Jared Polis lays out policy priorities, with free kindergarten on top. Here are 7 takeaways.

New governor focuses on education, health care and climate change in State of State speech

Gov. Jared Polis delivering his inaugural State of the State address. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Like the man himself, Jared Polis’s first-year agenda for Colorado is ambitious.

Fixes to a sputtering education system. Addressing climate change. Lowering health care costs. Reforming the tax code.

On Thursday on the floor of the Colorado House of Representatives, Polis outlined his goals in these and other areas during the State of the State speech — his first policy address since being sworn in Tuesday as the state’s 43rd governor.

“The state of our state is solid. It is strong. It is successful. It is daring. And it is bold,” Polis said during his 55-minute address. “We overcame tough economic times to build one of the strongest state economies in American history.”

He added, “Despite all of our progress, far too many people are either barely getting by or falling behind,” and focused much of his speech on ways he thinks Colorado can close various gaps. The state must help workers and shareholders alike thrive, he said.

Polis offered very little in the way of specific proposals to pay for his many big ideas, and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert slammed the governor over pricetags in a statement after the speech.

“We note that Governor Polis, as a Member of Congress for the last decade, is coming from a place where a dollar isn’t a dollar and where balanced budgets haven’t existed for years,” Holbert said. “We hope that Governor Polis will exercise restraint and will listen carefully to the concerns of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee. The people of Colorado have given us a constitution that requires us to operate within the dollars they provide and no more.”

As a gubernatorial candidate, Polis adopted a more moderate tone than the one that defined his congressional tenure. While Republicans tried to paint him as an “extreme” liberal, he tacked to the middle consistently on issues ranging from oil and gas to reproductive rights.

But he’s not campaigning anymore, and, in many ways, it showed in his State of the State address, which won the plaudits of progressive legislators.

Rep. Alex Valdez, the House Democrats’ first-year representative to leadership, is one in a group of progressive rookie lawmakers who’ve indicated they’ll work to move the caucus — and, as a result, the state — to the left. He said Polis’s speech reflected their desired course.

“We believe a progressive agenda is good for Colorado, and I think we heard that from him,” Valdez said.

Here are seven takeaways from the governor’s speech:

Free, full-day kindergarten is “top priority”

Polis campaigned on a promise to bring free full-day kindergarten to every community in the state.

“It will save taxpayer money in the long run by increasing incomes and decreasing the achievement gap,” he said Thursday. “It will strengthen families, our communities, and our economy.”

He vowed to get it done by the fall of this year. In fact, he said, it’s his administration’s “top priority.”

“Today, the state only funds half-day kindergarten, leaving individual districts and parents holding the bag for the rest. And it is not cheap. Most districts charge tuition to pay for the extra half day. Some offer it free to students, but only by cutting funding for other priorities like teacher salaries or class size,” he said. “As a result, kindergarten in Colorado is a picture of inequality, where some students attend free full-day kindergarten, some must pay tuition, and other families get left behind because they cannot afford the cost.”

More help for education

Polis dedicated more time to education than any other topic, leading with it during the policy portion of his address, and identifying a slew of policies he’ll support. Those include free full-day kindergarten and:

  • Student loan relief for teachers in order to make the profession more viable in a state with an educator shortage estimated to stand at 3,000
  • Expanded consumer protection for Colorado teachers carrying a portion of the statewide $26 billion in student loan debt
  • Investing in programs to boost high school graduation rates

To that final point, Polis said, “This means recognizing that it is hard for a student to learn if they are hungry, homeless, or struggling with trauma or mental illness.”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger is running a bill to address the workforce shortage — it’s an educator loan-forgiveness program aimed at helping existing educators and attracting new ones to the profession — and she said following the speech she was “thrilled” to hear her initiative mentioned as a priority for the new administration.

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Climate change

“Climate change is a scientific reality. It’s real,” he said.

