Gov. Polis in optimistic State of the State speech: ‘I’m feelin’ ’22’
Democrats look to be in agreement on public safety, crime prevention proposals
Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address at the Colorado State Capitol building on Jan. 13, 2022. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post, pool)
Thursday morning marked the occasion of Gov. Jared Polis’ second State of the State speech since the novel coronavirus was first reported in Colorado, and the last such address of Polis’ first term as governor.
Lifting up recent legislation as proof of Democrats’ willingness to “save people money” and help the state recover from the pandemic, Polis laid out some of his plans for the election-year legislative session. In November, Democrats will seek to retain control of the state Senate and House of Representatives as Polis runs for reelection to a second term as governor.
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COVID-19 loomed large over the day, with record-breaking numbers of new infections and hospitalizations, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Polis didn’t shy from the pandemic, beginning his speech with a moment of silence for the lives lost to COVID-19 — as well as those lost to violence, and to the Marshall Fire that ravaged Boulder County in late December, destroying more than 1,000 homes. One person was killed in the fire and another is still missing.
“We learned that the words ‘fire season’ do not apply when the most destructive fire in Colorado history happens at the end of December,” Polis said. “And we were reminded, once more, that our lives, and everything we hold dear, can go up in flames in an instant.”
“Yet, hope shines through,” he added.
Polis highlighted several individuals whom he said exemplified a spirit of fundamental goodness and toughness, including Lakewood Police Department Officer Ashley Ferris, who stopped the shooter who murdered five people in December, and two police officers — Officer Eric Talley of Boulder and Officer Gordon Beesley of Arvada — who died responding to active shooter situations.
“This is really the Colorado spirit,” Polis said, “these men and women who define who we are as a people, and represent the very best of us. There are so many stories like theirs, of everyday people doing their best, giving everything to protect our Colorado.”
Coloradans face high cost of living
Polis’ announcement of his plan to “save people money” — the first policy priority highlighted in his speech — got a standing ovation, including from some Republicans.
“Because of this pandemic, the cost of living in our state continues to go up. Coloradans are desperate for relief,” Polis said. “So let’s deliver.”
Polis’ budget request, submitted in November, included $104 million in fee relief for individuals and businesses. The money would cover fees to start a business and health care workers’ professional license costs. It would also reduce the first six months’ worth of premiums that employers and employees have to start paying next year under a paid family and medical leave program that voters approved in 2020.
A common theme from Republicans, who want to win back control of the House, Senate and governor’s office in the November election, is that Democrats hold the blame for the rising costs of housing, food and fuel.
Polis wants to delay a gas fee included in Senate Bill 21-260, a transportation package that passed late in the legislative session last year over the objections of most Republicans.
“The fee we pay on gas, over time, needs to keep up with inflation, but what we’re seeing here today is … simply not the time,” Polis said during a briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon. “When families are struggling … Rent’s gone up, groceries cost more. Now’s not the time. So we would love to avoid any fee increases on gas to provide some relief at the pump.”
Talking up Democrats’ time in power
During his speech, Polis took up several minutes praising members of the Colorado General Assembly for their efforts in areas including health care, tax reform, transportation and housing. He spent part of that time lauding SB-260, which was sponsored by four Democrats: Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder, House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver and Rep. Matt Gray of Broomfield.
“We cut vehicle registration fees — saving people money — while making record investments in our rural roads; in new and better ways to transport people, goods and services that will save Coloradans time and save Coloradans money, and put us on a pathway to a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system,” Polis said. “We are finally going to fix the darn roads.”
We are finally going to fix the darn roads.
– Gov. Jared Polis
The governor also mentioned the reinsurance program created through bipartisan 2019 legislation, which reduced health care premiums for individual plans purchased on the state’s exchange, Connect for Health Colorado.
For once, Democrats and Republicans both say they want to focus on the same areas — public education, public safety and the rising cost of living — this legislative session, though the two parties have different ideas when it comes to the details of proposed policies.
But for Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, Polis’ promises about cutting costs, investing in crime prevention and boosting school funding come too little, too late.
