Colorado’s newly minted Gov. Jared Polis gave his first State of the State Address to a joint session of the Colorado General Assembly on Thursday morning, outlining clear policy goals for his first year in office, but without much detail on how he plans to reach his objectives.
As the nation’s first openly gay governor and the state’s first Jewish governor, Polis started his speech with a message of inclusiveness, shouting out to “the historic and record number of women” now serving in the legislature. For his part, women make up a majority of Polis’ senior staff and, so far, half of his cabinet appointees. “Colorado’s barrier-breaking legacy is something we should all be proud of,” he said.
Polis is an unapologetic champion of bold progressive policies, such as establishing universal health care, providing free full-day kindergarten, and focusing on renewable energy, and he used his inaugural State of the State address to reassure Coloradans who are skeptical of such changes. However, one of the main criticisms of Polis’ lofty agenda is that he has yet to fully explain how these ideas will paid for. The State of the State Address didn’t offer many answers—a point that was reinforced by Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, who offered a reminder that Colorado’s Constitution doesn’t allow for deficit spending in his official response. “With many of Gov. Polis’ progressive policy proposals, it’s important to recognize that each comes with a price tag that must fit within the confines of a balanced budget,” he said in a statement.
Although Democrats now control the House, Senate, and all statewide offices, Polis kept the tone of his speech both positive and nonpartisan. “The state of our state is solid. It is strong. It is successful. It is daring. And it is bold,” he said.
So what exactly can we expect from Gov. Polis’ first year in office? Here are five key takeaways from his State of the State address:
1. Tackling Unfinished Work
Polis’ core agenda involves leveraging his entrepreneurial experience to tackle work left unfinished by John Hickenlooper’s administration, which was stymied by partisanship and funding challenges. “If this were easy, it would have been done already,” he said. “Progress is always hard and overcoming these challenges will be a long journey. But the people of Colorado need and deserve nothing less.”
Polis gave credit to his predecessor, who transformed Colorado’s economy from 40th to 1st in job creation during his eight-year term, but pointed out that too many middle-class families were left behind. Polis vowed to address issues resulting from the state’s rapid growth by making health care more affordable, increasing education funding, improving transportation, and creating more green jobs. “I stand here today with the big shoes of Gov. Hickenlooper to fill,” he said. “But, rest assured, I’ve got my blue sneakers on and I’m ready to keep us moving forward.”
2. Focusing on Families
In a move to connect to a wider audience, Polis outlined ways that his policies will help families across Colorado. “We want to make Colorado as family-friendly as possible,” he said. Polis said he will make a formal request in his budget package (to be released January 15) to provide parental leave for all state employees. Polis also supports establishing a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program, which is also a legislative priority for Democrats.
Additionally, Polis said he wants to lower income tax rates for Colorado families and small businesses by reducing special interest tax giveaways—some of which have been on autopilot since the 1930s. “We need a tax code that reflects today’s realities rather than yesterday’s distortions,” he said.
3. Funding Education
Polis ran on a pledge to provide free preschool and full-day kindergarten to all Colorado children — but told 5280 during his campaign that he might do so in phases. On Thursday, Polis promised free full-day kindergarten by the fall of 2019, while working to expand free preschool to 8,000 more Colorado children. Polis didn’t say how he would implement these policies, but pointed to neighboring state Oklahoma as an example. “It’s time for us to build a Colorado education system where every single child, regardless of their zip code, gets a great education that prepares them for a bright future,” he said.
Polis—who co-founded two local charter schools in the early 2000s—also highlighted three additional education proposals, including offering student loan relief for teachers who serve in high-need areas; increasing transparency and consumer protections in the student-loan process; and finding innovative solutions for improving high school graduation rates. “In the 21st century economy, a high school degree is more important than ever for economic success,“ he said.
4. Making Health Care Affordable
Polis announced the state’s first-ever Office of Saving People Money on Health Care (yes, that’s its real name), to be led by four-time cancer survivor Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera. “We aren’t giving this office a fancy name to make it sound important. Instead we’re giving it a simple name because it is important,” Polis said. The new office will “will form the beating heart” of efforts to reduce patient costs for hospital stays, increase price transparency, lower the price of prescription drugs, and make health insurance more affordable, he added.
Polis’ ultimate objective is to establish universal health care for all Coloradans, but said he knows it won’t happen overnight. More immediate goals are addressing the state’s opioid epidemic and empowering the Division of Insurance to lower health care costs in rural and mountain communities by creating a reinsurance program and establishing a way for Colorado to safely import prescription drugs from Canada.
5. Addressing Climate Change
Polis made an economic case for fighting climate change and protecting the state’s public lands. “Climate change is a scientific reality. It’s real. There’s no pretending otherwise for farmers and ranchers who are facing historic water shortages. There’s no pretending otherwise for the 46,000 women and men who work in Colorado’s ski industry,” he said.
Polis committed to bipartisan and sustainable funding for the Colorado Water Plan, expanding access to capital in the agriculture sector, and supporting industrial hemp. And he said his long-term pledge to move Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 will both reduce energy costs for consumers and create more green jobs. “As governor, my goal is to lead the statewide transition to a clean, sustainable, and growing economy,” he said.
Polis further promised to expand access to broadband and find bipartisan funding mechanisms to improve the state’s transportation infrastructures. And he plans to reach out to Coloradans across the state to help him craft his bold changes.
“Our shared responsibility is to turn challenges into opportunities and ideas into action,” he said. “Let’s get to work.”