He ran on a promise to transition the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, but on Thursday he outlined a series of other climate-related actions he’ll push for this session, including:

  • “Working to electrify our cars and buses and trucks”
  • Investing in green jobs and in transitioning coal and oil-and-gas workers into new positions
  • Working with “stakeholders across Colorado on outcomes-based approaches that promote innovation, and that deliver emissions reductions from all sources, reductions in consumer costs, and sustainable economic growth for communities across Colorado.”

Local control of oil-and-gas operations

Polis’s gubernatorial campaign evolved at the same time anti-fracking forces were pushing Prop. 112 — a measure initiated on the grassroots level in an effort to increase mandatory setbacks from oil-and-gas drilling operations. The measure failed, as the fracktivists were outspent 50 to one by industry interests.

Polis, himself a former anti-fracking advocate, opposed Prop. 112 and very much played the moderate on oil-and-gas issues in the campaign. Many are wondering whether Polis the candidate will deviate on this front from Polis the governor.

During his speech, the governor said, “It’s time for us to take meaningful action to address the conflicts between oil-and-gas drilling operations and the neighborhoods they impact, and to make sure that all of our communities have clean air and water.”

After the speech he was asked what specifically he meant by “meaningful action,” and he told reporters he’ll push for expanded local-control options for cities and counties that may seek to restrict oil-and-gas operations — something his predecessor, John Hickenlooper, never did.

A new office to cut consumer health care costs

Polis’s lieutenant governor, former state Rep. Dianne Primavera, is going to be focusing on health care. She survived cancer 30 years ago and often speaks of that experience as a defining one in her life.

As lieutenant governor, she’ll lead the “Office of Saving People Money on Health Care,” Polis said on Thursday.

The OSPMHC, Polis 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.”

He said the price of prescription drugs is “offensive,” and vowed to work to ensure Coloradans don’t have to choose between paying for health care and their own life savings.

No mention of gun control

During a press conference following his speech, Polis said there were “about 500 different things” he could’ve talked about. One of the most notably absent topics among those 500 was gun control. Democrats plan to try (again) to pass a “red flag” bill — it would give family members and law enforcement a legal means to confiscate guns from people deemed to be suffering mental health crises — but neither that piece of legislation nor any other potential gun regulation came up during Polis’s 55 minutes.

When asked for his biggest takeaway from the speech, Republican Rep. Jim Wilson pointed to the fact that nothing was said on guns.

“The thing that caught my eye was not something that I totally disagreed with,” he said, “but something that wasn’t addressed.”

Light on Trump talk

When Polis first got into the gubernatorial race, he said he did so because he felt his best opportunity to affect change would be at the state level and not in Congress, where he served for five terms. He said ahead of the Democratic primary that he’s well equipped to act as a check on President Donald Trump and “anyone else who seeks to intervene in state law.”

But Polis’s address Thursday made just one mention of Trump by name, in the context of tax reform. Polis said he’ll push to eliminate tax breaks for the “largest, most influential corporations,” and for lower taxes on small businesses.

“We should not blindly copy President Trump’s policies into our state tax code,” he said. “We do not need to take the bad with the good.”

He did, however, knock the president without using his name when he said, “Here in Colorado, we treat each other with respect. We reject efforts to intimidate immigrant families, or tear children from their parents’ arms. We don’t tolerate bigotry or discrimination of any kind. And we don’t accept hostage-taking as a form of governance.”

That line won him one of his biggest rounds of applause.

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  1. As someone who:
    1. Is 70.2 years old
    2. Grew up in NY, NJ and MA

    I find it mind boggling that public school in Colorado is not K-12, but only 1-12.
    The indifferent attitude towards education in this state has always amazed me since I moved here in 1980.

  2. It’s not a mystery, Dave. The extremist religiosity present in places like the Springs and Douglas County perfectly explains the animosity towards public education seen in Colorado.

    Quite simply, it’s just another manifestation of the separate “facts” phenomenon that gave us Fox and Comrade Trump.

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