Gov. Jared Polis celebrated his first-year wins during his second State of the State address Thursday, imploring the General Assembly to go even further by expanding preschool education and reducing Colorado’s prison population.
He also urged lawmakers to cut prescription drug costs and create a government-managed public option health care system.
The Democratic chief executive’s robust agenda will cost big money to implement, and lawmakers rejected significant elements a year ago. Once again, the legislature expressed immediate caution about whether it’s achievable in this year’s lawmaking term.
“The governor’s completely within his right to make any request he wants,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who, as a member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, helps write the state budget. “The legislature’s not obligated to give it to him.”
“It’s hard to understand how all of the things the governor talked about get paid for,” said Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert, of Parker.
The 57-minute speech began moments after protesters in the state House chamber — which was packed with elected officials and dignitaries — disrupted the decorum, shouting and waving signs demanding the governor and lawmakers ban hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking.
At least one demonstrator appeared to secure himself to a railing by supergluing his fingers together and had to be pried free before he could be removed. A handful of other people were forcibly taken out of the chamber by law enforcement officers. About two dozen were arrested, including juveniles, on a variety of charges, police said.
> In Colorado House, Democrats celebrate achievements and promise more. Here’s the agenda, annotated.
> Colorado’s Senate president was unusually progressive in his opening remarks. Here they are, annotated.
Here’s a transcript of Polis’ speech — lightly edited for length — with annotations from The Colorado Sun’s reporters highlighting the important lines and explaining what it all means.
A good morning to everyone.
The moment Polis began speaking, a man started yelling, “Ban fracking now!” He was referencing hydraulic fracturing, the controversial process through which natural gas and oil is extracted from the ground. The protester was still yelling as he was dragged out.
Before Polis even entered the House, a group of anti-oil and gas demonstrators began shouting and waving a banner in the House chambers. A photo shared on Twitter from outside the Capitol showed several of the activists in handcuffs being led away by officers.
Members of the Colorado State Patrol work to remove a protestor from the balcony of the house chambers just before Gov. Jared Polis entered the room. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Polis said he didn’t know what happened before he entered the House chamber and that the lone protester who tried to interrupt his speech was out of earshot. “I didn’t see it. I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there, and I just wouldn’t be the one to ask,” Polis told reporters later in the day.
Asked if he thinks fracking should be banned, Polis said: “That’s never been my position.”
… Before we begin, I want to offer my gratitude to the so many people whose tireless dedication to our safety allows us to gather here today and keeps Coloradans safe: the members of our military serving across Colorado and overseas, our law enforcement officers, our first responders and their families. They deserve our deepest thanks. …
We know that we are blessed to live in a place as special, as amazing as Colorado. Our state’s breathtaking natural beauty, our strong economy, our optimistic and forward-thinking people truly make Colorado the envy of the nation and attract people from all over the globe who want to visit us, and sometimes move here to enjoy the Colorado Way of Life.
That doesn’t happen by accident. This success happens because for decades, Coloradans from across the Continental Divide and across the political divide have worked together in good faith to find common ground, to protect what keeps Colorado special and to build an even better state. …
Working together last year, we lowered health care costs, we lowered taxes for small businesses, we provided more affordable housing options, we made the largest-ever state investment in transportation and delivered free full-day kindergarten for all.
This section of Polis’ speech received a standing ovation from Democrats, but no Republicans stood. The breakneck pace of Colorado’s 2019 legislative session remains a sore subject for the GOP, and they’ve warned that if Democrats try to work as aggressively in 2020 that they will loudly protest and attempt to halt policies.
That’s a pretty darn good start for this General Assembly. On issue after issue, the good-faith and thoughtful and bipartisan work of the members of this chamber really helped move our state forward. You know, we should be proud that 95% of bills that I signed last year were passed with Republican and Democratic votes.
A Colorado Sun analysis found that 96% of legislation passed by the legislature in 2019 received bipartisan support upon final vote in either the House or Senate. That’s not exactly the entire story, however. Republicans were deeply upset with many of the policies Democrats passed, including a rewrite of oil and gas regulations and the passage of a bill creating the red flag gun law. Most of the high-profile bills drew near party-line votes.
… Our state has seen tremendous gains in jobs, in economic growth, in population and tourism. In national and international prestige. And yet when I travel across our state and listen to constituents, and I’m sure it’s the same with you in your districts, it’s clear folks still feel like they’re on an economic treadmill where paychecks just don’t keep up with the increasing cost of living.
From student loans to health care costs to rent or mortgage –– Coloradans feel like they are running faster and faster on a treadmill, but often not getting ahead. Too many of our fellow Coloradans are anxious that just one hardship — a job loss, a medical emergency, a recession, a natural disaster, an unforeseen challenge — can send them into a financial tailspin.
There is a generation of older Coloradans who wonder when or even if they will be able to retire with dignity. And there is a generation of younger people, saddled with student debt, threatened by the climate crisis, who fear for their future and the world that they’ll inherit.
Polis has made climate change a key part of his policy agenda, but some — led by the Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate activists — think he should be doing more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That was evident by the protests before and during Polis’ speech. “I’m sure there are Coloradans who think I should be doing more or less on every issue under the sun,” Polis told reporters after his speech.
