Colorado Gov. Jared Polis laid out an ambitious, sweeping agenda in his first State of the State address Thursday before a packed joint session of the General Assembly, dominated by fellow Democrats swept into power in the last election along with the new governor.
Polis sketched out his intention to spread the state's prosperity across Colorado and described the aggressive approach his administration intends to take — the one-time tech entrepreneur used the word "bold" eight times in the 55-minute speech.
The former five-term congressman kept a tight focus on the handful of issues he campaigned on in his speech.
Sporting his trademark blue sneakers on his second full day in office, a relaxed Polis vowed to establish free full-day kindergarten statewide by this fall and announced the creation of a state office dedicated to cutting health care costs.
Declaring his intention to confront climate change "head on," Polis said the state will "embrace the renewable-energy future" while protecting oil and gas workers.
And in a nod to the chamber's Republicans, Polis called on lawmakers to lower the state's individual and business income tax rates by closing loopholes written into the tax code.
"What makes Colorado unique isn't just the boldness of our ideas," Polis said as the speech drew to a close. "It is the resilience and the spirit of our inspiring people, who make change happen, who truly bring bold ideas to life."
Although Democrats control both chambers of the legislature — with numbers in the House of Representatives they haven't seen since the 1950s — Polis issued a plea for a bipartisan approach.
Recalling a conversation last summer with their young children about the differences between political parties — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens — Polis said his son Caspian asked his sister Cora what party she belongs to, and she responded: "The Happy Birthday Party."
"It was one of those moments every parent experiences, where your child shows you wisdom you can’t get from most adults," Polis said. "And I think there are all times we would all rather be in the the Happy Birthday Party. It’s wisdom that will guide our approach to problem-solving in this administration."
What matters, he added, isn't whether ideas come from Democrats or Republicans but whether they solve the state's problems.
"This doesn’t mean any of us should abandon our values. What it does mean is that mere partisanship will never stop us from embracing good ideas or taking bold action for the people of Colorado, who elected us to deliver, not to grandstand."
Before enumerating his proposals, Polis — the first openly gay man elected governor anywhere in the country and the state's first Jewish governor — outlined his vision of a state standing athwart a coarse and divisive national mood.
"Here in Colorado, we treat each other with respect. We reject efforts to intimidate immigrant families, or tear children from their parents’ arms," he said as Democratic — and then, eventually, Republican — legislators interrupted him with sustained applause. "We don’t tolerate bigotry or discrimination of any kind. And we don’t accept hostage-taking as a form of governance."
After thanking lawmakers, members of his cabinet, dignitaries and family members — his parents and Marlon Reis, the state's first gentleman — the new governor declared: "The state of our state is solid. It is strong. It is successful. It is daring. And it is bold."
He credited lawmakers and tipped his hat to former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who helmed the state from the depths of a recession to one of the top economies in the country.
Then Polis described how he envisions making the state better.
His top priority for the 120-day legislative session, Polis said, will be making it possible for every school district in the state to offer all-day kindergarten — the state currently only funds half-day kindergarten, while some districts let parents pay for more — and expanding access to free preschool.
Polis cited research that shows full-day kindergarten yields short- and long-term benefits, including improved school performance, earlier intervention for special-needs students and even better high school graduation rates. "Now it’s time for us to finally cross the finish line, to fund free, full-day kindergarten by August 2019. Let’s get it done," said Polis, a former member of the State Board of Education.
Like many of the points Polis made, state Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, said she agreed with his broad intention but diverged on the details.
“Who can argue with better education for children? Nobody,” Landgraf told Colorado Politics after the speech. “But is it doable? What are the trade-offs?”
Ultimately, free all-day kindergarten has a cost, said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert R-Parker, adding that Polis, fresh out of free-spending Washington, D.C., might not yet grasp that Colorado has balance its budget every year.
“In Congress they can deficit spend,” Holbert said. “How will we pay for those things labeled as free when they aren’t free? We have to pay for all of this out of the tax dollars we’re given.”
Republican state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, one of the few members of his caucus who supports full-day free kindergarten, however, found much to praise in Polis' speech — particularly the early-childhood education proposals.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle don't yet recognize the economic benefit of full-day kindergarten, Wilson told Colorado Politics. When the state takes on that obligation, he noted, the money families are spending on tuition now gets freed up to be used on whatever else people need.