“It’s pretty evident that Democrats realize that a very significant percentage of voters in Colorado are frustrated with how expensive Democrats have made just about everything,” said Holbert, a Douglas County Republican. “They’re running very quickly in the other direction now. They’re doing the same thing on public safety. The Democrats have worked, I believe, in the interests of people who violate our law and being more lenient, and I think the people of Colorado understand that they are less safe today than they were one year ago.”
“And with education,” he added, “I think we saw clear evidence in November that parents voted for change in their school districts, many of them, definitely in Douglas County.”
More money to fund K-12 education
Polis reiterated a key commitment from his proposed budget: investing more money in per-pupil funding for K-12 education than ever before.
The proposal would significantly reduce what’s known as the budget stabilization factor, or negative factor: the amount of K-12 education funding, required by a constitutional formula accounting for population and inflation, that lawmakers withhold to pay for other priorities in the state budget. Lawmakers decreased the overall amount the state owes to schools from $1.2 billion to $572 million last year.
Polis wants to reduce the budget stabilization factor by another $150 million, making it the lowest it has been since 2013.
“With this increased funding, the Cañon City School District will be able to compensate educators better and finally be able to fund full-time mental health professionals and counseling staff to provide emotional support needed to help students thrive in each and every one of their schools,” Polis said. He acknowledged two district counselors, Brian Vaniwarden and Stacy Andrews, who were in the audience and got a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, was “really pleased with the strong foundation the governor has laid for us” in his proposals for K-12 and higher education funding.
“I certainly am looking to do more in higher education,” McCluskie said. During the pandemic, she noted, “we lost students, they dropped or stopped out of their credential completion, and I think we’ve got to be focused on getting those students back and making sure that we support them.”
Public safety proposals center on crime prevention
Democrats also plan to address increasing crime rates this year as they counter Republicans’ narrative that their policies are making the state less safe. Colorado had the highest rate of motor vehicle theft among all states in 2020, according to FBI data analyzed by the conservative-leaning Common Sense Institute.
During a part of his speech that addressed public safety, Polis discussed initiatives planned to address “root causes” of crime, such as homelessness and substance use disorders, to prevent people from breaking the law.
Some of Democrats’ planned public safety legislation would provide grants to local law enforcement agencies. These would help fund community policing models and co-responder models in which police team up with behavioral health workers to respond to people in crisis.
“These crime challenges are just not unique to Colorado,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat. “We’re seeing, especially in the midst of this pandemic, excessive amounts of health care, behavioral challenges. I think that’s one of the areas that we’re going to continue to focus on that go hand in hand in helping decrease crime.”
Democrats are also planning for a more “tough on crime” approach when it comes to fentanyl, a powerful opioid that has caused a dramatic increase in overdose deaths in Colorado and across the nation.
“Data and common sense tell us that preventing a crime does more to keep people safe than solving a crime after it was committed,” Polis said. “With that being said, we also know there are times when the swift arm of justice is the best solution, which is why I look forward to working with you on legislation to strengthen penalties for drug dealers peddling fentanyl in our communities.”
House Speaker Alec Garnett is working on that legislation, but the details are still being worked out, he told Newsline.
Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said she was excited to work on policies aimed at improving public safety.
“We don’t want to just give people ibuprofen and ignore what the actual pain or ailment is,” Tipper said. “We need to look at root causes and make investments that pull us out of this cycle. We know that the pandemic has put people in impossible positions, has exacerbated crime, has made us feel unsafe … It’s a really exciting point in time, because we get to be thoughtful and decisive and not just do knee-jerk policies that we know don’t work.”
This year promises plenty of challenges, with record COVID-19 numbers, a changing climate, income inequality and inflation serving as a background for a session that promises plenty of political brinkmanship, as Republicans look to oust Democrats from state seats, and a handful of state lawmakers from both parties try to make their congressional campaigns stand out.
Polis summed up his optimism about the year ahead with his own twist on a Taylor Swift lyric, which got some laughter from the audience.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22,” the governor sang. “Everything will be alright, because we know what we gotta do.”
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