And Coloradans are wondering, in this ever-changing modern economy, how to get ahead financially, while also finding the time to enjoy the things that make life worth living. Whether that’s a day out exploring our beautiful public lands, or taking a family vacation or just making it home in time to go to your kids’ soccer game. Just a chance to get off that treadmill for a little while. Well, with all due respect to the exercise equipment industry, we don’t prefer treadmills in Colorado. We prefer trails.
We love and enjoy to climb; striving to reach the peak, identifying the next peak and doing it all over again, always reaching to achieve more. Stagnation just isn’t in our DNA. When a challenge arises, we get moving. I mean, why do you think I wear my blue sneakers everywhere? Right? This is who we are. It’s why we are so successful.
Polis is famous for the blue sneakers he wears, even with suits. Recently he has been donning a pair of Colorado-flag sneakers made by the brand Altra, owned by VF Corporation which is headquartered in Denver.
And so it is our job as public officials to build a state that allows Coloradans to reach the mountaintop and the next mountaintop — by saving families money, by protecting the natural wonders that grace every corner of our state. By widening the pathways to prosperity, instead of leaving too many folks feeling like they’re just running in place.
And that pathway to prosperity often begins with a great education. Last year at this very podium, I asked you to take the bold step of providing free full-day kindergarten for every kid in Colorado. And you delivered.
This was one of several olive branches Polis offered to the legislature, both Republicans and Democrats, sharing credit with them — which is something lawmakers feel he doesn’t do enough. Lawmakers from both parties gave him a standing ovation in response.
In terms of reaching across the aisle, full-day kindergarten was one area where Polis was able to bridge the partisan divide. One of his first calls after winning the governor’s race was to Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, of Salida, who became a lead sponsor on the legislation and collected support from other members of the GOP.
…Thanks to parents and advocates and dedicated legislators, –– like Rep. Jim Wilson and Rep. Barbara McLaughlin and Sen. Rhonda Fields and Sen. Jeff Bridges, members of the JBC –– a unanimous vote in the Senate and a supermajority in the House, we took a really important step to improve kids’ education, to save families money, and to boost our economy.
And I want to show you what that means. I want to introduce someone who is with us in the audience today. Samantha Hosmer, who is seated in the gallery, if you could rise, Samantha is a mother of two from Erie, she had to leave her job in 2014 to care for a newborn daughter, Fiona, and son, Logan, who needed extra support for social and emotional challenges. And this past fall, when it came time to enroll Fiona in kindergarten, Samantha and her husband knew that a full day at school was important, but it wasn’t something they could afford. Thanks to your work on free full-day kindergarten, Fiona is getting that full day of instruction, Samantha’s family is not only saving $300 a month but she was also able to return to work as a special-ed paraprofessional, enabling her to support her family and her two children with more earnings. Thank you, Samantha.
Polis’ speech mimicked a presidential State of the Union in that he invited a host of guests he could point to as an example of his policies working in the state. That was different from his first State of the State address year ago, where he focused on outlining his legislative agenda.
Eric Walker, the governor’s speech writer and former Democratic strategist, led the effort on the text. He wrote more than 600 speeches for Polis in 2019, but this is his first State of the State address.
Now it’s time to continue that work. Studies show that preschool is every bit as important and critical for a child’s development as kindergarten. It’s not that parents don’t want their kids in preschool — It’s that too many parents can’t afford it. Last year we were thrilled to work with you to fund 5,100 additional slots for at-risk children in the Colorado Preschool Program. And in my budget this year, we’re proposing to help an additional 6,000 children attend preschool, which for the first time will bring coverage to half of all eligible Colorado families.
This is one of the governor’s top priorities of the year — and his term. A year ago, lawmakers put it to the side without money to fund a full expansion. And it faces a tough climb again. Some Colorado school districts don’t have enough classroom space to add more preschool children. Polis has proposed dedicating $10 million from the BEST Grant Program to preschool-facility needs. But if approved, it would reduce spending on school construction in other areas.
And we should feel good about reaching this milestone. But it has taken more than three decades of work to get half the job done. We know we must do better, which is why over my first term I’m committed to achieving universal access to quality preschool for 4-year-olds by the end of my first term.
And early childhood education isn’t just about giving our kids a great start in life. Although truly that’s where we start. Every dollar invested in high-quality preschool produces a $7 return on investment to taxpayers with higher earnings, lower special education needs, less dependency on public assistance and lower crime rates. This isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do. And it’s time to get it done.
The studies about the benefits of early childhood education vary in results and methodology, but Polis’ number here fits within the range. A 2009 report from the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs determined that for every $1 invested, it can yield $7-12 in returns to society.
You know, in addition to making essential investments in early childhood education, we also worked with you to address other areas of our K-12 education last year. We expanded loan forgiveness for rural educators to help address our rural teacher shortage. Extended dropout prevention programs to end the school-to-prison pipeline. And last year, we reduced the budget stabilization factor — the debt owed to our schools — by $100 million, and this year we’re calling for an additional $52 million investment. And while we’re at it, our teachers, one of the most important professions in our society, shouldn’t have to work a second or third job just to make ends meet.
The state implemented the budget stabilization factor, also known as the negative factor, in 2009 as it struggled to pay for required increases in K-12 spending during the Great Recession. This school year, districts have been operating with about $572 million less in state funding than they need.
