In an optimistic speech to state lawmakers that referenced “The Lord of the Rings,” Mexican eatery Casa Bonita and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday set a vision for his second term in office and challenged listeners to imagine the state’s identity as it nears its 150th year of statehood.
“We should ask ourselves who we as Coloradans want to be in our 150th year,” he said. “How can our work now and over the next few years make that Colorado possible? And finally, how can Colorado’s example shine a bright light for the nation?”
Though Polis begins his second term with huge legislative majorities and a Democratic bench of statewide officeholders by his side, he spoke against division and in favor of compromise.
“We’ve seen the consequences of divisiveness and what happens when we retreat into silos and stop having productive conversations, and that’s not who we are as a state and as a people,” Polis said. “With extreme partisanship grinding progress to a halt in Washington, it is more important than ever for us to lead the Colorado way.”
His annual State of the State address hit on the expected note of affordability – in areas like housing, health care and tax relief – and laid out priorities to tackle climate issues, workforce needs and public safety.
House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Republican from Wellington, criticized the scope of Polis’s policy ambitions.
“Today, Governor Polis delivered a State of the State address that clearly showed he and the Democrats envision a bigger, more expensive state government that has greater power to control our citizens,” Lynch said in a statement. “Of course, larger, less effective government comes at a steep cost. Each time the governor opened his mouth today, taxpayer dollar bills spilled out.”
Polis spent a significant portion of his address – which clocked in at about 1 hour, 10 minutes – on affordable housing, emphasizing how his ideal strategy fits into larger policy goals for the state, since housing colors other priorities.
“Let me be clear: Housing policy is climate policy,” he said. “Housing policy is economic policy. Housing policy is transportation policy. Housing policy is water policy. Housing policy is public health and equity policy. It impacts every part of our lives, which is why it’s so critical that we get this right. We need everyone to come to the table and work toward a real solution.”
Polis hinted at a housing approach that would further involve the state in issues like zoning and land use as local governments wrestle with appropriate developments for their unique situation. Speaking with reporters in the afternoon, he emphasized that the emphasis should be on individual property owners’ rights more than state or local government rights.
“It’s time to legalize more housing choices for every Coloradan and give homeowners more freedom, revitalize our cities and towns, and protect the character of our state, our open space and our wild areas,” he said during his address.
He called for an update of the state’s land use policy – and noted that it hasn’t been updated since 1974 – that would allow for more types of housing construction in a quicker timeline by eliminating government barriers, expanding private property rights and reducing regulations. He highlighted successful projects in Greeley and Summit County that use nontraditional housing types to create more units, as well as a project in Vail that will use state-owned land for 80 units of workforce housing.
“The reality is that projects like these are the exception, not the rule,” he said. “The more common scenario is that housing projects are rejected or mired in years of red tape, adding costs and time.”
Polis called on local governments to “proactively partner” with the state and private developers for similar projects. His budget proposal includes funding for public land owners to build more housing.
Housing development needs to happen, he said, in a way that prevents sprawl and works in concert with the state’s goals for efficient transportation corridors and increased water and energy efficiency.
“We can be a place where people live where they want to live – close to their jobs, close to their kids’ schools, with efficient, low-cost transit,” Polis said. “We can save Coloradans money on housing and that will help us achieve our climate and environment goals. Building smart, efficient housing statewide, especially in urban communities and job centers, won’t just reduce costs, it will save energy, conserve our water, and protect the lands and wildlife that are so important to our Colorado way of life.”
Polis touted his administration’s effort to provide income and property tax relief, saying that he “despises” the income tax and sees a future where it is eliminated, though perhaps not by the end of his second term. After celebrating a recently-passed short-term property tax reduction, he called on lawmakers to come up with a permanent solution.
“We must also work together to pass a long-term property tax relief package that reduces residential and commercial property taxes and creates a long-term mechanism to protect homeowners from being priced out of their homes, while protecting school funding,” he said.
He put his climate and energy goals in the context of affordability as well, highlighting his proposal for $120 million in clean energy tax credits for purchases like electric vehicles and criticizing costly energy sources like natural gas.
“The long-term solution is to continue pursuing low-cost, reliable, renewable energy,” he said. “We simply must end our reliance on costly fossil fuels, improve energy security and save people money.”
On education, Polis used his time to note Tuesday was the first day families could sign their child up for free preschool under the state’s upcoming universal preschool program that will be implemented this fall. He called on the Legislature to refer a ballot measure that would allow the state to use excess Proposition EE funds – the 2020 tobacco and e-cigarette tax increase – for preschool.
Additionally, Polis wants to expand a program to make it free for students to train for careers in construction, fire fighting, law enforcement, nursing and early childhood education.
“At 150, I want every Coloradan to have access to the skills needed to get a good-paying job that supports them and their families, and a workforce that meets the needs of our businesses to power our mighty economic engine of growth,” he said. Colorado became a state in 1876.
Polis also touched on affordability in health care, pledging to build upon work to cap the price of insulin and reduce other prescription drug prices, including through a proposed program that would import lower-cost drugs from Canada.
Polis waited until the end of his address to speak on public safety, one of main issues that drove debate during the recent election cycle. He said he wants to see a stronger Extreme Risk Protection Order law, also known as a red flag law, that allows more types of petitioners to pursue an order to take firearms away from a potentially dangerous individual. Specifically, Polis wants district attorneys to have that power.
Colorado’s red flag law, which currently allows law enforcement and family or household members to file for an ERPO against a person deemed to be a risk, is expected to be at the center of debate this legislative session on the heels of last year’s shooting in Colorado Springs at Club Q, which left five people dead. Polis held a moment of silence for the victims and publicly thanked Richard Fierro, who tackled and helped disarm the shooter. The standing ovation for Fierro, his wife and his daughter, who were all present in the House chamber, was the longest, loudest and most bipartisan of the speech.
Though lawmakers may consider other firearm policies, such as age limits, waiting periods or an assault weapons ban, Polis only spoke about the red flag law and a crackdown on non-traceable ghost guns. He did not offer his opinion on other gun violence prevention proposals. The red flag law, he said, has been used successfully before and has further potential.
“Specifically looking at the data, we believe that the extreme risk protection order can work better,” he told reporters after his morning speech. “We’re happy to discuss other ideas with Republicans and Democrats about how we can improve gun safety in Colorado and protect Second Amendment rights.”