented to make sure that every Coloradan gets the paid family leave that they need if they’re sick or ill or have a child.”

Oil and gas

The promise: “It will be the challenge of the next governor to make sure we have the local-control framework in place to give our communities a seat at the table and make sure setbacks statewide are enough, objectively and scientifically, to protect our health and safety,” Polis said in June 2018 during a Democratic gubernatorial primary debate.

Polis in 2019 signed Senate Bill 181 into law, which dramatically rewrote the state’s oil and gas regulations in a way that prioritized public health and the environment and handed more control over drilling to local governments.

The measure, which faced backlash from Republicans and the fossil fuel industry, also preceded the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission enacting a 2,000-foot buffer for homes and schools from new oil and gas drilling sites.

Agree or not with the policy, the governor gets credit for keeping this promise, which is a key part of his broader climate agenda.

Polis promised as part of his 2018 campaign to make Colorado run on 100% renewable energy by 2040. He says the state is on track to reach 80% renewable energy by 2030, though he concedes “we still have a lot of work” to do.

Equal pay

The promise: “It’s about time here nationally and here in Colorado to end pay disparities based on gender and based on race,” Polis said in June 2018 during a Democratic gubernatorial primary debate.

The governor signed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, or Senate Bill 85, in 2019, and it took effect in January 2021. Among the provisions in the measure are a requirement that employers include a salary range in job advertisements. The mandate is aimed at preventing pay gaps based on gender and race, so The Colorado Sun rates this promise as accomplished.

Through the middle of this year, only three companies had been fined for violating that provision in law.

The measure also allows a person to file a gender-based wage discrimination lawsuit within two years of a violation and removes the authority of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to enforce gender-based wage discrimination complaints. For a complete explanation of how the measure change wage discrimination laws, check out the bill’s fiscal note.

While it’s difficult to evaluate whether Senate Bill 85 truly ended pay disparities based on gender and race, the governor gets credit for taking action to try to accomplish this promise.

The governor also promised as part of his 2018 campaign to “allow municipalities to raise the minimum wage in their area.” He kept that promise.

Before Polis taking office, local governments were prohibited from setting their own minimum wage. That changed after the governor signed House Bill 1210 into law in 2019, which lets up to 10% of the 332 local governments in the state set their own minimum wages and the increase is limited each year to the greater of $1.75 per hour or 15% of the state minimum wage.


The promise: “As governor I will support and work alongside a diverse group of stakeholders of all geographic and political persuasions to ensure that we narrowly identify new sources of revenue and wisely invest where it’s needed most, such as relieving congestion across the state, improving rural roads, and fixing potholes that damage our vehicles and cause accidents,” Polis wrote in a policy memo as part of his 2018 campaign.

In 2021 the legislature passed Senate Bill 260, which enacted a host of new road-use fees to inject more than $5 billion into Colorado transportation projects over the next decade. Polis signed the measure, which had limited Republican support, into law.

Many conservatives have been critical of Polis and Democrats for raising the revenue through fees instead of taxes, which require voter approval. The decision to go the fee route was made after years of failed transportation-funding ballot measures. Conservatives filed a still-pending lawsuit challenging the legality of the fee scheme.

As to whether the new money is being spent “wisely” and “where it’s needed most,” that’s up for debate. Republicans have been highly critical of the bill’s emphasis on transit and combating climate change as opposed to expanding highways and fixing existing infrastructure. But the governor did sign a bill generating new revenue for transportation projects in Colorado, so he gets credit for keeping at least that part of his promise.

The promises Polis hasn’t kept – so far
Private prisons

The promise: “I will end our investment in private prisons and reinvest those dollars into rehabilitation, diversion, alternative and restorative justice programs,” the governor wrote in a criminal justice policy memo as part of his 2018 campaign.

There are still two private prisons that house Colorado prisoners – the Bent County Correctional Facility and the Crowley County Correctional Facility, both of which are run by Core Civic. There isn’t a timeline for either to be closed, and local officials have warned that closing the rural prisons would decimate their economies since they are major area employers.

There have been steps taken to move Colorado away from using private prisons. The GEO Group in 2020 closed its private Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center in Colorado Springs on its own in anticipation of the Polis administration shuttering the facility. The state has worked to expand capacity in its own prison system to handle that closure and future closures.

Pass an education-funding ballot measure

The promise: “I will build a winning coalition to go to the ballot box and pass an initiative to better fund our schools and early education opportunities,” Polis wrote in a November 2017 education plan released as part of his first gubernatorial campaign.

Polis gets partial credit when it comes to fulfilling this promise.

Yes, he was partially responsible for Proposition EE, which raised tobacco and nicotine taxes to pay for expanded preschool access in Colorado. But there has been no K-12 education funding ballot measure passed since the governor took office in January 2019, and he’s not publicly backed a ballot measure specifically aimed at funding K-12 schools.

And state funding for K-12 schools remains below what they are owed under Amendment 23, a 2000 ballot measure requiring the state to increase base per-pupil school funding by at least the rate of inflation each year. The Great Recession-era deficit is known as a budget-stabilization factor, and while the legislature is on track to eliminate the deficit in the near future, it hasn’t done so yet.

The governor also said during his 2018 campaign that he “would like to see tuition come down” at the state’s public higher education institutions by increasing state funding. That hasn’t happened. Instead, costs have only risen.

The public employees’ pension system

The promise: “Making sure that PERA (the Public Employees’ Retirement Association) is solvent for years to come is more than just smart budgeting: it’s keeping our promise to those who have served our state,” Polis wrote in a policy memo as part of his 2018 campaign.

The Public Employees’ Retirement Association remains in a financial hole.

