Five weeks after leaving Congress and being sworn in as Colorado's 43rd governor, Jared Polis sat down with Colorado Politics in his office at the state Capitol for one of his first extensive interviews since assuming his new post.
Already, the Democrat has begun remaking the office to suit his taste, hanging artwork from his personal collection alongside the massive iconic John Fielder landscape photo that looms over his desk.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Polis opened up about the speed of government under the dome and the prognosis for several of his signature initiatives -- and revealed what keeps him up at night.
"If we're going to make progress" on such goals as funding full-day kindergarten statewide and moving Colorado's power grid toward all-renewable energy, the former tech entrepreneur said, "there's a huge opportunity at the state level, and we're already doing it."
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Colorado Politics: You've been in your new job for just over five weeks — it was five weeks ago you delivered your State of the State address. What can you say about the pace of things here, at the Capitol, compared to Washington, in Congress?
Polis: It's certainly faster here. Nationally, there's a lot going on in a particular area at any given time, but here, in part because the legislature is here for only four and half, five months, in part because we all [on] the executive side have to really set up the state government — we had appointments to really get it going — there's been a real rapid pace of action here the last couple months. It's standing up the state government, putting senior appointees in place and then working on the legislative agenda and relationships.
CP: You said when you were running for governor that one reason was because you can make a difference here that you couldn't in Congress. You were a CEO before you were a legislator. What's the difference there?
Polis: Absolutely. Things are generally — there's a logjam in Washington, and if we're going to make any progress in reducing health care costs, it'll be here in Colorado. If we're going to make progress on full-day kindergarten, it's here in Colorado. If we're making progress on renewable energy, that's not happening in Washington, it all occurred not just at the state level but counties and cities and private sector employers are all leading the way. So to be able to actually move forward on all these initiatives, there's a huge opportunity at the state level, and we're already doing it.
CP: What is the one thing Congress can do to make your job easier?
Polis: First of all, don't let the federal government shut down. When I took office, there was a shutdown. The costs of that were slowly mounting over time, and there would have been an enormous cliff of costs. We talked about that, had the federal government stayed closed another few weeks. We hope that they are responsible and continue. So 'do no harm' is first and foremost.
After that, we would absolutely love if Democrats and Republicans can work together on infrastructure package that would allow states like us to be able to meet our needs to reduce traffic in the face of two voter-rejected [transportation] initiatives.
CP: Do you anticipate that?
Polis: It's in the realm of the possible, of the big things a Democratic [House of Representatives], a Republican Senate, a Republican president might be able to work together on. They certainly all agree on the responsibility of the federal government to step up on infrastructure. President Trump has called for it; Democratic leadership in the House has called for it. So while I'm sure they have differences, it's an area where I think they could potentially work together to benefit Coloradans.
CP: In Congress, the last decade, you were known for being part of — let's say unconventional alliances. Have you had the opportunity to form any of those yet here?
Polis: I meet with legislators of both parties regularly — regular meetings with Republican leadership and Democratic leadership. When I'm traveling the state, we invite whoever the legislator is to be there if they want to be. Sometimes it conflicts with their duties here and they can't, but we always as a courtesy invite the Republican and Democrat.
We're looking forward to getting to know and work with, really, everybody here, all hundred legislators and also our county commissioners and our city councilors and mayors. I today met with the [Colorado] Municipal League. And, of course, counties are very important, because they're political subdivisions of the state, and they deliver our state services on the social services front, and we see them as very important partners, and, of course, school districts as well.
CP: The tax cut you talked about on the campaign trail, that seems to be in alignment with some Republicans who also want to see that and have said that closing loopholes in order to lower the overall tax rate is a goal they have. Is that on track?
Polis: Well, I hope so. I think there's members of both parties that are open to that, there are people that support that. There will also be, of course, some interests that don't like closing this [tax break] or that one. We look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats on that. That's our goal. We're obviously going to continue to try to build that coalition to reduce our tax rate.
CP: Is a straight-across tax cut the best approach to that?
Polis: Right, and obviously there's some pent-up frustration on the progressive side that we don't have a different tax structure in general, but this is a way to make it more fair, more progressive within the power we have in this building. There's things the voters can do, but I feel that the legislators, the governor, we should all rise to the occasion of accomplishing what we can accomplish in this building and understanding that the voters have a lot of power in this state.
But can we make our tax code more fair? Absolutely. We can reduce loopholes and tax expenditures and pass along the savings to families so that they can have a little bit more money left in their pocket every month.
CP: With Democrats in the majority in the U.S. House and, it appears, moving aggressively on issues like gun safety, administration oversight, campaign finance, climate — have there been any times since you became governor that you've missed being in Washington?
Polis: No. I mean, I'm thrilled not to get on an airplane every week, and it's been very exciting to focus on getting our agencies going. I've held town halls at several agencies. I'm going to get around to every agency in my first nine months. I'd like to be more ambitious than that, but I'll tell you nine months so that if I don't do it after six you don't say I didn't do it. (Chuckles) And I've been to several town halls with our state employees [and] as we also look to set up our process for appointing judges and boards and commissions, it's been really exciting to really reach out and tap some of the best and most knowledgeable people from across our state.
CP: Would you have signed on to the Green New Deal, as it was introduced in Congress?
Polis: Well, I'm not a congressman anymore, so I'm not following all the legislation in Washington. There's over 500 bills here that we are trying to get up to speed on and monitor though the process.
CP: There's a lot in that — refurbishing every building, moving toward doing away with air travel to the extent possible, reformulating the agriculture industry and speeding up carbon-neutral power generation.
Polis: Our goal is different in Colorado, and that's 100 percent renewables by 2040. I don't know the details of that legislation, but I think it had a more aggressive date, didn't it?
