Polis pontificates on health care

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks at a press conference to herald changes to health care he and Democrats in the legislature passed during the 2019 session, his first in office.

This is an extended version of Insights to include as much as possible from the governor's responses about issues bound to be part of his reelection campaign next year, seasoned with a well-sourced veteran's insights.

Jared Polis has accomplished most of what he promised from when he applied for a first term as governor four years ago: saving people money on health care, greening up our energy supply, cracking down on air quality (lack of net gain notwithstanding) and, of course, funding universal full-day kindergarten.

Republicans could argue that he doesn’t need a second term, because he did enough in one.

Polis knows how to fly the flags of victory when he thinks he’s scored one. Picture a mountain in the background on a crisp March day when he christens a state park. Expect a crowd of affiliated politicos and beneficiaries to show up and assemble under big signs with bold messages about the governor’s big, bold agenda. It's a template.

But if the political universe doesn’t bend to Polis, he won't bend over backwards to find the middle. Republicans who talk to Colorado Politics say that right now they're sizing up the governor's glass jaw. Moreover, Polis hasn't been adequately tested by the press on his biggest weaknesses.

I asked Polis to answer some of those questions. He's probably going to hear them on the campaign trail next year, assuming Republicans field a competitive candidate:

COVID-19 troubles

While Colorado has one of the lowest per-capita death rates from the virus, 10th in the nation, Polis has politically stepped in it more than once.

Next year will be all about last year. Mask mandates, of course, are still deeply unpopular in quarters of the electorate Polis likely would never win over.

He suspended the license of a restaurant in Castle Rock where the owner defied the governor's order to close. That drew a strong outpouring of support for the small business owner hurt by the governor's fiat.

There have been two recall attempts.

Polis told me he would stand on his record, and, measured against other states, "Colorado has a great story to tell."

I asked him about the the state's $89.2 million boondoggle over testing with a politically connected 25-year from California, a story uncovered by investigative ace Chris Osher at the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Polis conceded the state could have done better.

“I don't choose the contractors,” he said.

The governor didn't seem well-aware of the test fiasco, which the state pulled out of because the tests it got weren't the tests it needed.

“We were certainly doing a lot of things right," Polis said, countering the question. "I'm sure anybody can play Monday night quarterback. You can complain about what every state did."

He said that at times during the crisis, decision-makers were left to make a best guess at what would work, without next week's data. Some things didn't work out.

“I absolutely wanted to see risk-taking, and I wanted to make sure we were aggressive, bringing in folks to buy massive PPE ourselves and entering into testing contracts early on,” he said.

Benefits fueling labor crisis

Polis rejected the conservative premise that extending benefits to unemployed people led to the labor shortage the sectors  of the job market are weathering.

“I wish that it was as simple as that,” Polis said. “I'll send you a study that shows that there's not a major difference in the states that turned it off versus the states that didn't. I've said ... that we wished we could be more creative about how we used that 6 to $800 million. We could have created jobs, invested in infrastructure, cut taxes. There's a lot of things we could have done, but that wasn't on the table. It was either accept it or not. And of course we're not going to turn down 6 to $800 million for our economy.”

Justice reform = soft on crime

More progressive Democrats in the legislature, such as Rep. Leslie Herod and Sen. Pete Lee, have pushed hard to pass criminal justice reforms, capitalizing on the tide of the times, rankling the law enforcement community in the process.

The same legislators and governor who ended Colorado's death penalty last year, this past session changed the felony murder statute from a sentence of life in prison without parole to a maximum of 48 years.

Next year, Republicans nationally will try to put rising crime rates at centerstage. Polis will have the klieg lights on him, for sure.

"We absolutely need to get tough on crime, and we need to make sure that we have rehabilitation programs that work," Polis said. "One of the things we're focused on is reducing recidivism, meaning that let's say somebody spends two years in jail. We want to make sure they're not more likely to commit a crime when they get out.

"We've been focused on things like, 'Can they work in wildfire fighting?' Now they can. We signed the bill to do it. Whether it was other successful re-entry programs, we want to reduce recidivism rates, and we have."

Shortchanging highways

Polis talked about the mega-impact Senate Bill 260, which enacts nearly $4 billion in new fees to pay over 10 years for his vision.

“First of all, over 70% of the money, over $5 billion, goes to roads and bridges and hardcore infrastructure,” he said. “And they can attack that other 30% if they want. But first of all, you understand, of course, why it's part of the political equation and getting it done with a Democratic legislature.

“There were no packages on the table where there was 100% for the roads and bridges,” he said. “... Yes, we want to fix our roads and bridges, but we also want transit opportunities, and we also want electric vehicle charging. We also want cleaner air. Those are common values. So does it get the roads fixed? Yes. Seventy percent of the money in that transportation goes to conventional bridges and roads. The other 30% is very defensible, and it’s added value to people in Colorado for cleaner air, for more ways of commuting, for mass transit, for electric vehicle charging and other related purposes.”