PERA’s unfunded liability as of Dec. 31, 2021, was $27.2 billion, according to the agency’s annual report. That was a decrease from the previous year of nearly $4 billion.

A Pew Research issue brief notes that many states met or exceeded pension fund contribution targets between 2014 and 2022. Colorado was not among them.

Under a measure passed by the legislature in 2018, before Polis took office, the legislature is required to inject $225 million each year into PERA.

Revolving political door

The promise: “I will look into what I could do with an executive order to prevent the revolving door for our appointees,” Polis tweeted in November 2017.

The state constitution prohibits lawmakers from lobbying government for two years after leaving office. And state law prohibits all government employees from taking jobs where they can use their influence, but for only six months. Polis hasn’t acted to change that.

Getting rid of dark money in politics

The promise: “I’ll work to improve our campaign finance laws to get rid of dark money – so that we always know who is trying to influence our elections here in Colorado,” Polis wrote on his campaign Facebook page in 2018.

Dark money is defined as campaign cash spent by nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. In Colorado, liberal and conservative dark-money groups have been active on the political stage for years, and they continue to be an electoral force.

Polis’ office cites several campaign finance reforms supported by the administration during his term.

Among them is a bipartisan bill Polis signed earlier this year that requires dark-money groups giving to issue committees to disclose their donors. But that’s only if 30% of their spending over a three-year period is on two or more ballot measures, or if 20% of their spending over three years is on a single ballot measure.

The bill – which was supported by both liberal and conservative political nonprofits – is effectively toothless since it’s unlikely the thresholds will ever be met. So instead of getting rid of dark money in Colorado politics, the governor signed a bill that essentially makes it easier for the groups to operate in the state without disclosing their donors.

The governor has signed measures aimed at increasing transparency around electioneering communications, improving campaign finance enforcement and limiting donations to school board candidates.

Universal health care

The promise: “I will work with other Western states to tackle our shared health challenges. Together, we can pioneer a groundbreaking multi-state consortium to offer a universal, single-payer option out West,” Polis wrote in a 2018 opinion piece in The Aspen Times.

The universal, single-payer health insurance option in coordination with other Western states has not materialized.

The governor did lead an effort in the legislature to pass a bill in 2021 requiring health insurance companies operating on the state’s individual exchange to offer a state-designed plan with constrained costs. “Colorado Option” plans will be available for the first time this year for people shopping in the individual and small group markets during the open enrollment period that starts Nov. 1.

But the Colorado Option is a far cry from universal, single-payer health insurance, and it certainly has nothing to do with neighboring states.

It’s worth pointing out that the governor has taken steps during his first term to try to drive down health insurance costs, such as through a reinsurance program and by signing legislation allowing drugs to be imported from Canada. Still, health insurance rates on the individual market are expected to rise by an average 10.4% in 2023 and by an average of 7.4% in the small group market.

Front Range rail

The promise: “You want a governor who is going to build more (highway) lanes, and Front Range rail and bike commuting and that’s what I’ll do,” Polis said during a 9News primary debate ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial election.

While more highway lanes have been built and there’s a greater emphasis on bike commuting in Colorado since Polis became governor, a Front Range passenger rail system remains mostly a dream.

In 2021, the legislature passed a bill creating a special taxation district for the proposed rail line, but there hasn’t been a ballot measure asking voters in that district to raise taxes to pay for the project.

A 17-member board has the authority to ask voters in the district to enact a new sales tax of up to 8 cents on every $10 purchase to pay for the train.

There’s still a strong chance that Colorado could move forward with a Front Range passenger rail system, but it would almost certainly have to include sizable federal investment (which is expected to be announced in the coming months) and a big dose of political will to ask voters to increase their taxes during a stretch of economic uncertainty.

We give the governor credit for making progress on this promise, but it hasn’t been kept yet.


The promise: “It’s so important that we make implementing and fully funding and improving Colorado’s water plan a priority in the years ahead. … I’m confident that working together we can achieve (that goal),” Polis told the Colorado Water Congress in August 2018.

The Colorado Water Plan is not fully funded. The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the agency charged with creating the plan, anticipates there’s a $1.5 billion funding shortfall, or about $50 million a year, through its “planning horizon” of 2050 “to meet the identified project demands.” And the CWCB says the estimate is “conservative.”

The plan, first released in 2015 under then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, was designed as a framework for securing the state’s future water needs amid population growth and climate change-induced drought.

In the 2015 plan, it was estimated that the state needed to invest $100 million per year until 2050 to complete the plan’s goals. That kind of investment has not happened.

Instead, the only dedicated funding source in the plan is a 10% tax on gambling and sports betting approved by voters in 2019 with support from Polis that was estimated to contribute between $6 million and $15 million annually in the first three years, with potentially as much as $29 million a year. The tax contributed nearly $8 million to the plan in fiscal year 2021 and $11.4 million in fiscal 2022.

“Funding for the state’s water plan within the available state resources has been a top priority for the governor every year since taking office, including proposals in his budget,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

Since Polis took office, the legislature has dedicated nearly $40 million from the general fund toward implementing the plan, including $7.5 million in 2020, $15 million in 2021 and $8.2 million in 2022. Those cash infusions have been among the most significant since the plan was created.

Dude, where’s our game night?

The promise: “But if I win… VIDEO GAME NIGHT AT THE GOV MANSION!”

Polis promised a video game night at the governor’s mansion in a Reddit AMA in June 2017.

We’re still waiting!

“The one area he hasn’t yet achieved is hosting game night at the governor’s mansion,” the governor’s spokeswoman Melissa Dworkin said, “and he is hoping to get that one checked off the list soon.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.