Gov. Jared Polis delivered his State of the State address on Thursday, laying out priorities for the 2020 session that include cutting the costs of health care, reducing taxes, and investing in a new state park in southern Colorado.
His speech touched on few specifics, but covered a lot of ground, drawing both smiles and wary looks among Democrats and headshakes and standing ovations from Republicans. Before the governor arrived, protesters called on him to ban fracking. They were forcefully removed from the House chamber’s balcony.
After Polis took to the podium, he spent much of the nearly hour-long speech talking about health care. One of his top priorities is to pass a so-called “public option” insurance plan. A controversial part of the plan would allow the state to set prices for what hospitals can charge for care under the private insurance plan. Polis displayed little sympathy for hospitals, saying those here in Colorado have the second-highest profit margins among hospitals in the country.
“And Front Range hospitals with over $2 billion dollars in profits in 2018 are already using those profits from overcharging patients to run ads against legislation that could save families money,” Polis said during his speech.
The Democrat from Boulder, who entered his second year in office this week, also said he wants to provide preschool access for all the state’s 4-year-olds by the end of his first term in office. This, along with his request for $10 million in General Fund money to establish a new state park in southern Colorado, has sparked some trepidation among his fellow Democrats who are concerned the cost of both will muscle out other programs and priorities in tight budget times.
Polis avoided specifics about immigration at a time when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program’s fate is at stake in the U.S. Supreme Court. How the court rules on DACA could leave 15,000 so-called Dreamers in Colorado without legal documentation to live here. Polis has said there’s little the state can do about this and that Congress should act, but supports the idea of a legal defense fund for Dreamers who could lose protections. In a nod of support to the immigrant community, he said “we don’t build walls of exclusion. We build ladders of opportunity.” The comment drew a head shake and a chuckle from House Minority Leader Partick Neville, who has backed efforts to increase cooperation between law enforcement and immigration authorities as well as a ballot measure to bar non-citizens from voting.
But Neville and his counterpart in the Senate, Minority Leader Chris Holbert, gave Polis a standing ovation when he spent a few minutes talking about efforts to drive down taxes in Colorado. The governor has said he wants to enact an income tax cut. That’s unlikely to gain much traction among Democrats this year given the slowing economic growth and constitutionally mandated refunds under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Both of these factors are putting constraints on the state budget. Polis said he wants to eliminate “tax breaks for special interests” to help fulfill his vow to lower the overall tax rate by the end of his first term.
Before the governor arrived, protesters with the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, both hard-line environmental activist groups, dropped a banner from the House chamber balcony that read, “NO WELLS AT BELLA ROMERO. NO MORE SACRIFICE ZONES.” The text was a reference to the recent benzene spike detected at the majority-Latino and low-income school in Greeley. Despite objections from parents, attorneys and environmental advocates, Polis and his administration have allowed Extraction Oil and Gas to continue to produce on a 24-well pad about 800 feet from the boundary of the school’s playground and about 1,200 feet from the school’s building. The state says it does not know the exact source of the benzene spike in the area where there other oil and gas wells and storage tanks.
While police were grabbing people and pulling them out of the balcony, some elected officials below took selfies with each other and ignored the protesters. After the speech, Polis said he did not see the protesters. “I really don’t know what happened,” he told reporters. “Of course we’re really proud of our work on climate issues. I highlighted that in the speech. The big news today is Tri-State,” he said, referring to a decision by the regional electric utility company to close its coal-fired power plants and mines in New Mexico and Colorado in the next decade. The protesters also called on the governor to ban fracking. When asked at a press conference about whether he supports a fracking ban, Polis said, “That’s never been my position.”
Following the State of the State speech, 38 people were arrested, according to a public information officer with the Denver Police Department. The spokesperson said the protesters are being held for investigation of trespassing, disrupting a lawful assembly and obstruction of a peace officer.
Outside the state Capitol, young people with the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion were being loaded into police vans. Matthew Wozniak, a 31-year-old from Golden, who said he was filming the protest for the Extinction Rebellion and who was not arrested, asked of the governor: “Is he our ally or not?”