At the end of October, the Friday before Election Day, Gov. Jared Polis stood amid a vast swath of southern Colorado evergreens pocked by a masked, socially distanced cadre of politicians and bureaucrats.
Of the hundreds of bills he's signed in the last two years, this one seemed like a defining moment. A couple of days before on the phone, he volunteered how much he was looking forward to it, pride evident in his tone.
If Polis needs a physical legacy for his time as Colorado's 43rd governor, he couldn't do better than this piece of real estate. With his signature, Fishers Peak in Las Animas County became the newest and the second largest state park in Colorado, 19,200 acres of a soaring buttes and vast expanses of wooded pastures on the former ranch.
"This is the Colorado way," Polis said, as he singled out the public and private partners in the gathering who pooled together millions for the acquisition.
"It's a nexus of economic activity and jobs," said Polis, the businessman governor, who then spoke about the educational opportunities and the wildlife habitat.
In the end, they all merge into one. Polis has governed that way so far, with a general direction to reach specific destinations. He spelled out his four bold promises when he ran for the job: 100% renewable energy by 2040, universal preschool, saving people money on health care, and fiscal reform.
When running a pandemic via executive orders stalled out, Polis summoned the legislature into a special session to pass a state relief package aimed at small businesses and housing. In late October, Polis authorized a $425 state stimulus check to those who have been on unemployment this year, as Colorado Politics was first to report.
His agenda, backed by Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate, was rolling along until the coronavirus bedlam of March, but Polis has no plans of changing course once he finds an uncertain path around this pandemic.
That matters more now than it did just a few weeks ago. After the Nov. 3 election, the governor's reelection bid informally began.
In an interview, he laughed about it and needed to be swayed on the premise that election season begins. Right now across Colorado and perhaps in Washington, phone calls are being exchanged over who might take on the incumbent. University of Colorado regent Heidi Ganahl, District Attorney George Brauchler, former Secretary of State Wayne Williams, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, businessman Barry Farah, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman and state Sen. Paul Lundeen are among the names getting mentioned.
One GOP candidate, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez, never stopped campaigning after his surprisingly strong run in the Republican primary two years ago.
In a few months, if all goes as it has in the past, Republicans will begin to announce their candidacy. Some will make it to primary day, some won't, but it'll be a whole big political soap opera. The challenges the GOP faces, though, will be an electorate that's trending left on candidates and an incumbent capable of self-financing with the ability to rally a detail of wealthy donors.
The governor and his progressive allies have the political winds at their back but must soon take stock of how Polis has delivered on his four bold promises in his first campaign and how they can tailor it to the next one.
"When you undertake something as major as running for governor, you have to have reasons why you want to do it," Polis said, teeing up his first love, as a former state school board member. "And for me I’ve always been an advocate for early childhood education.”
Colorado Politics spent time with the governor, his allies, his adversaries and dispassionate observers to see what he's done and what he needs to do the next two years to make his case for a second term.
Building back better
Polis said he's hopeful there will be another stimulus package and a national infrastructure package to advance transportation, including greener methods that support his renewable energy and clean-air vows.
"We’re really focused on delivering on the same bold four priorities I ran on," he said in a Colorado Politics interview.
Yet there is no argument the governor has to reassess his agenda given the fallout of 2020 and whatever waits ahead in 2021.
If it's a question of money, he might manage it the way he did a new state park.
“We’ll look for whatever partnership opportunities there are," Polis said.
It's paid off for Democrats that Polis isn't a procrastinator.
Much of his agenda was accomplished to fill out a campaign mailer in his first two years.
Polis and Democratic majorities passed more than a dozen bills on clean-energy, electric vehicles and fossil fuel regulation in their first year together.
A vaccine is a ticket back, Polis said. That's expected nationally in the first half of 2021.
"But once that health crisis is in the rearview mirror we continue to have an economic crisis of 6 or 7% unemployment," he said.
He'll hit the road when it's safe to personally woo potential new employers, Polis said.
That means creating a good business environment.
“We want to make sure Colorado is poised for a robust recovery to be the ones leading the economy, not just in the nation but for the world,” Polis said.
The governor cited the outdoor recreation industry as key to Colorado's future, just as it has been in the past. The state's greatest challenge is to get people back into businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, that have served the state's tourism economy.