For at least a year now, as Polis crafted his administration’s transportation plan, Republicans have questioned more intently how existing money gets spent, whether the state is efficient before it asks taxpayers to cough up more.

Osher, in another scoop, found that CDOT spent at least $3.2 billion on projects handed out through an “alternative delivery” program. Vendors who can handle all the aspects of the job, such as drafting and environmental hurdles, take on the full load.

The problem is not many firms are big enough to take on the most lucrative projects. Osher found that about 80% percent of that money goes to projects involving two out-of-state contractors.

Steering clear of traditional low-bid competition and seemingly casting aside tax-paying Colorado employers could carry a heavy political price.

Polis, as a businessman and politician, follows the numbers; if he thought the state could save money for the same quality a different way, he would be doing that. In other words: trust him.

“I don't want to give my opponents advice, but it's actually more effective if they're intellectually consistent,” he responded. “There's an intellectual inconsistency in that, to say we're not getting the best value for taxpayers. We might be using out-of-state contractors because they bid lower or bring more to the table. We always want the lowest bid. Whether the contractors are in-state or out-of-state, we want to deliver the most.”

Vision too long

An easy criticism of Polis is that he overshoots his targets, so focused on 20 years out that the next two months are a blur. He's been talking about Front Range rail when thousands of people swelter in traffic jams every day and mountain resorts bleed profit by a perpetually jammed interstate back to Denver. I-25 clogs daily, leaving communities north and south of Denver to figure out ways to fix their stretch of the road.

To boot, the millions of dollars the Democrats are spending heavily on electrical vehicle incentives and charging stations favors a richer class of Democrat. Patience, they say; prices will come down once more people buy EVs. One way or another, the future is carbonless.

The governor's march toward green energy, while good for the planet, is bad for jobs and taxes in the near term. Last session, Democrats proposed, but could not pass, rules to make large employers provide alternative commuting, at which the business community recoiled.

"I'm a future-oriented person," Polis said.

He said it's government's job to lay the groundwork for what comes next, or it kicks the can down the road.

Polis doubts the oil and gas industry will be a significant interest in Colorado in 50 years. "I'm sorry if that offends people," he said.

Polis said Coloradans can't ignore trends.

"We want to plan for Colorado to thrive well after I'm governor," he said. "I'm here for the long haul. My kids are growing up here. I want this to be a great state in 20 years and in 40 years. That means we're focusing on leading in emerging sectors, not just legacy sectors, so renewable energy storage and oil and gas, with a changing equation as use shifts from legacy fuels to renewable energy.

"I want to make sure that Colorado is prepared to thrive and prosper in 2030 and 2050 and 2070," he told me. "And a lot of that means that we need to make changes that work for us rather than stick our heads in the sand and pretend that the world isn't changing."

Victory lap

The governor ran into a beef over meat last year. He supports more plant-based foods.

Beef is a big industry in this state, but Polis is the spouse of a devout vegetarian. The governor declared March 20 as MeatOut Day in Colorado.

You had to know that would not go over well with meat lovers, most of whom probably vote. Polis argued that Colorado should get onboard and get out front on the cultural shift toward meatless products.

It's still a big ask to tell people who have cows they need to shift to crops.

The backlash resulted in Meat Producers Appreciation Day in at least 25 counties, including nine of the top 10 cow-producing counties.

A month later, however, Polis was signing Senate Bill 79, bipartisan legislation that urges more Coloradans to buy locally raised beef, pigs or sheep to enjoy on a plate. A rancher could even sell shares of a particular animal, as little as 1%, to people who can’t eat the whole thing.

In 2019, he caused a ruckus with the cattle crowd by encouraging the state Department of Agriculture to look and plant-based alternatives to meat.

A few weeks later he was breaking bread and eating a burger with the Colorado Cattleman's Association to celebrate its #BetterwithBeef" campaign

The future shined on Polis last month when meatpacking giant JBS USA, with a big operation in Greeley, doubled down on its commitment to plant-based meat. The company launched Planterra Foods, which is opening a research and development center in Lafayette to focus on meat alternatives.

This year, the Boulder Food Group raised $100 million from venture capitalists to expand in better-for-you-foods, including Good Day Chocolate, Malk Organics, Birch Benders pancakes and waffles mix and OHI Superfood Bars. The company told investors it aims to expand to a full line of groceries.

Change brings pain, but it also brings opportunities.

"It's painful for me when workers in oil and gas or ranchers think that I'm doing it because I somehow want to cause them pain," Polis said. "I don't. I love them. I love ranchers. I run my car on gas. I mean, I love them, but I'm not going to hide them from an unpleasant truth. I wanna make sure that Colorado is prepared to prosper in the future."

Polis is, politically speaking, a greased pig when it comes to pinning him down on his weaknesses, cloaked in the shadow of his wins.

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