There’s not a lot of mystery to Gov. Jared Polis these days. Like his counterparts across the country, he has held multiple news conferences almost every week for close to a year, and his priorities for 2021 are well-known: Get vaccines into arms, help the economy heal and, eventually, hold a big bonfire party to burn our masks.
But there’s more to his agenda, which he laid out Wednesday in the annual State of the State address at the Capitol. His main themes were mourning for what the pandemic has wrought in Colorado and optimism, not just for the end of the virus, but for “the boldness to imagine a better future … and bring it to life.”
He spoke of equitable education and health care, better roads and highways, rural broadband and investments in the economy in the forms of tax breaks and small business loans, especially in tourism and renewable energy sectors.
Some policy priorities were received well by lawmakers from both parties, and others promise to be tougher sells. Polis crammed a lot into his nearly 45-minute address, so The Post broke it down by the numbers:
5,655: COVID-19 deaths in Colorado
That’s the figure Polis cited Wednesday, but it’s likely low; those are confirmed COVID-19 deaths, but state charts show a couple hundred more who “died with COVID-19.” In any event, it’s close to 1 in 1,000 Coloradans.
“When I became governor, I knew that leading our state through good times and bad — but especially through darkness, whenever and however it came — would be my most important responsibility,” Polis said. “Still, I never envisioned this.”
$1 billion: Stimulus package?
It’s too early to know just how large the next round of Colorado’s state COVID stimulus spending will be. That’ll depend on what the March quarterly economic forecast says, and whether Congress passes another aid package.
But Polis has optimistically floated a number in excess of $1 billion — and he reiterated his call Wednesday.
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not just build back to how things were before … but to fundamentally reimagine Colorado’s future,” Polis said. “And to transform that vision into reality. Colorado needs the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, from both parties, so that together, we can rise to meet the challenge before us. Nothing could be more important.”
State budget writers may have different ideas.
“The Joint Budget Committee has been working with the first floor in the governor’s office since this pandemic hit,” said Denver Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, who is one of the committee’s budget writers. “So to be clear, we are in conversations about all of this.”
60%: Coloradans 70 and older who’ve been vaccinated
Polis drew applause when he cited this statistic, because the 70-and-up age group accounts for four in five virus deaths in the state.
What Polis didn’t say is that about 12% of the state’s overall population has received at least one dose to date, according to state data, and only about 5.4% of Coloradans have received both doses.
“We will continue pursuing every possible opportunity and innovation to get the lifesaving vaccine to you and your loved ones as quickly as we can — no matter who you are, no matter where you live,” Polis said. “We are determined to leave no one behind.”Polis also touched on the racial inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic, and noted the state has held 58 vaccine pop-up clinics in underserved areas. Many lawmakers have been frustrated with the fact that communities of color have, on average, been slower to receive vaccine access than white and wealthier communities.
Rep. Naquetta Ricks, D-Colorado, has been working on pop-up vaccine clinics with other members of the Black and Latino Democratic caucuses, and said “a lot of the refugee and immigrants have been hit hard because a lot of them work in the service industry, a lot of them in the restaurant industry, and also health care, so it’s important for us to get them vaccinated.”
1: Simple word — “Yes”
That was Democratic state Rep. Matt Gray’s entire response when The Denver Post asked him Wednesday morning if this would be the year the legislature passes a transportation funding package.
Big news, if true. Polis thanked Gray and the other Democratic lawmakers leading this charge, saying “as our transportation habits change, so should we change the way we support our transportation system.” And Democrats and Republicans have supported calls for transportation solutions.
Polis’ speech included a call for road expansions and repairs at the Eisenhower Tunnel, more electric vehicles, greater transit access for non-drivers and reduced travel emissions.
But the “how” of these new initiatives are unlikely to be so bipartisan, with plenty of potential complications. Democrats hope to find new funding by raising fees on gas consumers and drivers, which Republicans strongly oppose. And Polis, who supports Democrats’ overall mission, said the legislature should at the same time endeavor to “save commuters money on gas” and “reduce vehicle registration fees.”
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, said there weren’t a lot of specifics in the speech and while he agrees with overall goals, things like “modernizing transportation” are concerning if they go against the will of the voters, who in 2020 voted to limit the legislature’s authority to install new fees.
100%: Renewable energy by 2040
Polis reprised his campaign promise from 2018, this time with some urgency: “How many homes and businesses must we lose — how many lives — before we resolve to meet the threat of climate change with the seriousness it demands?”
That’s roughly the same question environmentalists have been asking Polis. Many in the community believe he’s moving too slowly on climate issues — especially the state’s progress in reducing emissions. progress. Recall that their frustration boiled over in the 2020 State of the State, which was interrupted by a band of environmental activists who shouted criticism from the House gallery; 38 were arrested.
The governor’s willingness to move quickly — and to break character by supporting mandates as opposed to mere incentives — could be tested this legislative session.
8%: Fewer women of color working, and school closures play a role
Women in the workforce received a few minutes of Polis’ time Wednesday, both their exodus from it during the pandemic and their unequal pay. Mostly, he tied it to concerns about education and the fact that as schools moved to remote learning, “many parents, disproportionately women, have had to choose between working and caring for their children at home.”
It wasn’t immediately clear where Polis’ statistic — “an 8% decline” for women of color — was from or whether it was specific to Colorado. Women’s overall participation in the U.S. labor force fell to a 33-year low in January, per federal labor statistics.
House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo, echoed Polis’ concern after the speech, saying “not only do we have to find a safe way to open up schools … but we also need to make sure that the women who have left the workforce have pathways forward to get back into that workforce” as well as decide whether they want to work or stay home.
When it comes to education, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said the first priority is making sure that funding for K-12 education returns to pre-pandemic levels. He believes there will be “significant conversations” about either more money for schools or “how to change the formula, potentially.”
Polis mentioned several education priorities in his speech — mostly at the K-12 levels, very little about higher education — among them paying down the education budget deficit to “the lowest levels in more than a decade,” stopping the “school-to-prison pipeline” with more counselors and lighter punishment, and expanding rural broadband.
$0: Tax on seniors’ Social Security
Polis didn’t unveil many new, big policy proposals in his speech, but did throw his weight behind several fiscal reforms:
- “Stop taxing seniors’ Social Security benefits,” he said, because they live on fixed incomes.
- Double the state Earned Income Tax Credit to up to $600 in tax credits per child for nearly 200,000 families.
- “Eliminate the business personal property tax for tens of thousands of small businesses,” Polis said, but with few details.
“Now when it comes to the details about different tax credits and cuts, that’s something that we’re going to have to weigh with the priorities of the caucus,” said Herod from the budget committee.
Taxing Social Security income for seniors is an issue the legislature plans to address, according to House Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat, who added: “We want to support their ability to withstand COVID and the economic impacts of COVID, a little bit better by some favorable tax treatment of those kinds of incomes specifically.”
The elimination of the personal property tax credit for small businesses received significant support from Republicans, as evidenced by a standing ovation.
“That helps family businesses more than we can ever imagine,” McKean said.
1 in 3: Counties with only one health insurance marketplace option
Polis has consistently raised concern about the lack of choices in some counties, and in last year’s speech was openly supportive of Colorado creating a public health insurance option, with the goal of increasing competition and lowering costs.
He was less forceful this time around, but appears to still be on board. He thanked the sponsors of the planned “Colorado Option” bill.
But it’s not clear the effort has more momentum today than in 2020. The public option bill, which has not yet been introduced, is expected to look very different than last year’s: Sponsors plan to set goals for cost reductions in insurance premiums over the first couple of years. If those targets aren’t met, then the state would create a public health insurance plan.