Money to reduce the factor is a perennial battle at the Capitol. Polis requested $52 million to reduce the debt, but it’s far less than the approximately $109 million a year the Colorado Education Association wants to see to end the negative factor in the coming years.
We know that under Colorado’s system of local control, individual districts set teacher salaries. But when I speak with school leaders, they want to pay teachers better. But because of the fiscal rules, the state spends too much money backfilling some of the wealthiest districts, not just in the state, but in the country. And that is truly at the root of our school funding issues. Together, we can fix this systemic problem and finally raise pay for our hardworking educators.
Colorado’s school funding formula, established in 1994, has long been criticized for not giving enough money to school districts and for not distributing state funds in an equitable way. And here Polis is pointing the blame at the mill levy equalization efforts as the culprit. Many school districts cut their assessments on property after the passage of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, leading to the current system of different rates.
The broader legislative effort to address the school funding formula, three years in the making, stalled right before the start of the legislative session as the committee ran out of time to finalize legislation.
Education is incredibly important, but we can’t fulfill our promise of a better future for our kids if we don’t do a better job of keeping them safe when they walk through the schoolhouse door.
One of the most difficult days of my administration personally for our state of Colorado was responding to the STEM school shooting in Highlands Ranch, where eight students were injured, and Kendrick Castillo lost his life heroically preventing more bloodshed.
The May shooting was Polis’ first foray into being the state’s consoler-in-chief, an unwelcome position that his predecessors have experienced through tragedies like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
Polis has mostly been mum on his experience during the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting, declining to speak to The Colorado Sun about how he responded to the event, so his remarks Thursday are among the first he’s given on how he handled the tragedy.
Kendrick’s parents John and Maria are with us today, and I want to show our acknowledgement for the heroism of their son.
John Castillo has become a familiar face in the fight for more school safety in Colorado. He tweeted “back at the Capitol” before Thursday’s address.
I’ll never forget visiting with them shortly after the STEM tragedy. John told me how he would spend every weekend together hunting, building robotics, creating memories. He told me Kendrick was more than just his only son — but was his best friend.
Like millions of parents across our state ––and many of us here are parents –– I imagined myself in their shoes. And I know that we all did. The disbelief. The devastation. The anger. And the pain. The despair of losing a child to senseless violence is a weight that too many parents have been forced to bear for too long.
And I want to commend your initial work, the school safety interim committee, for your bipartisan work on this important issue.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, D-Commerce City, advanced five bills members believe will help make schools safer. One would allow public school students to have excused absences for behavioral health needs. Another would expand behavioral health training for teachers.
The legislation, however, doesn’t touch on gun control, which is expected to come up again in the 2020 legislative session. Republicans are wary.“Hopefully they get realistic,” House Republican Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, said after the speech. “I think we need to have realistic solutions on what can actually work, not pie in the sky and gun control solutions. We can actually protect our schools in a decent way and most of that is actually going to be arming good personnel in the schools to do that.”
I look forward to working with all of you to do more to keep our kids safe, because no parent should have to go through what John and Maria have gone through. Every child in our state deserves a safe opportunity to learn, to make friends, to create memories, and to grow up and graduate and move on to a successful life. Thank you for joining us in recognition of your tragic sacrifice John and Maria Castillo.
You know, most of the time, but not all the time, that path to success involves some higher education — whether that’s a work certificate, a credential, a two-year degree, a four-year degree in industry, a recognized certificate, or an apprenticeship –– but, you know, rising costs are putting higher education out of reach for too many Coloradans. And the burden of student debt is not only holding back a generation of young people from buying a home or having their own families, it’s also holding back our economy as a whole.
So, last year we took action to increase the general fund investment in higher education by a historic 13%, an increase that we are building upon in our new budget.
Polis last year introduced a roadmap focused on college affordability, with several initiatives intended to help put students on a higher education track and ensure they see that track through.
However, under the governor’s 2020 budget proposal, in-state tuition at Colorado’s state-run colleges and universities could rise as much as 3% on average. Polis wants to spend $147 million on higher education, up a relatively small $26 million from the current fiscal year and not nearly enough when considering what institutions say they need.
Together we expanded concurrent enrollment and dual enrollment programs so that students can spend less time and less money getting the degree they need to succeed. And thanks to new legislation last year, we are putting $100 into a college savings account for every single Colorado child born or adopted beginning January 1st of this year.
Concurrent enrollment allows high school students to take college courses and build college credit, helping them save time and money on higher education.
The programming has become increasingly popular across Colorado. During the 2017-18 school year, about 35% of all public high school juniors and seniors – 45,787 students – were concurrently enrolled in postsecondary courses, according to an annual concurrent enrollment report released by the Colorado Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Department of Education.
I want to take a moment to congratulate Jorge Esteban Herrera-Delgado, born at 12:07 a.m. on New Year’s Day in Montrose, and Cecily DiCerbo, born at 12:13 a.m. in Summit County. The first two beneficiaries of this new college savings program.
I also want to congratulate the authors of that proposal — Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a new dad himself who narrowly missed the deadline for a college savings account, and Representative Leslie Herod — and I want to highlight the next affordability effort they are spearheading called the “Get On Your Feet” loan forgiveness plan. A program that provides debt relief to Coloradans who graduate with a two- or four-year degree and are on an income-based repayment program, helping them on the first two years after they graduate as they are transitioning to the workforce, often when the need is the greatest.
