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Politics and Government

In exclusive interview, Gov. Jared Polis previews his legislative agenda and bold, new approach

The Democrat plans to move aggressively to implement his priorities, starting with executive orders as early as this week

Gov. Jared Polis stands in his office before his inauguration at the Colorado State Capitol on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Pool)
  • Credibility:

The 43rd governor of Colorado didn’t have time to move into his new office before he took the oath Tuesday, and his desk sits mostly bare except for a ceramic plaque that says: “BE BOLD.”

The slogan is how Democrat Jared Polis won the seat and exactly how he says he will govern for the next four years.

In his first sit-down interview as governor, just hours after the inauguration, Polis told The Colorado Sun that “bold” describes how his administration will approach “anything and everything.”

“I will do things differently,” he said. “And we are focused on the big ideas — meaning things that will really move the dial and improve the quality of life for Coloradans.”

His administration is prepared to push aggressively on a number of issues — from education to health care to corporate tax breaks — from the start, leveraging the Democratic majority in the General Assembly to advance his agenda.

“If it was easy, it would have been done already,” he said. “I don’t think anything we are tackling is easy because it wouldn’t have been left to be done if it was.”

Before he even took office, he convened a meeting that included his predecessor, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and education and transportation advocates to look at ways to overhaul the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a controversial topic.

And instead of waiting for legislative action, Polis plans to issue executive orders as early as this week to begin to implement his campaign pledges, including one to put the state on a path toward 100 percent renewable energy.

MORE: Jared Polis makes history as he becomes Colorado’s governor. Here’s what it means.

His agenda will come into full view Thursday as he delivers his first State of the State address to lawmakers. Polis plans to make his pitch to a broader audience than the lawmakers gathered in the House chamber.

“What the State of the State provides is an opportunity to go beyond thematic (of the inaugural address), go beyond campaign rhetoric of yesterday,” he said.

He added he wants the speech to set the tone “with both the general public — which is one of the audiences — as well as the Republicans and Democrats in the state assembly to prepare to make some bold progress on the issues that matter.”

In an early preview of the speech, Polis told The Sun his legislative priorities for his first year in office are four-fold:

  • Fund free full-day kindergarten statewide
  • “Take real action” to save residents money on health care and insurance costs
  • Make progress toward expanding renewable energy consumption
  • Reduce or eliminate tax breaks for corporations and special interests and provide an income tax break for small businesses and residents

“I see those as the big things that can really move the bar for the quality of life in Colorado,” Polis said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis jokes with members of the state House and Senate before his inauguration at the Colorado State Capitol on Tuesday, January 8, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post/Pool)

A more hands-on approach to lawmaking

Even with full Democratic control at the Capitol, his agenda won’t come easily.

The state’s budget forecasts suggest Colorado only has roughly $200 million in new money to spend after existing obligations are covered, and other areas need attention, including health care, higher education and transportation — the latter of which is the top priority for Republicans.

“Obviously they made a campaign promise and they would like to deliver on that promise,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, the top Democratic budget writer. He expressed caution, saying “we have a lot of competing demands.”

And when it comes to health care and corporate tax breaks, Polis must defeat entrenched interests at the Capitol with a lot of money on the line. He did not identify which of the more than $4 billion in state tax deductions, credits and other breaks he planned to target, but outlined a guiding principle.

“Of course there will be those that want to defend them because there is a narrow benefit from them. But there is a wide cost to them,” he said. “So we’ll look forward to focusing on the broadest possible benefit to the most number of people.”

The early reactions to Polis’ approach are mixed. Colorado lawmakers began the legislative session Friday and the headstart created a disconnect with the new administration on the first floor of the Capitol.

Polis acknowledged that he didn’t have the “presence the governor would normally have in the early days of session.” But the five-term Boulder congressman promised a “robust … presence from here on out” and a more hands-on approach than his predecessor.

Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert gave Polis high marks for his efforts to reach out to legislative leadership — including the minority party — but suggested one sticking point could be  spending.

“Congress can deficit spend and we can’t,” he said. “It’s a very different environment. I don’t want to suggest he doesn’t know (the difference), but he comes from experience where a dollar doesn’t really mean a dollar. And here it does.”

The Democratic majorities in the House and Senate give Polis plenty of runway, but the risk is going too far, alienating lawmakers and voters at the same time.

“I think the mood of the country and electorate is action prone,” said Lori Fox, a former legislative liaison for Hickenlooper. “People want to see something happen. But there is a risk of moving too fast without the normal expected stakeholder conversations.”

The question is significant when it comes to the first impression Polis wants to make with lawmakers — and voters.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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