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What we learned from Colorado’s governor — including his position on some hot-button issues — at SunFest

Jared Polis talked about everything from affordable housing to passenger rail to water conservation when he appeared at the inaugural Colorado Sun festival convening the state’s civic and cultural leaders
Colorado Sun’s politics writer, Jesse Paul, left, speaks with the governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, a panel during Sunfest, Sept. 29, 2023, on Auraria Campus in Denver. The first annual Sunfest brought Coloradans together for day of panels and discussions covering topics from health care, policy and politics, climate, and other community voices. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis made a lot of news last week when he appeared at The Colorado Sun’s inaugural SunFest in downtown Denver. The Democrat talked about everything from affordable housing to passenger rail to water conservation.

Here are the highlights:

Polis’ housing bill failed this year, but he wants to go bigger in 2024

The governor suggested he plans to double down in 2024 on Senate Bill 213, the land-use measure he failed to get passed in the legislature this year.

The legislation, aimed at making housing more affordable, would have imposed zoning density requirements on some local governments and sought to align residential development with transit stops. The bill died on the final day of the 2023 lawmaking term because the Democratic majority at the Capitol couldn’t agree on the policy.

“What we’re hearing from a lot of people in the field is that a lot of the things in 213 didn’t go far enough,” Polis said Friday. “It really needs to think bigger and bolder.”

But the governor wouldn’t provide specifics on what the 2024 legislation may look like.

Polis expressed support for a forthcoming bill aimed at reducing the number of so-called construction defects lawsuits filed against condo builders. Those developers say Colorado’s laws don’t do enough to prevent them from being sued by homeowners for construction issues, and that’s why they’ve been unwilling to launch condo projects in the state.

“Anything that will reduce housing costs we’re for,” Polis said. “That will reduce housing costs — it’ll help build more condos, which tend to be more affordable.”

On affordable housing policy broadly, the governor said 2024 is the year to go big or go home.

“This is the time for everybody to put their ideas on the table, and for the legislature and us and all the stakeholders to really think big about how we can change this trajectory to avoid Colorado becoming California,” he said. “It’s not too late.”

Overdose prevention centers

The governor didn’t directly answer when he asked twice if there is a way he could support a bill authorizing centers where people could openly use illicit drugs under the supervision of workers trained in reversing overdoses.

A measure letting local governments sign off on so-called overdose prevention centers — also known as harm-reduction centers, safe use sites and safe injection sites — failed in the legislature last year. A similar bill is likely to be introduced at the Capitol in 2024.

“I do support efforts to end homelessness, reduce homelessness — make Colorado safer,” Polis said in dodging the question. “And we look forward to the state being a partner with our mayors in doing that.”

Polis added that “we absolutely need to use diversion and other ways to get people into treatment so that they can recover their dignity and their lives.”

A ban on the sale of so-called assault weapons

Polis also wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether he would sign a bill banning the sale of so-called assault weapons if it made it to his desk, but he sounded opposed to even pursuing the policy.

A measure that would have banned the sale and transfer of a large swath of semi-automatic rifles and handguns failed at the Capitol this year despite the legislature’s Democratic majority.

“We have not yet even succeeded in being able to raise the age limit to (purchase guns in Colorado to) 21,” the governor said.

Polis was referring to a federal judge’s decision over the summer blocking a 2023 bill raising the minimum age to purchase guns in the state from going into effect.

Proposition HH

We asked Polis about Proposition HH, the 10-year property tax relief plan on the November ballot. The governor said his message to people who oppose the initiative, which he helped draft, because it isn’t perfect or because it doesn’t offer enough relief is “vote for it because it’s a step in the right direction.”

“It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else about property taxes in the future,” he said. “There’s lots of ideas about how we can prevent property taxes from growing too fast and (I’m) happy to talk about other options whether this passes or fails.”

It’s notable that Polis is open to more property tax changes. Proposition HH is meant to stop the annual property tax battles at the Capitol that have been happening since the Gallagher Amendment was repealed by voters in 2020 and which have made it difficult for local governments to plan their budgets.

The amendment prevented residential property taxes from rising too quickly by shifting the tax burden onto commercial properties. Coloradans’ property taxes have risen sharply without Gallagher’s protections as property values have increased, which is what prompted Proposition HH to be drafted.

Polis didn’t address the arguments against Proposition HH over how the measure increases the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights cap on government growth and spending and will lower or eliminate future TABOR refunds.

Finally, we asked the governor twice if he had school funding in mind when his office was working with state lawmakers to draft the bill placing Proposition HH on the November ballot. He wouldn’t directly answer the question both times.

The initiative raises the TABOR cap above what the legislature needs to make good on its promise to help local governments deal with their reduction in property tax revenue. It’s widely expected the extra revenue will be directed toward K-12 schools, as evidenced by the fact that teacher and education groups are bankrolling the committee supporting the measure.

“It’s good for the budget in general,” Polis would only say.

Property taxes for short-term rentals

Polis weighed in on a property tax issue around short-term rentals that has stoked perennial controversy at the Capitol. The governor said the fact that short-term rentals have a much lower property tax assessment rate than commercial lodging properties — nearly four times lower — is a “loophole” that he supports closing.

He said people who rent out a home for a week or two weeks a year shouldn’t have to pay more in property taxes, but residential properties that compete with hotels and bed and breakfasts should be taxed at the same, much higher commercial rate.

“The tax treatment should be uniform,” Polis said. ”We shouldn’t be subsidizing (short-term rentals) vis-à-vis other legitimate businesses.”

Polis said he thinks there’s a way to come up with a reasonable delineation between casual short-term rental properties and ones that should be taxed at a higher rate.

“I’m open to any reasonable discussion about what that is,” he said, “maybe it’s a cutoff at 90 days of rental.”

How Colorado can conserve water

When asked if there is a role in dealing with the water crisis for the state to limit what kinds of crops farmers grow, Polis plainly said “no.”

Agriculture accounts for at least 80% of water use in the state.

“If we can figure out housing, that also helps fix water,” he said, noting that while residential water use is a fraction of the state’s water use, it’s the fastest-growing area of use.

A passenger train along the Front Range — and to the mountains

Polis said his administration is looking at rail as a solution to ski traffic on Interstate 70.

He said the most likely mountain passenger train corridor would be between Denver and Winter Park and Steamboat Springs. Amtrak’s ski train already runs between Denver and Winter Park, but it’s expensive and there’s only one trip there and back on select weekends.

“I think it’s premature to say, ‘Does there need to be a bill? Does there need to be a bunch of local governments forming a consortium?’” he said. “There’s different ways of doing that. But the bottom line is this is viable.”

The governor is separately pushing for a 2024 vote on raising taxes to pay for a Front Range passenger rail system.

A “better Colorado”

We also asked Polis what “a better Colorado” — SunFest’s slogan — means to him.
”It means it needs to be more affordable and safer,” he said. “Those are the two themes that color the actions that I take as governor.”

He added that “these (homeless) encampments and drug paraphernalia should not be part of a safe Colorado.”

Polis said that sustainability is the third top priority for him when it comes to making the state better.

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