The legislation was one of the first bills introduced in the Colorado Senate for the 2020 lawmaking term. Fenberg says it will only cost a few million dollars each year, a drop in the bucket when compared to the cost of keeping tuition flat in the state.
You know, this work isn’t just about helping student borrowers get out of a hole — it’s about growing the economy for everyone. You know, after graduation day, when the caps and gowns are hanging in the closet and the diplomas are hanging on the wall, graduates deserve an economy that’s brimming with opportunity to earn a good living.
We need to keep our economy strong, and also we need to make sure that our economy works for everyone, and when I say everyone, that means, everyone. Because in Colorado, we believe that your future should not be pre-determined by the color of your skin, or your parents’ income, or your religion, or your age, or your disability status, or where you live in our great state, or where you were born, or who you love, or your gender identity. We need a Colorado for all. And that means everybody.
That’s why I was proud to work with you to sign a bill guaranteeing that men and women get paid the same wage for the same work. It’s why we are proud to support our minority women and veteran-owned businesses.
That’s why we were excited to open the door of our brand new Veterans One Source Center in Grand Junction several months ago to increase pay for some of our brave National Guard service members. We just deployed 150 to the Balkans last week. I was able to join them as they said farewell to their families for about 10 months as they represent Colorado proudly on their peacekeeping work in the Balkans.
The center opened in May as a single-source place for veterans to apply for benefits and get connected to other services. It’s modeled on one in Denver and cost the state $3.5 million, according to The Daily Sentinel.
It’s also why our administration expanded apprenticeships to support the next generation of workers. It’s why we passed bipartisan criminal justice reform measures that will expand opportunities, save taxpayers money, and I know I look forward to continuing to work with you on vital pre-trial reforms to build on that progress.
Colorado lawmakers tried and failed last year to pass legislation that would expand pre-trial monitoring throughout Colorado to avoid sending people to jail while they await trial and force them into a financial bind as they seek to pay their bail and be released.
Critics say the effort must be adequately funded before it can be implemented, otherwise rural areas will be on the hook for an expensive endeavor.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is among those championing this legislation. Groups like the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council are concerned about its implementation.
This is strictly a Democratic effort, meanwhile. Republicans are wary of the sweeping criminal justice reforms that have been passed and proposed since the start of the 2019 legislative session. When Polis reached this section of his speech, Democrats rose and applauded him while GOP legislators stayed seated.
We are proud in Colorado to continue to support our aerospace industry that bolsters our national defense and creates good high paying jobs. We are honored to work with tribal leadership, including those represented here today, to expand opportunities in our native communities. It’s also why we’re investing in every corner of our state: enhancing rural economic development, helping our rural hospitals thrive, investing in rural broadband, supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers and keeping Colorado the number one state in the nation for industrial hemp.
We also look forward to working with you to help folks retire with dignity, and I’m proud to join you in supporting the Colorado Secure Saving Plan Board recommendations, which Treasurer Dave Young has been leading, to help more Coloradans save for a secure retirement.
This widely anticipated report is due at the end of February and Polis is endorsing the idea of an automatic 401k-style retirement plan for all workers in Colorado. The legislation is expected to include an opt-out provision.
After the address, Treasurer Dave Young told The Sun that the cost of not taking action to encourage retirement savings could cost the state $10 billion in the long run in safety-net services and decreased tax revenue.
And finally, in the face of unprecedented hostility from this White House toward our immigrant and refugee communities, we can say loudly and proudly that in Colorado we stand with DREAMers and with refugees.
Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter to the Trump administration in December declaring that Colorado would like to continue to accept refugees. The president’s executive order allowed states to opt-out. Other governors are struggling with the question, but Polis said Colorado is “eager to assist and support refugees’ successful integration into our communities.”
I was proud to appoint Marissa Molina, the first DREAMer in Colorado history to serve on a state board or commission, to the board of Metropolitan State University, and I want to take a moment to recognize Marissa who is here with us today. Marissa?
In Colorado, we still need the federal government to pass comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform, and I certainly urge the Supreme Court to do the right thing by the DREAMers. But in the meantime, we should acknowledge how aspiring Americans like Marissa are already working today to make Colorado even better.
In Colorado, we don’t build walls of exclusion — we build ladders of opportunity for everybody. But of course, opportunity is only one side of the coin. The other side is affordability. And as our state has grown, so has the cost of living.
The common thread in our work is to save Coloradans money — whether that’s on education, on health care, on utility bills, on housing — and we should do more to save Coloradans money on their taxes, too. This year, due to our strong economy and a bipartisan deal from 2005, every Coloradan will receive real tax relief as our state income taxes go down to a historic low of 4.5%. And that’s for all taxpayers, that’s for individuals, for corporations and for every small business in our state.
Polis is celebrating a temporary income tax cut that is a result of revenue caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — even though he worked to eliminate refunds in future years with his support of Proposition CC, which failed in the 2019 election.
Republicans applauded the line, despite grumblings about Polis’ double-talk on the issue. Meanwhile, Democrats were less than enthused.