As far as health care coverage and costs, Polis said the state has taken plenty of steps to expand access to affordable care, "but despite all the progress we've made, health care costs are still rising today. Families across Colorado, you know what? They're still being ripped off."
He said he plans to ask lawmakers to provide paid parental leave for state employees in the budget the new governor will submit next week.
In addition, Polis is immediately creating something called the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care, to be headed by Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera, a former state legislator and four-time cancer survivor who headed the Susan G. Komen Colorado Foundation.
Polis said the office didn't come with a fancy name to sound important but a simple one "because it is important."
The office, he said, "will form the beating heart of our efforts to reduce patient costs for hospital stays and expenses, improve price transparency, lower the price of prescription drugs and make health insurance more affordable."
Polis briefly touched on other measures he's proposed to make health care more accessible and cheaper, including working with mountain and rural communities to lower their costs — some of the highest in the nation — and establishing a re-insurance program.
He also wants to enable Coloradans to be able to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
Missing from his address were some suggestions Polis floated during his gubernatorial campaign, such as forming a single-payer consortium with neighboring states.
"Our ultimate objective is to bring universal, high-quality, affordable care to every Colorado family," Polis said. "We know that won't happen overnight, but the works we will do together in this legislative session will put us on the right path and bring us closer to our goal."
State Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, said it would be an understatement to say he had a "skeptical" reaction to Polis' proposals.
“The slow creep of European socialism is upon us in Colorado," Williams told Colorado Politics. "The whole time, all I could think of was ‘ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.' How are we going to pay for all these rainbows and puppies?"
At the end of the day, he said, what’s most likely is that individual taxpayers will be stuck with the bill.
Concerning climate change and his pledge to move the state toward a green-energy economy, Polis was blunt. "Climate change is a scientific reality. It's real," he said, drawing the loudest cheers of the day from the Democrats.
"There's no pretending otherwise for farmers and ranchers facing historic water shortages," he said. "There's no pretending otherwise for the 46,000 who work in Colorado's ski industry and see their jobs threatened by decreased snowpack. And there will be no pretending otherwise in this administration."
Polis vowed that the state will move aggressively to modernize the electrical grid and streamline the process to approve renewable energy projects, building toward an economy powered by clean energy technologies.
"But as we embrace the renewable energy future, we must also do right by all the men and women in today's energy workforce," he said. "Some of the hardest-working people in Colorado today work in the coal and oil and gas industries, and we will not leave them behind."
Although he said he plans to include them in the transition away from fossil fuels and support communities built around traditional energy production, Polis also broached one of the more contentious state issues, briefly mentioning his intention to "take meaningful action to address the conflicts between oil-and-gas drilling operations and the neighborhoods they impact."
Several other topics merited brief mentions in the speech, including combatting the opioid epidemic, coming up with a revenue source for transportation spending, implementing the Colorado Water Plan and taking the lead on criminal justice reform.
Tony Gagliardi, state director of the conservative-leaning National Federation of Independent Business, gave the speech high marks, with only minor reservations.
“Nothing in the governor’s State of the State address today gave small-business owners any immediate alarm, except for purposely leaving out the cost of his expanded paid leave proposal. He’d be amazed at how many small-business owners already provide paid leave," Gagliardi said in a statement.
"The governor’s health-care agenda is admirable, and we look forward to working with him to address the costs of providing health care. The question surrounding his plan is how do we pay for such ambition? In the main, however, his speech hit on all the points meaningful for his supporters without unduly worrying others, which is to his credit.”
The more liberal Colorado Fiscal Institute gave Polis a thumbs up.
"The first State of the State address from Gov. Polis was filled with proposals to help improve equity and widespread prosperity for Colorado," said Carol Hedges, the group's executive director in a statement.
Singling out Polis' attention to reforming how the state divvies up its tax burden, she added, "We look forward to partnering with the governor and legislative leaders to help bring about the structural changes in our tax code that are necessary to accomplish our shared goals."
Marianne Goodland and Conrad Swanson contributed.