Colorado Gov. Jared Polis reaches the 100-day mark of his administration Thursday with plenty to celebrate, even if he didn’t deliver on one of his top campaign promises.
This week, the Democrat’s top agenda item — a measure to provide state-funded, full-day kindergarten — won a key victory, and other legislation he supports is advancing quickly ahead of the session’s finale.
“I think we are getting more than what we would have expected in the first year,” Polis said Tuesday in an interview with The Colorado Sun.
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In the campaign, Polis pledged to take action on a number of fronts early in his term, but the most prominent was his 100-day health care roadmap. The 10-point plan outlined “commonsense steps we can immediately take to improve health care in Colorado,” his campaign told supporters in September.
The Polis administration achieved one element of the plan to improve hospital transparency and made progress toward a handful others. But his initiatives to reconfigure health insurance zones and address the doctor shortage in rural areas never took hold. And collectively, the entire plan didn’t meet his self-imposed deadline.
Much of the health care roadmap is expected to reach the finish line by the end of the legislative session May 3, and Polis explained that his plan was essentially tied to the 120-day lawmaking term.
“I’m very pleased — actually surprised, surprisingly pleased — that most of the bills on our roadmap are on track to pass,” he said. “I’m very confident the vast bulk of our agenda to save people money on health care will likely be signed into law this session. It may take 120 days instead of 100 days, but it was really about the session itself.”
The health care plan is one of more than 125 promises Polis made in his gubernatorial campaign that The Sun is monitoring as part of its Promise Tracker project, first launched the day after the November election. The Sun will continuously track and evaluate the Polis administration’s work on its promises throughout his four-year term, marking them in one of five categories: No Movement, In Progress, Partial Credit, Accomplished or Broken.
An early analysis shows that Polis has not taken action on the majority of his campaign promises he made. But he is making progress toward achieving a third of the pledges.
So far, Polis accomplished or partially achieved a handful of his goals, and he’ll make significantly more headway once he signs the budget package and Democratic lawmakers deliver other elements of their shared agenda.
“The Democrats have made progress on the popular pieces of their agenda and Polis’ promises — not on every single piece yet, of course — but pretty close to being in line with what most observers would expect from a Democratic-controlled state in the first 100 days of unified control,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
The toughest moments in the first 100 days
From the start, Polis promised a different approach that embraced bold policy ideas, echoing the mantra that carried his campaign to an easy win in November. And in his first State of the State address to lawmakers, he made more than 40 different proposals for the legislative session and many of them were derived from his campaign policy papers.
The pressure to deliver on his pledges, in addition to the tension inherent in new leadership, led to early miscues in the legislative session. Polis’ initial strong-arm approach angered lawmakers, who didn’t appreciate the administration lobbying for his budget priorities or the apparent threats to prevent state agencies from consulting on certain legislation. Other remarks undercut Democratic legislative leaders and a power-struggle emerged that ultimately led to the demise of one of his top priorities, an income tax cut.
House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said the messages from the governor and legislative leaders sounded different at the start of session, but “most of the bumps have been smoothed out.”
“I think we came into the session understanding it was going to be hard, there was going to be a lot of moving pieces, there was going to be bumps in the road, it was going to be very new for a lot of people involved,” he said.
For Polis, who served five terms in the U.S. House, the most challenging moments since he took office Jan. 8 were unrelated to the legislative session.
Just two weeks into this term, teachers in Denver — the state’s largest school district — decided to go on strike, giving Polis his first major test. Polis didn’t act to prevent the strike but entered the fray to help mediate an intense contract dispute. The administration provided analysis of the teacher compensation packages at the center of the battle, and three days later, Polis celebrated a deal to end the walkout.
Later, a bomb cyclone in March and smaller storm in early April sent Polis into disaster-preparedness mode. A Colorado state trooper died in the March blizzard.
“The toughest parts were honestly the blizzard and the teacher strike, by far,” Polis said in the interview. “Those are obviously crises we had to deal with.”
In the background, his administration struggled to get its cabinet in place, a task that began during his transition into office and ended three months into his term with the appointment of Lu Córdova as director of the state revenue department.
“The first 100 days, a lot of that is just setting up, beginning to deliver what you said you would do for the people of Colorado and making sure you have the best people running all the state agencies for maximum efficiency,” said Polis, who described the start of his term as “exciting, exhilarating.”
Of his approximately 20 top appointments, six identify as people of color, which Polis said satisfies one of his early goals to appoint a racially diverse cabinet. In a first, a majority of the cabinet is women, Polis said. “It’s really exciting to be able to have a group of folks that surround us that really represent so many aspects of our state,” he said.
One campaign promise tied to his early days in office was a pledge to end the practice of using wage history to determine a woman’s salary in the state hiring process. He said he would make it “one of my first acts as governor,” and he’s taken no action on the salary issue to date.
In addition to the 100-day health care roadmap, it is the only other broken promise so far.
Polis keeps his campaign promises in mind
In the 2018 campaign, Democratic and Republican opponents criticized Polis for his grand commitments that cost billions of dollars to accomplish. A spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton’s campaign called Polis “an above-average salesman with no ability to deliver on the empty promises he sells.”
The need to deliver is something that remains on Polis’ mind. In meetings, the governor and his aides reference his campaign promises to voters as they craft policies.
At one point in the race, Polis suggested that he would achieve his goal to provide universal preschool and kindergarten and even create a plan for Front Range rail service in his first 100 days. But he later qualified that he would hope to “start the groundwork of getting it done.”
Full-day kindergarten remains the prize for Polis. The legislation won approval Tuesday in the state House on a 53-11 vote, and it is all but certain to pass in the Senate with $175 million earmarked for the program in the final state budget. The new state money is only expected to expand full-day kindergarten to 85% adoption, up from the current rate of 80%. But it will shift the cost to the state and away from local districts and parents.
Polis said the House vote was “beyond my wildest dreams of bipartisanship.”
And likewise, he touted Republican support — even if limited — for many of the health care measures he wants to finish this term.
Joe Hanel, a spokesman at the nonpartisan Colorado Health Institute, said it will take months, if not years, to realize the effects of the policies enacted from Polis’ 100-day roadmap — such as lower health insurance rates and prescription drug costs — but the work so far is consequential.
“A lot of this not achievable within 100 days, but you can count it as an accomplishment to get started on some of these items,” Hanel said. “We are seeing more action on health care from this administration and this legislature than we have in Colorado for a long, long time.”
Republicans balk at the Democratic agenda to date
The governor’s signed legislation Tuesday to allow local governments to implement tougher oil and gas regulations — a top campaign promise he can now count as an accomplishment. But the legislation is a point of contention with Republican lawmakers, who also are concerned about other moves to weaken the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and toughen gun laws.
“I thought he was campaigning as a moderate,” said state Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, who referenced Polis’ pledge to represent the entire state. “As far as the first 100 days, it’s shockingly not moderate at all.”
State Sen. Jerry Sonneberg, R-Sterling, said he sees from Polis exactly what he expected.
“He and his colleagues have rammed through their agenda. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us because he told us what he was going to do and here we are,” Sonnenberg said.
Still, he added, “I honestly thought that they would listen to the people of Colorado before this agenda got rammed (through) to understand how it would impact them. But that clearly didn’t happen, either.”
The Democratic legislative leaders are playing a key role in delivering on Polis’ promises, many of which representing shared goals.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said the coordination represents an acknowledgement that “when one of us is successful we all benefit, and when one of us fails, we all suffer.”
“We are not passing things simply because the governor asked us to do it and it’s for his image,” he added. “We are doing it because … we both agree. And that’s part of a shared agenda.”