In addition, working with you last session, we delivered a tax cut for 144,000 small businesses — our retailers, our mom and pop shops — by cutting wasteful subsidies to big box retailers, and we still had money leftover to invest in affordable housing and improving health care.
I am very enthusiastic about working with you to deliver permanent income tax relief, and we should continue down the path of eliminating tax breaks for special interests so that we can lower the rates for everyone without reducing state revenue. A broader base taxed at a lower rate will boost economic growth with the ancillary benefit of preventing the corrosive influence of crony capitalism.
The governor proposed a permanent income tax cut a year ago, and Democrats rejected the idea. This year, Polis is pushing again on the issue, but House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, made clear in her opening-day remarks she believes it’s the wrong direction.
“Permanent tax cuts that only further inequalities, exacerbate the achievement gap, make our higher ed institutions less competitive and hinder our ability to meet our already dire transportation needs will not put us on the path to becoming a more prosperous and equitable state,” Becker said in response to Polis’ idea.
In the 1960s, President Kennedy delivered a historic tax cut, saying the tax system, “exerts too heavy a drag on growth … siphons out too large a share of purchasing power … [and] reduces the financial incentives for personal effort, investment and risk-taking.” And in 2010, President Obama directed his economic team toward, “closing loopholes and simplifying income taxes for corporations and individuals … to rid the code of its complex buildup of deductions, credits and exemptions, thereby broadening the base of taxes collected and allowing for lower rates.”
Now to our credit, our state taxes are much better than the federal one. So let’s start with some credit where it’s due. But we also know that it’s not just Democrats like JFK and Obama who want to save you money on taxes. I think I may have heard a thing or two about it from my Republican friends and colleagues about it as well.
So in the spirit of collaboration, I am proud to announce today we will be creating a bipartisan study group to work on making our tax code more fair by looking at ways to broaden the base and lower the rate by the end of my first term, and we look forward to working with you to make that happen. Broadening the base and lowering the rate will lead to higher wages and make balancing the family budget that much easier.
In the meantime, I certainly look forward to working with you on other creative ways so we can provide tax relief and invest in roads and schools. And as we work to broaden our base and lower the rates, we also need to focus fiscally on saving more for a rainy day.
Last year, I asked the legislature to put away an additional $180 million into savings to replenish what was spent in the Great Recession, but only $40 million was placed in reserve. So this year I urge you to replenish our reserves and recessionary tools with an additional $118 million to bring us in line with the national average and better prepare us for a future downturn, whenever that happens.
The governor’s push to put more money toward reserves — increasing the rate to 7.5% from the current 7.25% — comes as he asks for millions more for his priorities. The conflict frustrates lawmakers who argue the governor can’t have it both ways.
Moreno, a Democratic budget writer from Commerce City, said Polis needs to pick: “I think he needs to ask himself how important is the reserve compared to all the other requests” in his budget proposal.
Pressed on the issue after his speech by The Sun, Polis sidestepped the question without acknowledging the conflict.
I want to commend my cabinet and budget director for taking the lead on this by finding $73 million in savings, in general fund savings, $238 million in savings overall, to make sure taxpayers are getting the biggest bang for their buck.
We are also working with Treasurer Young on a legislative package that will provide future legislatures and governors with the tools to rebuild and replenish our coffers as a recovery is happening. With so many pressing needs today, putting money in reserves is always a hard ask. I get that. But we truly have an obligation to save during good times like these so we can weather the next storm whenever it comes.
Young told The Sun the legislative bills are still in the works but it would include a toolkit to provide more transparency on state spending and a larger required reserve account. The state’s reserves are currently below the 7.6% national average, he said, and it’s holding back the state from getting a higher credit rating.
You know, at the end of the day, there is one issue that from family budgets and worries and costs continues to reign over so many others when it comes to affordability, and that’s the high cost of health care. Americans still pay twice as much for health care than those living in other developed nations, and for most of us it’s our biggest expense after rent or mortgage.
Nearly one in five Coloradans forgo health care because of cost. One in three Coloradans can’t afford their prescription drugs they need, often leading to higher costs over time. And 13% of Americans — one out eight people who live in this country — said they know someone who died because they couldn’t afford treatment. This must change.
And it is starting to change for the better, thanks to your bipartisan work — the tremendous work of the Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera who heads up our Office of Saving People Money on Health Care.
Last session, we passed historic bipartisan legislation to tackle surprise out-of-network billing, enact new transparency requirements for hospitals, allow for the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
All of these are a work in progress. The out-of-network billing regulations, which went into effect on Jan. 1, are currently being fine-tuned through rulemaking hearings. The report on hospital finances that is one consequence of the new transparency requirements has not yet been released.
And, while state regulators are preparing to submit an application to the federal government to import drugs from Canada, opposition from the Canadian government and the pharmaceutical industry clouds that program’s future. Meanwhile, lawmakers this session could consider expanding the program to include more countries other than Canada.
And perhaps the biggest accomplishment in health care last year was the reinsurance program — a bipartisan effort led by Reps. Julie McCluskie and Janice Rich and Sens. Kerry Donovan and Bob Rankin. Thanks to reinsurance, health care rates on the individual market have gone down this year by an average of 20%. And the savings are even higher where Coloradans were getting ripped off the worst, in the Eastern Plains, southern Colorado, and the Western Slope.