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz called Polis "a real advocate for outdoor recreation," who sees the whole picture: the need to preserve places to recreate, such as Fishers Peak, and the pieces of the puzzle needed to make Colorado's brand successful.
"It goes without saying that it’s been an incredibly difficult year for so many Coloradans, and now our state is at another pivotal moment in the face of the ongoing pandemic," Katz told Colorado Politics in an email. "Heading into the winter season, we must stay vigilant with safety as our collective priority. Governor Polis understands this. He’s done a remarkable job leveraging his position as chief executive to advocate for necessary safety measures – like masks and physical distancing requirements – and for keeping as many Coloradans working and recreating as possible.
"He’s demonstrated incredible agility as he works to take key learnings from the last several months to create plans that are sustainable and effective in our current environment. I respect his decisive leadership and ability to make the sometimes difficult, but necessary decisions to protect the health and safety of his constituents."
To put it mildly, Polis has his share of enemies — conservatives who would have never voted for him to begin with — over his handling of the pandemic response, mainly his business restrictions and mask nagging.
Restaurant owners have accused him of endangering their businesses with shutdown orders related to the pandemic, more of which won't be able to reopen as the pandemic continues.
Meanwhile, he signed two bipartisan bills in July loosening up delivery and sales options for restaurants and brewpubs, which sponsors said could help those businesses that can't consistently host insider customers as the COVID-19 cases continue to ebb and surge.
Two recall efforts by mostly the same group have both failed to get traction.
Lori Cutunilli, a Republican activist and businesswoman from Breckinridge, led the most recent campaign, called Recall Polis 2020. She did not return a call to Colorado Politics to discuss Polis after the most recent effort came up thousands of signatures short of the threshold to get the recall election.
She argues he has "abused" his emergency during the pandemic.
“By keeping us in a never-ending state of emergency, he has complete and total control to make orders and mandates with no input from anyone else,” Cutunilli said on the Free State Colorado YouTube channel last month.
Volunteers signed people up at events for Trump supporters, Lincoln Day dinners and other venues where like-minded people gather and don’t like Polis.
They’re also signing up people around gun shops, “because of the red flag laws.”
Last year, Polis signed a law that allows law enforcement to temporarily seize the guns of a person who a judge decides is a danger to themselves or others.
Health care savings
On saving people money on health care: “There’s a lot of progress we can point to," Polis said.
Notably, the state's reinsurance program pulled high-risk customers out of the general pool for the state's insurance rating, lowering the premium for everybody else,
Polis said that's saved people who buy insurance on the individual market an average of 20% this year.
“That’s more important than ever as more people are having to buy their own insurance if they’re not getting it through their employer." he said, referencing the unemployed and the pandemic.
Bills the governor signed also cap insulin prices and buy cheaper common pharmaceuticals from Canada. He amped up telemedicine availability that's expected to reduce cost and improve access to rural parts of the state, especially in a post-pandemic world more accustomed to Facetime and Zoom.
“Health care is not only life and death, it’s a real-life financial issue for families that you can’t do without," Polis said. "You’ve got to have it, and for families who can’t afford insurance, can’t afford the copays for can’t afford prescription drugs it’s a really big deal. It’s literally your life on the line. It’s not like it’s an optional product. It’s something you have to have.”
He said Americans spend twice as much on health care as the rest of the industrialized nations, "and we’re not any healthier as a result. We just keep flushing money down the toilet," Polis said.
Waiting on the sideline is the public option insurance plan that was introduced and withdrawn last March, when the pandemic wrecked the health care industry. At some point, that comes back. The idea is that cheaper government insurance will force the private market to drop its rates or lose business.
His agenda includes a lot more work to do on health care, much of it based on what’s happening nationally as President-elect Joe Biden makes changes to the Affordable Care Act.
“We’ll act accordingly to reduce costs in our state,” Polis pledged.
Taxes for toddlers
Polis said he was inspired to make free universal preschool one of his main goals as governor after he was inspired by data that showed the difference preschool made in educational outcomes — a potential equalizer between rich and poor kids, he thought.
Preschool is key to making Colorado the best state for families, providing daycare to working parents while giving kids a leg up as they become older learners and productive adults.
In the 2019 legislative session, a bill to put the nicotine tax on the ballot was introduced late and never got traction. The measure passed as Proposition EE this year. The taxes are expected to fund preschool and other educational needs.
