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Gov. Jared Polis talks about the state's hottest issues

On the issues

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MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper

Gov. Jared Polis has just finished delivering his State of the State address to a packed house at The Antlers hotel, when he strolls into the Independent's offices. In what could be a nod to the formality of the day, he has traded his signature blue sneakers for black ones.

The governor is smiling. It's been a good day — he had a chance to visit the National Cybersecurity Center (a "fun" stop for a tech geek) and is pleased to have scored laughs and applause at his speech. The events of the day aren't his only reasons to grin: In some ways, the new governor has a dream job. Polis' party controls all state administrative offices and both houses of the Legislature.

But having total control of a state government could be a double-edged sword for Polis, who enjoys a reputation for being a pro-business Democrat with a bipartisan streak.

Increasingly marginalized, conservatives have taken to lashing out as legislation they abhor — a new gun law, oil and gas restraints, a move toward popularly electing the president — advances or is passed into law. Some officials have threatened secession, lawsuits and recalls or suggested they may not enforce laws they don't agree with.

At his speech, Polis wasn't afraid to say where he stood on at least one of those issues: He noted his longtime support for local control of oil and gas operations. (The state currently governs those operations but legislation could change that.) But the governor also told the crowd that ideas, not political parties, are what should matter, and that he wanted to build "a Colorado for all."

The governor focused his speech on changes he's making that have broad support: introducing free, full-day kindergarten; bringing down health care costs; and growing the economy.

We spoke to Polis about the issues of the moment:

Indy: You recently signed the National Popular Vote bill. [That gives Colorado's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote, once enough states have signed on to represent a majority in the Electoral College (News, Feb. 6).] I'm wondering why you decided to lend your support and how you plan to deal with the backlash from conservatives.

Gov. Jared Polis: Well, first of all, I've always supported this concept. I mean, when I was in Congress, I sponsored a constitutional amendment to have a popular vote for president. So this is a way that states can do it without the cumbersome process that involves Congress.

And I — in a representative democracy, whoever gets the most votes should be president. And I think everybody's vote should count the same. It's unfair that Coloradans' votes count one-third as much as Wyomingites' and this would mean that your vote counts the same.

Do you think that this Republican backlash [including an effort to place a repeal on the ballot] is going to continue to build steam? I think it's possible conservatives don't think that they can win a national popular election for president — they've only managed it once this century.

You know, this is not about Trump or Republicans or Democrats... The Electoral College is outdated. It's a risk factor in our democracy... There's no guarantee with the Electoral College that the person who gets the most votes will actually be president. And it's a very dangerous system that could set up a Constitutional crisis, in fact, as it did in 2000... We want to avert that kind of thing going forward and simply allow whoever gets the most votes to win. But the important thing to point out is that this has not happened yet... This will take more time, you know, it could take 10, 20 years... You know what it might take? It might take a Democratic president, who wins the Electoral College, but loses the [popular] vote, and then all the red states will join.

OK. So, of the remaining bills that Republicans are angry about, there's SB181, the oil and gas bill [local control over oil and gas operations and other restrictions for health and environment], and then of course, the red flag bill [aka, extreme risk protection orders, which allows temporary removal of firearms when a person is deemed a danger to themself or others]. El Paso County just declared itself a Second Amendment sanctuary county. Other counties are even saying they'll secede from the state over these bills. How do you deal with —

The hyperbole is — you know, look, we have elections in this country. Democrats ran on these issues. I ran, and Democrats generally ran, on supporting extreme risk protection orders... When people are elected they should do what they told people they were going to do. And so as long as Democrats deliver on what they told voters they would do, I think their popularity will only increase. So the danger comes if they start straying from what they said they would do if they were elected, because that's why people voted for them.

I'm guessing you're supporting both of these bills, right? Red flag and oil and gas?

Well ... they're in the legislative process. I would say, conceptually, I support them both. And they're working on exactly what those details look like. And we are giving feedback to the legislators on making them better.

