No, Colorado is not a progressive paradise

Hampered by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democratic ‘trifecta’ fails to deliver

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, seen in May 2019. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Colorado Democrats appear to have it all.

Gov. Jared Polis’ popularity is on the rise, with broad public approval of his handling of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. His party holds a highly-coveted “trifecta” in the wake of a 2018 electoral wave that dealt Republicans a clobbering the likes of which we haven’t seen since the FDR era. Colorado Democrats also recently made national headlines for their swift passage of a police reform law that takes the important step of ending qualified immunity for officers — though it absolutely must be said that this would never have happened without intense pressure from protestors.

But despite what the aggrieved braying of the Colorado GOP would have you believe, Polis is not a socialist. Colorado Democrats are not wild-eyed progressives. And Colorado is barreling toward economic calamity as a result.

COVID-19 cases in the United States are spiking, with outbreaks in nearby states threatening to upend the tireless work done to keep the virus under control in Colorado. America’s failure to contain the virus will only amplify the domestic economic damage of a looming global recession forecasted to be more severe with each passing day. Without significant intervention, brutal times lie ahead for people in every corner of our state.

So, what have Colorado Democrats offered? To start, Polis torpedoed paid family and medical leave, a top priority for Democratic legislators. Polis derailed what should have been a smooth policy rollout years in the making with an absurd demand to incorporate private insurance providers instead of using the successful social insurance model employed by other states and countries. 

The governor has also been quick to embrace austerity economics in crafting the state budget. With revenue forecasts plummeting, Colorado’s leaders face a choice: cut vital public services when people need them most, or find a way to come up with more revenue to cover the costs.

To their credit, Democrats in the Legislature made an effort to stave off some cuts by proposing a bill to eliminate tax breaks for the wealthy and large industries. Polis squashed the idea, insisting he would only support something “business friendly” and forcing a compromise that generated substantially less revenue.

And so it came to be that in the midst of catastrophic public health and economic crises, Colorado Democrats enacted a state budget that slashes education funding, raises copays for the poorest Coloradans who depend on Medicaid for health care, and defunds more than 100 brand new programs they themselves created upon taking full control of state government in 2019.

Raising revenue in Colorado is extremely difficult, due to our tragic heritage of letting conservatives make tax policy. To find a way to salvage (let alone expand) our public services would require tremendous leadership from, say, an extremely popular Democratic governor during a time of unprecedented crisis.

But, beyond a long overdue push to repeal the disastrous Gallagher amendment, Polis appears to have little interest in attempting to undo the worst aspects of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and the broader constellation of idiotic conservative fiscal policy that has forced decades of austerity upon the people of Colorado. As long as this is the case, expect continued cuts to crucial priorities like education, transportation and health care — no matter how many Democrats we elect.

Democratic legislators are not blameless here. Abandoning a public alternative to America’s god-awful privatized health insurance market and failing to take compassionate action in the face of a coming boom in evictions and people forced into homelessness are particularly egregious shortcomings. But there is a limit to what we can expect them to accomplish when the biggest name in Colorado Democratic politics actively quashes their progressive impulses at every turn and spouts conservative economic orthodoxy with a zeal that would make any libertarian’s bowtie spin with delight.

Despite all this, Polis still retains a reputation as some kind of hippy dippy leftist. Many in the media play up the “Polis the Progressive” narrative due to his hailing from Boulder, a city condemned as a far-left “people’s republic” by pudding-brained conservatives who mistake capitalism dusted with pseudo-woke consumption choices for revolutionary communism.

As is the case with most aesthetically progressive American cities, Boulder’s politics are roughly akin to slapping a “coexist” bumper sticker on the police MRAP come to evict the last poor family in your neighborhood. The political class of these cities is dominated by a certain kind of wealthy liberal — one who believes the worst outcomes of global capitalism and white supremacy can be reigned in with some tightly crafted regulation and earnest collaboration with the private sector, while the underlying structures can be saved, reformed and continue to make them rich.

Governor Jared Polis is one such liberal. And if Colorado is going to shelter its people from the worst of what’s to come, it will be because grassroots pressure forces Polis to seek an alternative to the misguided ideology that has led him to utterly squander the massive potential of his first two years in office.

Jared Polis, socialist? Oh, how I wish.