Passage of the nicotine tax — including the first on vaping products — is expected to generate $375 million for K-12 schools and reduce budget cuts caused by the pandemic. While $110 million will go to helping people kick the habit, universal preschool for all Colorado 4-year-olds is expected to reap more than $2 billion over the next decade.
In the back half of his first term, Polis must ensure the program that spends that money is built to last.
The universal preschool program, under the best-case scenario, would begin in 2023, which Polis said has the unintended benefit of getting past the pandemic and taking measured steps to create it.
“There’s always give and take on the timing, but what’s important to me is trajectory,” Polis said.
A few days after a statewide election that included neither, energy and climate were back on the agenda for the virtual Northern Colorado Issues Summit, put on by the chambers of commerce and other economic interests in Weld and Larimer counties.
The discussion set the stage for an address later in the morning for the governor remaking the energy puzzle in Colorado.
Political watchers could see the Polis-industry collision coming from miles away, at least back to 2014 when he was putting his political capital behind a proposed ballot question on home and business setbacks from oil and gas operations.
Polis forced the industry and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper into a compromise, to hold off his measure that could have complicated a surprisingly tough reelection campaign for Hickenlooper that year.
It's not surprising, then, that Polis is the patron political saint of going green in the West. In a state where the tourism economy is in a tail spin with no end in sight, however, the jeopardy of kneecapping an industry that pays salaries and taxes s can't be taken lightly.
Will Toor, executive director of the state energy office, presented the state's new 170-page Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap to cut Colorado's greenhouse gas emissions to the northern Colorado audience.
House Bill 1261 created the state’s first Climate Action Plan, which calls for a 26% reduction over 2005 levels by 2025 and 90% by 2050. The road map is the governor's proposal to get there.
Colorado's four main sources of emissions have been consistent: transportation, electricity generation, oil and gas work and heating buildings.
Electricity generation has been getting cleaner at a faster pace as Colorado coal plants are replaced with wind and solar energy. Transportation has passed coal plants as the top source of carbon emissions, Toor told the northern Coloradans.
Polis and his statehouse allies also have pushed through legislation on electric vehicles and charging stations, while instituting electric vehicle inventory requirements.
“There’s good work happening but there’s more than will need to be done,” Toor said.
He said the state has five ways to get there: continue the transition to renewable energy, accelerate building efficiency standards and reduce methane emissions from a variety of sources, including sewage plants, landfills and farm operations, in addition to oil and gas.
Energy at the table
Of all those contributors, the oil and gas industry has the most to lose.
"When we proceed down these paths, we need to do so cautiously and think about the impacts to all Coloradans, not just to one industry, per se, but all of us,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
He recommended the state incentivize gains in technology and methods to hit emissions targets, rather than the top-down approach of broad regulations that needlessly squanders jobs, economic product and tax revenue.
“I think as an industry of geologists, engineers, scientists, we are well-suited to meet this challenge head on and produce cost-effective strategies for consideration,” he said.
Polis points to the gains from electricity providers switching from coal-fired plants to renewable energy as a significant gain for his 100% renewable pledge.
“That’s coming along even faster than the most optimistic expectations, because we’re working with Xcel, Tri-State, all the energy providers in our state," the governor said. "We’re excited to see all the progress we’ve made toward cleaner air and doing our part on the climate."
On Oct. 29, the governor's office announced the latest win: Platte River Power Authority, the fourth-largest energy provider in Colorado, is retiring its Rawhide coal plant, add 400 megawatts of renewable generation, and reduce its greenhouse gas pollution 90% below 2005 levels by 2030.
“This is the most ambitious level of pollution reduction that any large energy provider in the state has announced, and it sets a new bar for utilities," Polis said at the time, adding that the utility's customers will reap the benefits of low cost and reliability.
In an interview, Polis presented a stark choice.
“Renewable energy, we’ve seen the alternatives: statewide drought along with a longer fire season, the three hottest fires in the history of our state this year," he told Colorado Politics. "It’s really a moral imperative to have cleaner air and do our part on climate.”
The ongoing struggle
Lynn Granger, the executive director of the American Petroleum Institute’s Colorado office, agrees with Polis that he’s moving faster than anyone on renewable energy, but she doesn’t see it as a positive.
She noted the signature piece of regulatory legislation, Senate Bill 181, was said, by Polis, to end the oil and gas wars and provide the industry with regulatory certainty. Polis declined to support any ballot questions on oil and gas this year to give SB181 time to develop those new rules.