Sure. I know that you you've supported oil and gas increased setbacks, but at the same time, you've also been a pro-business governor. Do you feel this bill strikes the right balance?

I think it's a very pro-business bill, because it basically prevents oil and gas from having more — you know, being able to stomp over the rights of other businesses and farms. So it's: How do we just put it on a level playing field, allow it to be treated like any other land use? You know, a hotel, a mini-mall, oil and gas, they're all legitimate, important economic land uses, but we shouldn't put one above the other.

OK. And with the red flag bill, our sheriff has said it'd be dangerous for deputies to go into a mentally unstable person's home and try to take their guns away.

Well, if they're saying it's dangerous, they're acknowledging that person, could obviously be deadly to others and themself. The whole point is you're trying to take somebody who's in a very dangerous mental state, and temporarily make sure that they're able to be a little bit safer.

Do you fear any chaos if these are enacted? There have been threats of secession, of not enforcing the law, and of course, of recalls.

Well, you know, we're just focused on delivering what I ran on, which is free full-day kindergarten, expanding free access to preschool, saving people money on health care, moving towards 100 percent renewable energy...

Do you think the public is too? What are you hearing from your constituents?

Mostly [that] health care costs too much. Cost of living has gone up. [They] can't afford the high cost of preschool, kindergarten, child care. So I mean, we're really focused on making a difference for Colorado families.

OK. And your free, full-day kindergarten bill was just introduced. I think it's something people do want, but it also costs $185 million a year. How do you make sure that it's funded annually? I think that's always been the hard part with education.

Well, I think it's the same way you make sure anything's funded, it's through our budget process. The Joint Budget Committee, on a bipartisan basis, chose to put forward the funds, $185 million, for free, full-day kindergarten. It'll make a huge difference for our state: giving kids a strong start, saving families money, giving parents the option of re-entering the workforce sooner if they choose and saving money in the long run by reducing grade repetition and special education rates, which, when you have quality early-childhood education, the data shows occurs.

OK, but, how do you ensure it continues to get funding?

Well, I mean certainly we're not done and it is you know — full-day kindergarten alone frees up 5,000 free preschool slots. But there's still a lot of need on the preschool side, so we want to focus on expanding preschool and early-childhood access for families because it's really an affordability issue in our communities with the rising cost of living...

Free, full-day kindergarten is Gov. Jared Polis' signature goal. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Free, full-day kindergarten is Gov. Jared Polis' signature goal.

But what if we enter a recession or a downturn? Look at Amendment 23 — that was supposed to increase funding in education but it didn't work because of the recession. I mean, I know that there's also a TABOR cap fund bill in the works, which could increase state funding. Is that part of the funding equation?

Well, there's a lot of other needs being discussed, obviously, your transportation infrastructure, the ending the decades of under-investment in our schools. Kindergarten doesn't do all that, but it does provide families free full-day kindergarten, so it's a very strong start for kids, it saves families money. It's an economic issue because it allows parents to re-enter the workforce sooner if they choose. Obviously, there's huge educational benefits for kids who have that quality early-childhood education.

So are you saying that because of the ability for parents to re-enter the workforce you think this will eventually be budget neutral, or —

Well, I think we just look at our, we just treat kindergarten like first grade, like second grade, it's every bit as important, if not more. And so yeah, we discuss funding for our K-12.

So it just becomes a standard part of education funding? OK. And now, you've heard of our Drake Power Plant? Or, I'm sure, you've seen it?

Oh, yes, you can't miss it.

There are a couple of bills that can impact that. HB1037 aims to help fund the shutdown of old power plants with low-interest bonds, and then there is HB1261, the big climate change bill. I know there were disagreements about the latter bill and, as far as I understand, you were more on the carrot side of that argument — you were hoping for incentives versus requirements. And it looks to me, having read the bill, that you prevailed.

Yeah, we're still going through the bill. You know, I think that we're — for the grid, we were focused on helping our entire state achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, including municipal utilities, investor-owned utilities, or electric co-ops...

Do you think incentives are enough to really drive a plant like Drake to close early?

