In his 2021 State of the State address to Colorado legislators, Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged the hardships Coloradans endured over the previous year — a crushing pandemic, record-breaking wildfires, police killings of Black Americans and a deadly insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.
“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 the most important and solemn responsibility of this job,” Polis said. “Still, I never envisioned this.”
The Tuesday morning address took place in the House of Representatives of the Colorado Capitol, where Democrats control both chambers. The Democratic governor laid out his vision for responding to the state’s urgent needs and “building back stronger” for after the crisis ends by reducing taxes, funding transportation projects, and taking action on health care and education.
Since the pandemic began last March, 5,828 Coloradans have died with COVID-19, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of those, at least 5,655 people died as a direct result of the disease.
Polis called for a moment of silence for those lost.
Later, he touched on a bright spot in the state’s pandemic response: Colorado had vaccinated 60% of adults age 70 and up, Polis announced. Democrats stood to applaud that statistic, while Republicans largely stayed seated, some refraining from applause.
Polis honored a handful of Colorado health care workers “whose sacrifices stand out,” he said, “even among so many everyday acts of generosity and heroism.”
They included “Toni,” a UCHealth nurse in Greeley who “continued to show up for her patients while undergoing chemotherapy herself for stage IV ovarian cancer”; Dr. Greg Golden, who worked in the intensive care unit at Banner Health in Greeley and Fort Collins, as well as at hospitals in Arizona and Wyoming; and “Nelly,” an environmental services technician at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, who took extra precautions to sanitize rooms in the COVID ward and now “is committed to getting this lifesaving vaccine to Latinos and as many people as possible,” Polis said.
Legislators stood to applaud the health care workers, who were seated in the House gallery, and members of the state’s COVID-19 response team.
Transportation system could be overhauled this year
Polis also spoke in some detail about investments he hopes to see this year in the state’s transportation infrastructure, echoing leaders from both parties who spoke to the issue in their opening speeches the previous day.
“I’m not the first speaker in recent memory to stand here and say, ‘This will be the year we get transportation done,'” Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver, said in his own speech Feb. 16. “But with your help and work, I’m determined to be the last, at least for a little while.”
Meanwhile, Polis elaborated on some specific projects he hopes the state can fund this year. The work should start with “much-needed repairs on roads across Colorado — from the Eisenhower Tunnel to the rural roads that our farmers and ranchers rely on,” Polis said. “We’re going to make it easier for Coloradans and visitors to travel our great state — accessing the ski resorts and public lands that we love — while reducing traffic and improving our vibrant, beloved main streets in the process.”
Polis’ plans for transportation also include investing in wildlife crossings and migration corridors, accelerating electrification of vehicles, expanding public transportation options and reducing carbon emissions from the sector, he said. Despite calls in his speech for improving air quality, the governor has so far resisted imposing strict mandates for the purpose.
Polis drew applause from Republicans when he called for reducing vehicle registration fees.
“As our transportation habits change, so should the way we support our transportation system,” he said. In Colorado, most funding for infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges comes from state and federal gas taxes along with some from vehicle registration fees. Local leaders such as county commissioners and city council members determine how to allocate a large portion of the transportation money.
In an interview after the governor’s speech, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg — one of the legislators working on a transportation proposal — said the plan hadn’t been finalized yet, but most of the funding will probably be funneled through the current formula.
“Generally speaking, we want to make sure that we have a sustainable revenue source,” Fenberg said. “Right now by relying entirely on the gas tax, almost entirely, as people have more efficient cars or drive electric vehicles, that money diminishes over time. But also (the gas tax) hasn’t been updated for inflation purposes for 30 years.”
The transportation package is also likely to include provisions aimed at helping the state meet federal air quality standards, Fenberg said.
On taxes, Polis flexes libertarian muscle
In keeping with a political style that often leans more libertarian than Democratic on taxes, Polis also spoke of the “most comprehensive tax relief in decades” — even as the state faces an economic downturn that is likely to resonate for years to come.
Along with eliminating “special interest” tax breaks, he proposed eliminating the business personal property tax for certain businesses, a statement that many Republicans were quicker than Democrats to stand and applaud. In an interview with Newsline in December, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said getting rid of that tax — applied annually to property owned by a business — was a top priority for helping businesses hurt by the pandemic shutdowns.
“It was great to hear him hit on the business personal property tax and the idea that, you know, that’s something that we should look to eliminate,” Rep. Tim Geitner, a Republican from Falcon who is the assistant minority leader, told Newsline after Polis’ speech. “That’s something that Republicans have been seeking for quite some time.”
Polis also proposed doubling the earned income tax credit, and expanding the Colorado child tax credit to provide up to $600 in tax credits per child for “nearly 200,000 families in our state.”
Finally, Polis said the state should stop taxing seniors’ Social Security benefits. Four Democrats — Sens. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Chris Hansen of Denver, and Reps. Mike Weissman of Aurora and Emily Sirota of Denver — are working on a plan to do just that, the governor said.
Public option, education funding boost still on the table
Polis reiterated statements from Democratic leadership that the party in charge still plans to push forward a public option for health insurance this year.
“We look forward to adding an affordable Colorado Option that gives Coloradans — especially in rural communities — more choice and savings, when it comes to selecting a health care plan,” Polis said.
The reaction from public health advocates was swift and affirmative.
In a joint statement, advocacy groups Healthier Colorado and Colorado Consumer Health Initiative said that in his speech, the governor had effectively “declared that working Coloradans, people of all races and incomes, and small businesses do not have time to wait for long-term, sustainable reform so everyone can seek care when they need it.”
Another big challenge for Colorado lawmakers will be tackling education issues in a year after remote learning set back many students, educators and families, and thousands of kids stopped attending their online classes.
In his speech, Polis emphasized the importance of getting kids back in classrooms.
“While of course we need in-person school now for our kids, we also need it for Colorado moms and dads,” he said, noting that many parents, particularly women of color, left the workforce to care for their children at home.
State legislators and the governor have committed to restoring cuts to education funding they made last year when balancing the budget for the current fiscal year. In 2020, the state cut K-12 allocations by 5% per pupil and slashed grant programs for schools, Chalkbeat reported.
“We should continue the General Assembly’s bipartisan efforts … to make funding more equitable and student-centered, so that every Colorado child — and we do mean every child — has a chance to succeed,” Polis said.
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, told Newsline she appreciated the governor’s understanding that education quality shouldn’t depend on your zip code.
“We really do have to focus on creating a more equitable school finance formula,” Herod said. “I hope we can see that sooner rather than later.”
Geitner worried Polis’ speech had “glossed over” the education loss many students experienced this year as a consequence of the pandemic.
“Certainly this last year has definitely seen a tremendous loss in education for our students, and that will have a resounding impact as we go forward for years to come,” he said.