The individual market is where people who buy health coverage on their own — without help from an employer — get their insurance. It covers about 7% of the state, according to the Colorado Health Institute. But it’s important to note that this premium drop applies to the underlying premiums. In some cases, reinsurance meant that what lower-income people actually pay — after receiving federal tax credits — was set to increase. It’s still unclear how many people ended up paying more as a result of the program, though.
And we should be proud of this work. But you know a lot of the time, the best ideas don’t come from inside this building — they come directly from our communities. And I want to give you another example of what’s happening in healthcare and how our work is helping to deliver savings with you. In Summit County, the Peak Health Alliance pools individuals and employers together, and uses their combined purchasing power to negotiate down the prices with hospitals to directly to save consumers money. Our Division of Insurance is already working with the Colorado Business Group on Health to help replicate and expand this successful consumer purchasing model in Grand, Eagle, Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties and I know there is more to come.
There’s a bit more nuance needed to understand this part of Polis’ speech. The Business Group on Health is seeking to create a purchasing alliance that would be statewide — and could include state employees. Meanwhile, the Peak Health Alliance is expanding to nine more counties, including Grand, Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan. And leaders in Eagle County are looking at forming their own alliance.
I want to introduce you to someone that our policies directly helped, who saw firsthand how our broken system is and how the decisions we make in this building can help fix that. Glenn Brady is a small business owner in Summit County. Glenn is a single father, because his wife, Kelly, tragically passed away from cancer in 2018, leaving a hole in their family. I met with his three daughters who I met right before this speech. As if the loss of a loved one were not enough, the Bradys were hit with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt. Glenn was also frustrated by the high cost of insurance for himself and his three daughters, Luci, Eva and Adelaide. But thanks to the bipartisan reinsurance program that we passed this year, and the peak Health Alliance, Glenn is saving $7,000 a year on the very same health care plan he had last year.
Before this he was telling me he might have saved even more than $7,000 as he was tallying it up. And what that means, because health care is something — you have three daughters, you’re a single parent — you simply can’t go without it, right? And to be able to afford that, and also that he is able to honor the promises that he made to his late wife Kelly, that his kids would have the best education and tutoring and braces, and that their death wouldn’t interrupt their kids activities or lives. And the savings that Glenn has realized are helping to pay for those things that Kelly wanted for her kids, and fulfill the promises that he made to Kelly and her final wishes and ensure that their wonderful three daughters grow up with all of the opportunities we would want for our own sons and daughters. Thank you, Glenn.
The reinsurance is delivering real savings, but the peace of mind of having health care coverage is truly priceless. We are asking in our budget for a modest $18 million investment in reinsurance to continue to protect these savings for Glenn and for hundreds of thousands of Coloradans for another year.
This number is only part of the picture. Polis has asked the legislature to approve $60 million in new funding for the reinsurance program. Of that, $18 million is needed to keep the program’s savings at the level achieved in 2020.
When the legislature approved the reinsurance program last year, it set out savings goals in the bill but didn’t approve enough funding to reach those. The Polis administration shifted money to the program’s first year to meet the bill’s savings goals, but that left the $18 million deficit for the program’s second year if it wanted to maintain those savings.
The administration has said the remainder of the $60 million is a down payment on a potential third year of the reinsurance program, which would need to be OK’d by lawmakers and possibly the federal government. Meanwhile, looming TABOR refunds in the next two fiscal years also complicate the budget picture for reinsurance.
We know that health care costs won’t magically go down on their own. We all need to work on it. We need good ideas from the left, the right, the center. From everywhere.
This year I’m supporting legislation to require prescription drug price transparency, and a proposal to provide Coloradans a public option to increase freedom and choice in the health care marketplace.
This could be the most controversial issue debated this session. One proposal would give the state government authority to limit hospital prices for people covered by the public option and has enraged hospitals.
Insurance companies, which would administer the public option, aren’t thrilled either, since the proposal calls for both insurers and hospitals to be compelled to participate. Already, groups tied to both industries have launched pricey ad blitzes against the plan.
Democrats, privately, are skeptical about its chances for passage. Even Becker has suggested it may take more than just one year to get right and pass.
“I think it was telling that there was a tepid response from both sides,” said Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert.
I want to thank Sen. Donovan and Reps. Dylan Roberts and Rep. Marc Catlin for their leadership on launching this important concept. Because it’s truly simple market economics. When you have more choices as a consumer, companies have to compete for your business, which means lower prices. We estimate that a public option will save Coloradans an additional 9-18% on their individual premiums.
Like reinsurance, the public option would initially only directly benefit people who buy health insurance without help from an employer. But the Polis administration hopes to expand it to small employers within a couple of years, which is why hospital and insurance companies are so concerned.
And furthermore, the public option will empower folks in the 22 Colorado counties where there is currently only one insurer, and no choice.
Polis here is referring to insurance companies that offer plans on the state’s exchange, Connect for Health Colorado.
People with employer-sponsored insurance in those counties may have more choices. This number is an increase from the 14 counties in 2019 that had only one insurer offering plans on the exchange. But in several of the eight new counties added to this list, the change wasn’t super noticeable because the insurer that pulled out of the county for 2020 had been offering plans in the county but didn’t actually have anyone there signed up for them — so no one lost coverage as a result.
