Gov. Jared Polis received generally high marks for his 70-minute State of the State address from Democrats, but not entirely; and Republicans downplayed some of his ideas, but a few found areas where they can find common ground.
Polis gave his fifth State of the State address before a joint session of the House Tuesday, focused largely on affordable housing and related issues such as climate change, green energy and transit. He also discussed the state's water crisis, health care costs — a longtime favorite topic — education, public safety and crime.
"We've tried to work with the governor on a lot of these issues" in the past and haven't seen any action, said Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Parker. His party has tried to work on crime, health care costs and affordability, but the majority party always kills those measures in committee, he said. "It's frustrating to listen to the governor talk about topics important for all of us, but knowing full well he hasn't supported any of these things in the last four years, and in some cases we've seen the exact opposite."
Sen. Byron Pelton, R-Sterling, said he believes his party can work with the governor on the public safety issues, particularly drugs, which are a huge problem on the Eastern Plains that he represents. He also said he liked Polis' idea of making the senior homestead property tax exemption portable, which Polis said would allow seniors to downsize without losing their exemptions, and thus freeing up housing for others.
But Polis never mentioned agriculture, except in the context of water, noted Sen. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells. Ag is the No. 1 industry in the state, and the place for wind and solar farms and as wildlife habitats, but the governor showed no respect for it, Sen. Rod Pelton noted. "It is our livelihood," added Sen. Byron Pelton. Not mentioning ag was frustrating and left him angry, he said. "Our people are suffering on the Eastern Plains" with increased costs and inflation.
Sen. Cleave Simpson, R-Alamosa, said he also liked the idea of portability, "but I liked it last year when we debated in this room last year. ... We were trying to advance that policy discussion. I'm inspired that maybe there's room for that conversation."
As to non-starters, Simpson expressed concern about Polis' comments on water rights, which Simpson said could indicate a state policy that challenges the prior appropriations doctrine. He pointed to a 2022 law that allowed for illegal ponds to be used for fire suppression, ponds that do not fall within the prior appropriations system. For Simpson, that law and some of the policy discussions he's hearing raise concerns the state intends to dictate where water ought to go, particularly on stream restoration and preservation projects, which could potentially exist outside of prior appropriations as well.
"We share many of the same goals that the Governor has repeatedly outlined, such as making our state more affordable for working Coloradans, bringing down the rising crime rate, and improving educational outcomes for all students," said Michael Fields, president of the Advance Colorado Institute. "But this will require the Governor to be the check and balance to an overreaching legislature. Unfortunately, we have already seen proposed legislation that would make our state worse off. We need to get Colorado back on the right track.”
Polis' comments on income tax rate reductions, an issue he brings up almost every year, won applause from Republicans but got a thumbs down from some Democrats and their allies.
Speaker Pro Tem Chris deGruy Kennedy told Colorado Politics he liked the governor's focus on housing and climate, but he has differences with the governor on income tax cuts. The people who are struggling the most to pay for housing, child care and health care are those at the lower end of the income scale, Kennedy said, not the $500,000-a-year earners. "What we're grappling with in this session, my priority is that for any tax reduction ... be targeted to those who need them to pay the bills, not the Coloradans who are doing just fine."
Kennedy's views were shared by Colorado Fiscal Institute's Kathy White. In a statement, White said, "[w]hile Gov. Polis highlighted several important tax policies that benefit working families, like expanding the state earned income tax credit, we’re disappointed he continues to tout income tax rate cuts. We know with certainty that cutting the income tax rate disproportionately benefits the richest people and corporations, and does little to improve our economy or benefit the people who are struggling the most with affordability." More income tax cuts should be a non-starter, White said.
Polis' focus on housing did win him kudos from a number of left-leaning individuals and organizations. Polis spoke more about the affordability housing crisis than any other topic during the speech.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement that Polis "affirmed the partnership he’s built with cities all over our great state, based on justice, opportunity and progress as we build a Colorado for All. I’m especially encouraged by his dedication to expanding affordable housing statewide, including land and funding resources, and look forward to engagement and partnership with local governments to find solutions."
Healthier Colorado CEO Jake Williams said his organization applauds Polis for making housing a top priority this legislative session because the state needs a "forward-thinking solution" to resolve the housing crisis.
Boulder Chamber President and CEO John Tayer said that if Boulder businesses want to continue to attract a diverse, competitive workforce, "we need innovative solutions that create the kind of housing they can afford. Gov. Polis’ integrative approach of connecting transportation and housing needs is overdue."
“Housing is one of the most critical needs in our state today, and Governor Polis' approach to integrating housing and transportation will help make Colorado more affordable and help to bring about climate resilience and healthier air,” said Progress Now Colorado’s Executive Director Sara Loflin. “Bringing about a statewide approach to our housing and affordability crisis alongside transportation will help to alleviate the crisis, while ensuring that Colorado working families can find an affordable place to live in healthy and resilient communities.”
Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder said the governor may view the affordability and housing issues as an existential threat for the state's future. "He's right, it impacts other issues," such as water and climate. Fenberg said the issue is a complicated one to put into legislation, and that one or more bills will likely surface around the midway point of the session. "There isn't one policy that can solve this."
Polis also asked for a long-term solution on rising property taxes.
"We have to provide property tax relief," said Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon. But that also impacts funding for K-12 education, which has been McCluskie's priority for years. It feels like those two issues compete, she added.
McCluskie said she will focus on affordability and the fairness of the tax code. She noted the legislature has made progress on the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income Coloradans. "That's where our focus needs to be on income tax," she said. "There's some hard conversations ahead with our caucus and the governor" on how to handle the tax code and still provide transportation, education and the other services expected by Coloradans.