“As far as providing regulatory certainty, that unfortunately hasn’t been the case so far,” Granger said. “As the bulk of the rulemakings prescribed by Senate Bill 181 near completion, there remain questions and uncertainty with respect to the rules’ implementation.”
She said some of the new rules so far are “duplicative or, worse, contradictory” from one regulatory agency to the next, and untenable situation for those trying to follow everyone's rules.
“The governor’s longer-term energy plans are among the most aspirational in the country," Granger appraised. "Colorado’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap calls for massive cuts to emissions across a swath of sectors, ours among them.
"How these reductions are achieved remains unknown, but it is our hope that whatever follows is done thoughtfully and is driven by market forces and science. We are similarly hopeful that these efforts recognize the significant progress that has already been made.”
Laurie Cipriano, a former Polis spokesperson in the governor’s office, represents Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, an industry advocacy group.
“Diverse people and ideas fuel innovation and creativity across our state,” she told Colorado Politics. “It's only common sense that a diverse Colorado energy economy will encourage the innovation necessary for technological advancements to improve our environment, economy and energy independence."
She agreed with Granger: The governor's most important accomplishment in energy was his commitment to end oil and natural gas wars between industry and environmentalists.
“Colorado's energy industry must work together to provide consumers with the most diverse and best forms of responsible and affordable energy available,” Cipriano said. “Our greenhouse gas emission reductions will continue while ensuring that no Coloradan will have to choose between putting food on the table and staying warm in the winter.”
An ear for governing
Debbie Brown, the president of the Colorado Business Roundtable, says the governor has worked well with the business community so far.
"Frankly, Polis has done pretty well with people in the business community, because he takes the time to listen," Brown said. "We meet with him quarterly and have a good relationship with his staff. When we disagree on things, such as the public option, it's a respectful disagreement on both sides."
The fate of Colorado's business community rides first on a vaccine or cure, but then a fast recovery.
"The best thing is just to open up the economy," Brown said. "It's not more government spending or more laws and regulations. It's really about the government getting out of the way of the free market."
State Rep, Leslie Herod of Denver, leader of the Legislative Black Caucus and the newest member of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, expects Polis to continue to tackle the achievement gaps in education and careers between families with a plenty of money and families with little.
Polis hasn't kept his agenda secret, but he steers the trajectory of factors to his favor over time, Herod said.
“That might rub some people the wrong way,” Herod said, “but it rubs other people the right way. He tries to be a governor for both. He doesn't always agree, but he always listens."
With Democrats holding the state House in the last election and picking up a seat in the 35-member Senate, Polis will be able to pass his agenda on partisan muscle, if he chose to.
Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert caught heat from fellow party members for seemingly giving the Democratic governor a compliment.
Why has Polis been able to move so fast on his liberal agenda? "Because he's good at it," Holbert said.
They assume he said Polis is a good governor.
"And I suppose he is, but (what I mean is) he's good at answering tough questions," Holbert said. "He's good at dealing with confrontation and manage people who don't get along with him."
Holbert told a story about the deliberations over Senate Bill 181, the oil and gas regulation. Sen. John Cooke, a Republican from Greeley, challenged Polis, "Governor, why do you hate Weld County?"
The wealthy governor said he didn't hate Weld County; he owns property there.
The governor said the bill gave local communities more control. Cooke shot back, "Well, then if it's about local control Weld County can just opt out and do what we want," then offered to bring local officials to the governor's office to assure Polis of that.
"At no time did the governor ever seem irritated or like he was going to lose his temper," Holbert recalled. "He just continued to state his opinion in different ways. He's good."
That's kind of how Polis has managed his statehouse agenda, the GOP leader said, from the left and the middle at the same time.
"He doesn't get rattled, he knows what he wants to do and he doesn't get offended when people like me disagree with him and vote against his bills," Holbert said. "I think that's a strength."
The legislature, in special session and for the foreseeable future, is spending millions on recovery that might have financed Polis' agenda.
As with the state park push, though, Polis bundles problems under broad solutions, such as federal stimulus money to help pay for what the virus took away.
"I think there’s a timing and a sequence to everything,” he said. “I’ll certainly be judged on the success of the Colorado recovery and that’s going to be a very important focus of ours. I’m going to spend more of my own time meeting with and recruiting businesses to come to our state.”