Well, again, coal-fired plants cost more than new renewable energy and new wind energy so it's simply a question of how soon can we generate those savings for consumers? And the sooner that we can retire costly legacy assets, the quicker we can save consumers money and create good green jobs will never be outsourced.

And you think this is enough...

Well, it's about the toolkit. It's things like securitization — there's a number of other tools in the toolkit — so it's about how can we best make it work for local communities? Colorado Springs is somewhat unique because it has a public utility, there's only a few in the state...

Speaking of our area, what is your commitment to southern Colorado and are there certain projects you want for our area?

Well, you know, I really kicked off my campaign in Pueblo and we're very excited about our, my vision of a 'Colorado for all' and that means regardless of your race, your religion, who you are, who you love. It also means regardless of geography, so we want a Colorado that works for Sterling and Grand Junction and Lamar. I think too many people across the state have seen the success of the Colorado Springs/Denver area and the Front Range, and there's areas of our state that don't feel part of that success. So we want to help make sure that they do.

OK, different topic: Mississippi recently passed a so-called heartbeat bill on abortion. It means a woman cannot have an abortion after a doctor can hear the fetus' heartbeat. This is obviously a big challenge to Roe v. Wade. So if a woman's right to choose was eliminated at the federal level, do you think Colorado could step in with state protections?

Well, I think for many years, we've been worried about the erosion of Roe vs. Wade. I get this one will be pushing the envelope and I hope that [Mississippi law] is overturned. But it shows why state-level elections are so important. I mean, to have a governor and a Legislature that would never put that kind of senseless restriction on a woman's rights is very important, given the erosion of Roe vs. Wade...

What's your opinion of the bill that would eliminate the personal belief exemption for vaccines?

People should be able to opt out of vaccines, if that's the choice that they make.

OK, you're a dad, so why?

Of course our kids have all their vaccines. When you insert the government in forcing people to do something, it decreases trust in the vaccination process. It decreases trust in the government, and ultimately, I believe, leads to decreased vaccination rates...

OK. And, related note, will we see the big health care proposal this session?

Many, many medium health-care bills. I mean, many of them are big. I mean, so you got reinsurance, public option, prescription drug importation, pricing transparency, out-of-network billing. Those are five pretty big ones. And then some other ones too. So, I'm not sure.

What about the idea that you had of bringing states together to offer universal coverage?

So that's — we're pursuing that. We don't need legislation. So we've already, our director of the [Department of Health Care Policy and Financing] is looking at doing interstate formularies on drug purchasing. So ... we're already pursuing that.

You think it's like a year out or more?

Well, all these things need to be implemented in different time frames. I mean, the biggest short-term savings will be from the reinsurance bill [which helps insurance companies cover high-cost health claims]. The actuarial report showed that [bill] will reduce the average insurance rate in Colorado in the individual market by 23 percent.

That's impressive.

That's the biggest short-term, because that's for the next pricing period.

Polis: quick hits

Repeal the death penalty (SB182): Prevent convicts from being sentenced to death in the state if they are charged on or after July 1, 2019. "I would sign a bill to end the death penalty, to fix the death penalty; it's very difficult to administer as it's currently written," Polis says: Yes

Ban the box (HB1025): Prohibits most employers, most of the time, from asking for criminal history on an application, or banning those with criminal history from applying. Likely, yes

The bond reform bills (HB1226, HB1225, SB191): Allows bond to be granted for more crimes, expands the use of nonmonetary bond, and works to get people out of jail faster after they are granted bond. "We think that there's some great potential there to have better equity in our criminal justice system and to save taxpayers money," Polis says: Likely, yes

Marijuana for autism (HB1028): Adds autism to the list of disabling conditions for which a person — including children under 18, with the recommendation of two physicians — can be prescribed medical marijuana. Yes

Marijuana hospitality establishments (HB1230): Allows "retail cannabis hospitality and sales establishments," where customers can buy, sample and consume cannabis on-site, including smoking marijuana. Maybe

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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