Now look, we know there are powerful special interests with a stake in preserving the status quo. Colorado happens to have the second-highest hospital profit margin in the country. Front Range hospitals with over $2 billion in profits in 2018 — let me say that again, $2 billion of profits in a single year — are already using some of those profits from overcharging patients to run ads against legislation that would save families money. We won’t let that work.
This figure is for hospitals just in the Denver metro area. It’s also pre-tax profits.
The hospital system with the largest profits in 2018 — HealthOne, which operates Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center and others — made nearly $1.2 billion, but, because it’s for-profit, it also has to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes out of these profits.
It’s also unclear exactly who is paying for the anti-public option ads. The groups behind them are shadowy, and while we do know they are linked to hospitals and insurance companies, we don’t know which ones exactly.
Just this year, we’re also seeing pharmaceutical drugs coming to market with a price tag of over $2 million for a single dose.
Polis is referencing so-called gene therapy drugs, which are straining health systems nationwide to figure out how to pay for them. But for the patients who receive them — such as a 9-year-old Boulder girl — they are potentially life-saving miracles.
And of course those folks are going to fight legislation that brings some sanity to pricing. I get that. But we don’t represent the special interests — we represent the people. And the people are crying out for relief on high health care costs. And we can and will do better.
Another way that we can reduce health costs and ensure a healthier population is by standing up to big tobacco to reduce underage smoking and teenage vaping and address our highest-in-the-nation teenage vaping rate. And we look forward to working with you to make progress on that issue.
In 2019, Polis’ attempt to raise the state’s tobacco taxes and start taxing vaping products fell flat after a lobbying effort from big tobacco companies. A bill seeking to ask voters to sign off on the tax increases failed in the Democratic-led Senate.
This session, lawmakers will work on bills to license stores that sell tobacco and enforce the new national tobacco-purchasing age of 21 years old.
Reducing costs on our health care will also help us tackle one of our most pressing problems — our state’s behavioral, mental health and addiction crisis.
Last year, thanks to your work, I appointed a Behavioral Health Task Force to conduct a top-to-bottom review of Colorado’s behavioral health system and author a strategic plan for reform by June of this year.
The 25-member task force is collecting personal testimonials from Coloradans about their experiences in trying to find and pay for mental health care.
Its report, due in June, is supposed to provide a blueprint for improving the mental and behavioral health system throughout the state. Key tasks include improving children’s mental health, services for those without the ability to pay and mental health in the criminal justice system for those who have been found incompetent to face charges.
Our state already spends $1.4 billion on mental and behavioral health. We need to make our system patient-centric and more efficient so we can get the right help to more people when they need it.
I want to thank CDHS Director Michele Barnes, and Reps. Lois Landgraf, Tracy Kraft-Tharp, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet for their work on behavioral health, and Sen. Brittany Pettersen and Rep. Chris Kennedy and the members of the Opioid Study Committee for all of their strong work. I look forward to collaborating with all of you on desperately-needed reforms for behavioral health.
And by the way, often those reforms can save money. It’s a frustration of many hospitals and providers that they don’t have adequate step down facilities that may not only incur a lower billing rate but are more appropriate to deliver a better patient outcome for folks who shouldn’t necessarily be hospitalized, but need a kind of step down facility treatment.
And finally, we want to work with you to find a way to enact paid family and medical leave for more Coloradans. The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows for unpaid leave, but that often forces families to choose between getting a paycheck and caring for a newborn child, an aging parent, or themselves. And for many, who don’t have months of rent or mortgage saved up, that’s not a real choice. I’m hopeful we can construct a unique Colorado solution that provides paid time off to many more Coloradans as soon as possible, without straining state resources or forcing taxpayers to bear the financial risk.
The Denver Business Journal reported the different paths Colorado lawmakers can take on a paid family and parental leave bill. They include whether to have a state-run or private program and whether to exempt certain small businesses. It’s also unclear who will contribute to cover the costs: employees, employers or a mix of both.
Business interests are likely to fight hard, once again, against a paid family and parental leave bill. Last year, there were more than 200 lobbyists working against the legislation, which was scrapped because of a lack of Democratic votes for passage. The fight over this issue is likely to be second only to the battle over a public health insurance option.
I know that it’s no easy task. You know, one of my favorite sayings is, if it was easy, it would have been done already. We’re not left with easy things to do, we’re left with the hard ones. It’s going to take negotiations and compromise to get it done. But I’m committed to putting in the hard work. And in fact, let’s lead by example in the next fiscal year by extending this benefit to our exceptional state employees who make Colorado run. How about if we say just like President Trump and our congress did for our federal employees.
The governor asked for a paid-family leave program in state government a year ago, but budget writers didn’t sign off. The Polis administration suggested it would move forward on its own, setting up the potential for conflict. One estimate suggests the leave would cost $9 million and the state needs $3 million to backfill state positions for the eight-weeks of leave proposed.
You know, we need to plan not only for our own health and well-being, but for our state’s. And true leadership is planting trees that we know we may not live long enough to enjoy the shade of.
Previous generations were wise enough to understand that there are some things that you can’t replace. That once they are gone, they are gone. Of course, I’m talking about protecting our iconic public lands and wild areas and what keeps Colorado special — the weather, the ground under our feet, the water we drink, the air we breathe — really the most essential parts of what it means to be a Coloradan.
