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Walker Stapleton, left, and Jared Polis, center, offered contrast in the final televised debate of the Colorado governor's race at the University of Denver on Oct. 23, 2018 (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

If elected, Democrat candidate for governor Jared Polis promised to address climate change in his first year — but he made clear his agenda is contingent on one factor.

“If we Democrats win the legislature, I think we have a good chance of getting our agenda … done,” the five-term Boulder congressman declared in the final debate Tuesday night.

The one line — more than any other from the four previous televised debates — defined the stakes in the 2018 election in Colorado, where Democrats are looking to take complete control of the state Capitol.

VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more

Right now, Republicans hold power in the state Senate after claiming a one-seat majority in the 2016 election and serve as a check on the Democratic agenda put forward by the state House and Gov. John Hickenlooper. But with momentum in their favor, Democrats hope to win battleground state Senate races, retain the House and claim the governor’s race in November to secure the trifecta.

The differences in the agenda for the next four years between Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton became even more clear in the final debate, which was sponsored by the University of Denver, Denver7 and The Denver Post.

Here’s a look at three things we learned:

1. Polis pledges to make climate change a priority

On the question of climate change, Polis touted his goal of moving the state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 — a plan that is expected to carry a huge price tag and includes no mechanism to pay for it.

“Climate change is not only an abstract topic, it’s affecting jobs in Colorado today, it’s affecting our quality of life,” he said.

To address the issue, he said he would continue a Hickenlooper effort to adopt lower emissions standards for vehicles, as part of a push to reduce pollution and move the industry toward electric cars. In addition, he would offer incentives for communities and homeowners to install solar panels and appoint officials who will push public utilities toward renewable energy sources.

Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer, said he supports an all-options energy plan but he won’t mandate what energy source utilities should use. He also suggested the moves would lead to greater costs for consumers.

MORE: Here’s where Walker Stapleton and Jared Polis stood on the issues in the first debate of the governor’s race.

2. Polis still won’t say how he will pay for his agenda

Pressed repeatedly by debate moderators and his Republican rival, Polis refused to outline how he would pay for his most ambitious agenda items, whether the renewable energy goal or a single-payer health care system.

Stapleton estimated it could cost $90 billion — which may even serve as a low-ball estimate — and pulled out a Mega Millions lottery ticket to show that Polis could win and still not cover the costs.

“The probability of him doing that is the same as the probability of enacting any of his plans without raising taxes on hard-working Coloradans, from health care to energy, or alternatively on the business community and that’s not the Colorado we want,” said Stapleton, who opposes any tax hikes.

Polis is not supporting Amendment 73, a tax hike for schools, or Proposition 110, a tax hike for transportation. But he has made clear he would seek voter approval for tax hikes to cover the cost of those priorities — as well as support lifting spending caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

3. The future of marijuana policy is also at stake

Polis, an advocate for marijuana legalization who has raised money from the industry, said he would sign a bill to allow public consumption of cannabis that would include smoking indoors, which is currently against the law. Hickenlooper vetoed a similar measures earlier this year.

Stapleton said he agreed with the governor and later used Polis’ stance to suggest that the Democrat backed “expanding recreational drugs.”

Polis rejected the suggestion, despite his support for policies to boost the industry, and he added that he’s never smoked marijuana.

Say what?

In addition to those big points, the candidates offered a number of eyebrow-raising comments:

  • Stapleton said he supported a $12 minimum wage; Polis said the same. It’s a greater surprise for the Republican. His party has blasted Polis for agreeing with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
  • The way Polis talks about his renewable energy goals makes it seem he can envision the end of the oil and gas industry in Colorado. On the topic of setbacks between buildings and drilling operations, he said this: “We need to do a better job in the meantime — before we reach that renewable energy future — making sure that any kind of extraction is done in a safe way.” So once the goal is reached, setbacks won’t be a problem?
  • Asked if they supported firing Broncos head coach Vance Joseph, Stapleton said not yet. But he suggested the team should “maybe” look at firing Chad Kelly, the backup quarterback arrested Tuesday on a trespassing charge. Polis demurred but said a change is needed.
  • One reason Polis said he supported allowing public consumption of marijuana is that “it could be safer if people aren’t always driving under the influence.” But critics say the exact opposite — that public consumption would increase drugged driving.
  • Stapleton tried to nuance his position on immigration after declining in a Republican primary debate to criticize the Trump administration’s policy on separating families. In this debate, he said to Polis: “I don’t support separating families, and that’s totally mischaracterizing my point of view on the issue.”
  • On the topic of the migrant caravan to the U.S. southern border, Polis said that only a few people would get asylum and “many will be sent back” for illegally entering the country. But he suggested the national emergency is actually “an emergency of character.”

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