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Democratic candidate Jared Polis, left, participates in a debate with Republican candidate Walker Stapleton, right, on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, at the Lory Students Center on Colorado State University's campus in Fort Collins, Colo. (Photo provided by Timothy Hurst/The Coloradoan)

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis said he supports a new tax on carbon pollution — one of a handful of tax hikes he endorsed in the latest debate.

The five-term Boulder congressman has supported a carbon tax at the federal level, and he confirmed for the first time Wednesday that he would pursue the same in Colorado. He said he would pair his proposal with a personal income tax cut for residents.

“If you’re talking, would I rather tax polluters than individual, hard-working families … of course,” Polis said in a debate hosted in Fort Collins by 9News, The Coloradoan and Colorado State University. “I’d rather we have a broader tax base and bring down rates for Colorado residents.”

Other states are considering similar initiatives — especially after the Trump administration’s stance on climate change — but if approved, Colorado would likely become one of the first in the nation to level a tax on carbon emissions.

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Polis’ stance on taxes will only intensify the criticism from his Republican rival Walker Stapleton and may become a defining issue in the race just as ballots land in voters’ mailboxes. Stapleton, who champions less government spending and aligns with the oil and gas industry, opposes a carbon tax.

Earlier this month, Polis tried to sidestep a question in the first gubernatorial debate about whether he supports tax hikes to pay for his priorities. And he has said that he opposes the current statewide tax measures on the 2018 ballot — one is a sales tax increase for roads and the other is an income tax increase for education.

But in the latest debate and in recent interviews, Polis’s position became more clear. The details on his proposals are scant — and his campaign could not offer more explanation after the debate — so it’s not clear just how much Polis would increase taxes and who it would impact the most.

Here’s a breakdown of what Polis supports:

  • A tax hike for education. Even though Polis has said he is not supporting Amendment 73 — the education initiative on the November ballot — he still wants to find new revenues to boost education spending. Prior to the debate, he had talked about creating a coalition to support raising taxes to cover the cost of his plan to offer free universal pre-K and kindergarten in Colorado.
  • A tax hike for transportation. Polis is not offering his own ideas for how to find new dollars for transportation, but he wants to “convene” various interest groups to formulate a plan that would raise some of the estimated $9 billion in road repair money Colorado needs in the next decade. For the past two years, similar bipartisan efforts failed at the state Capitol, and any new proposal would likely need voter approval. But Polis said in the debate that he supports a tax hike, “if that’s what it takes … if people want to pay for roads.”
  • A new tax on sports betting. A recent Supreme Court ruling allows states to legalize gambling on sports and impose a tax if desired. In the debate, Polis said he would support allowing sports betting and supports taxing it. It’s not clear what rate he would endorse or where he would want to send the money.
  • Repealing current tax breaks for corporations and other interests. The state estimated in 2015 that tax breaks (also known as “tax expenditures”) totaled more than $4.3 billion in Colorado. Polis wants to eliminate about $1.6 billion of what he sees as “corporate tax giveaways.” It’s not clear which ones he would target, but it would amount to tax hikes for various industries, some of which may be passed to consumers. Another unknown factor is whether he could convince the state legislature to take the action, given the stalemate on the issue in recent years. Polis has said that the new revenue would go toward reducing income taxes, but he offered few specifics.
  • A new tax on carbon emissions. In the debate, Polis did not elaborate on how his proposal would work, but he suggested that he would use the new taxes collected from companies — most likely in the utility and energy sectors — to reduce personal income taxes from the current rate of 4.63 percent to 4.3 percent or 4.2 percent. To lower income taxes that much, it could cost more than $700 million, based on an analysis of recent revenue forecasts.

A Polis campaign spokeswoman clarified Thursday that the candidate is neutral on Amendment 73, despite his prior remarks that he is not supporting any of the tax hikes on the current ballot.

Stapleton, who is trying to close a gap in the polls, said he supports a 15 percent tax on sports betting in Colorado — which he estimates would become a $1 billion industry and generate $150 million a year. But he opposes all the other proposals from Polis to increase taxes.

On transportation, Stapleton is supporting a 2018 ballot measure, Proposition 109, to earmark about $260 million a year in current tax revenue — not new dollars — to cover the cost of a bond that would generate $3.5 billion in road construction.

When it comes to taxes, Polis emphasized that he supports voters ability to approve or disprove tax hikes in Colorado under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR. And he has acknowledged that tax hikes are not easy to pass and outlined his challenge if elected.

“It’s up to governors to play a role in building the coalition (to win at the ballot),” he said in the first debate, “and what you have to show voters is you’ve done the most with what you have if you’re ever asking for more.”

Updated 12 p.m. Oct. 18. 2018: This story was updated to correct and add details about the Republican candidate’s projections for the sports betting industry and revenue. It also added a statement from the Polis campaign about Amendment 73.


    John Frank

    John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.