CP: By 2030.
Polis: So our plan here is 100 percent renewable energy on the grid by 2040.
CP: In comparison to [your goal], which was decried in some quarters as a radical proposal —
Polis: Right, [but] we feel it's achievable.
CP: Studies have come out since the election showing the climate could be changing in more alarming ways than we thought. Does Colorado need to be doing more than that?
Polis: We are doing more. The [electric power] grid is the single largest source of pollution and carbon, so we are focused on renewable energy goals there, but if you look at automobiles, our very first executive order was around electric vehicles. We look forward to continuing to make electric vehicles more cost-effective for Coloradans and also look at additional rail and bus transit opportunities for people to commute that compete on time and price with other options. So we're really looking at all those aspects of reducing pollution.
CP: You've seen what [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom did, canceling part of the high-speed bullet train project from Los Angeles to San Francisco?
Polis: That's different. That was a big, high-speed, multi-billion-dollar train. We have light rail. We don't have fully in place a suburban community solution. The legislature started the process close to two years ago of looking into Front Range rail. I'm supportive of Front Range rail. We have to work the economics to make sure that it can provide a cost-effective solution for commuters and for people to get to their jobs. On both time and cost, it has to compete with driving their cars, or people won't want to use it. So that's the work that's being done. This is not the enormous cost thing that California was looking at.
CP: Up I-70 through your old [congressional] district? Are we going to see something soon, or in our lifetimes?
Polis: In our lifetimes, I hope so. The planning process requires a lot of work because of the engineering needs of that corridor. We're going to continue Gov. Hickenlooper's work around [zipper] lanes and reversible lanes, doing what we can with the infrastructure we have. But absolutely, we're looking at larger scale potential solutions, including rail for that corridor. But those are a longer lead time. Even if we're able to get them going, they would take many years to complete.
CP: Your first executive order was aimed at increasing the availability of electric vehicles in Colorado and encouraging their adoption. How soon will we know if that's succeeding?
Polis: You'll see the effects next year in terms of more models being offered in Colorado. We have only 21 models of electric vehicles that are for sale through dealerships in Colorado. States that have these standards have over 40 models of electric vehicles. I fully expect that a year from now, we'll be closer to 40 models of electric vehicles that Coloradans can choose to buy.
CP: You haven't talked a lot about transportation funding specifics yet, though you said in a recent interview with Colorado Public Radio that you're working with Republicans, Democrats and business groups to see what might work. Can you give us an update on that? Do you want to see a referendum sent to voters on that this [legislative] session?
Polis: We start with, really, now, what the voters rejected. The voters just rejected two different ways to fund transportation. The voters rejected bonding with no revenue, and they rejected a 0.6 [percent] sales tax increment. So we are ruling those out, but we also hear from voters and Coloradans that they want less traffic, they want us to do something about their longer commutes and getting to the mountains on weekends and bridges that are beyond their life expectancy. So it's a matter of figuring out how voters want to meet those priorities, because they clearly don't through bonding with no revenue or sales tax increment.
CP: Want to see something this session sent to voters?
Polis: We're happy to engage with legislative leadership on different ideas. Again, we would want to make sure that it's something that we feel that voters want to do, as opposed to a hopeless quest that has very little support.
CP: Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, speaking of sending things to voters, wants to ask voters to take lottery money from Great Outdoors Colorado to give to public schools. Is that a good idea?
Polis: Our Colorado Lottery funds and Great Outdoors Colorado is the dedicated funding source for our parks and open space, really a lot of what makes Colorado iconic. We need to make sure that we continue that commitment to our quality of life in Colorado, and we need to search elsewhere for our funds for schools.
CP: Presidential candidates — do you have a favorite?
Polis: We don't even know who the candidates are at this point. There's a few that have started, but I would expect in the next few months we'll see who those candidates are.
CP: What are the Democratic presidential candidates not talking about that you'd like to hear them address?
Polis: I would love them to visit Colorado and campaign here and address Colorado issues affecting our quality of life. I think it's very good, the more people are in that [race] and the more come learn about Colorado and our goals and aspirations, the better.
CP: You've recently flagged some articles and studies on Twitter involving universal basic income, around the world. Is that something you'd like to work on here in Colorado?
Polis: I think generally I've been looking at data that's just starting to come in from some pilot programs, so we're, from my perspective, we certainly don't have any recommendation to not do it or to do it, but we are certainly following and interested in pilot programs that exist in various countries and within our own country.
CP: [LGBTQ advocacy group] One Colorado had their day at the Capitol here Wednesday, and you took one of your famous group selfies with them. Colorado now has a first gentleman, for the first time. Does it feel historic?
Polis: This is a job like any other, and it's great to overcome that barrier so it's less of an issue for anybody else moving forward, but no, at the end of the day, we have to reduce health care costs, improve our schools and protect our environment and reduce traffic and all those things the people have sent me here to do.
CP: Something the folks at Politico Playbook asked Gov. Hickenlooper, it's a standard question they have — what is it that keeps you up at night? He said cybersecurity threats, particularly from foreign entities "bent on our destruction." What keeps you up at night?
Polis: I would say, it's going to be natural disasters in Colorado. We will have fires, we will have floods. So trying to be ahead of the curve to minimize damage and contain them quickly is really one of the biggest concerns that really affects our state. Readiness and the part of it that's out of our control in terms of what happens and what gets started and how dry things are.
CP: Are you enjoying the job?
Polis: It's exciting so far. Absolutely. Best, most amazing people to work with, great state employees, and really enjoying working with the legislature and the state employees. I'm getting out around the state, too.
CP: Thank you for your time.