Our majestic lands define our state and also power our economy by making us an international destination for tourism and for outdoor recreation. But like so many things in our state, growth threatens our enjoyment and our benefit from some of our state’s natural treasures. In a very real sense, we are loving some of our public lands to death.
Admissions to state parks have skyrocketed, which is great, but that means there is more need for upgraded trails, bathrooms, parking and facilities. And it is urgent. So we are asking the legislature for a one-time infusion from the General Fund to make important capacity improvements across our state parks system. This money will also go toward opening our newest state park at Fishers Peak.
The governor’s office has requested $3 million for Fisher’s Peak and it’s a top priority for Senate President Leroy Garcia. In addition, the governor wants $7 million more for park upgrades to accommodate increased visitors.
I was delighted to stand with Senate President Garcia, Sen. Crowder, and JBC Chair Esgar as we announced our new spectacular state park that will run from near Trinidad all the way to the New Mexico border, and will reap enormous benefit for our economy and for southern Colorado residents.
We know that our state’s growth also affects our ever-scarce water supply. I was glad to see Proposition DD — led by House Majority Leader Alec Garnett and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville and Sens. Donovan and Cooke — pass at the ballot box. Congratulations. In addition to the future revenues that we’ll derive from DD, I’ve also called for another $10 million investment in the Colorado Water Plan. I look forward to meeting those commitments.
An analysis by Polis’ own administration predicts that no money will go toward Colorado’s Water Plan from Prop. DD, which legalized sports betting in the state, in its first full year of operation. Critics also say the money wagering will generate is only a drop in the bucket when taking into consideration the massive need.
But proponents, like Garnett, are urging patience and think the ballot measure will pay off in the long run. He and others say it’s extremely difficult to estimate how much interest there will be in sports betting.
As for Polis’ call for an extra $10 million in state budget money to go toward the Water Plan, it’s unclear if the legislature will follow through as they tighten their belt.
As we’ve all noticed, our growth isn’t just impacting our public lands and waters — it’s also making our roads and bridges more congested, less safe. All of us are spending more and more time sitting in traffic, which means less and less time with our loved ones and less economic productivity. Thanks to good-faith bipartisan work, the state was able to make a historic multi-year investment in state transportation infrastructure.
My administration held listening sessions in every county in this state to hear directly from folks about their priorities. We’ve worked to develop a plan to use our precious resources in the most effective way that we can: relieving congestion on key choke points on highway I-25 and highway I-70, making busy streets in our cities move quicker, and making the biggest investment in rural roads in modern Colorado history.
But the general fund alone cant meet our state’s needs, and voters have rejected three straight ballot initiatives in the last two years to fund roads, even while our existing revenue source — the fuel tax — is bringing in less and less at a time when our needs are growing. Thus Coloradans look to us, in this building, to think big and do more to fund our roads.
The failure of two competing ballot measures in 2018 — one to increase sales taxes to generate road money and another requiring the use of existing funds — and a third in the 2019 election with the demise of Prop. CC looms large at the Capitol as lawmakers look to find money for transportation.
And the two parties disagree about how to move to interpret the results and move forward.
Lawmakers must decide whether to allow a $2.56 billion bonding question slated to be on the November ballot to move forward. Republicans are the architects behind that question, dating back to the 2018 lawmaking term, and want to see it go before voters. Democrats are skeptical.
Republicans said they wanted to hear more specifics.
“There was really no substance to it whatsoever, so it’s hard to have any takeaway,” Neville said. “We need to actually do what has been tried and true, which is adding more lane miles on some of our major throughways, not these … ideas that are never going to work.
As we look toward a future where new users and changing technology that needs to pay its fair share, we should also give local jurisdictions and CDOT more flexibility around working together for funding regional projects.
But we can’t create a system that excludes rural Colorado. We need to deliver for everyone in our state, and it’s going to take all of us in this room working together, not playing politics, to get it done and solve it. By investing in our infrastructure and providing more affordable and convenient transportation options, we can relieve traffic congestion, reduce the harmful emissions that blacken our skies and also boost our entire economy.
This remains one of the most contentious concepts in the transportation debate. Democrats want to make sure transit is included in spending but Republicans want the money to go to new and existing lanes.
“We need to focus on real solutions, which, quite frankly, that’s pavement, that’s not extra pogo stick lanes or bike lanes that are just adding to the gridlock of the state,” Neville said earlier this week. The line made an impression. As a joke, House Democrats gave Neville a pogo stick on the first day of the session.
Losing traffic and getting people places quicker also helps us address our air quality and carbon emissions and of course when it comes to renewable energy and climate, it’s an issue of course that impacts every single one of us in this chamber, every single one of our constituents and every person on the face of the Earth. In the western United States, we of course seeing firsthand how a changing climate is already impacting our water supply, our outdoor recreation industry, our farming and ranching communities, and our taxpayers.
It’s causing more frequent, more devastating and more expensive natural disasters. Thirteen of the largest fires in Colorado’s recorded history have occurred since 2010. All 20 have occurred since the year 2000. I want to commend the brave Colorado firefighters who are heading to Australia right now to do their part in helping contain one of the worst wildfires in the history of civilization.
Wildfires are a major expense in Colorado. In 2018, they cost at least $130 million to battle.
This is truly a global crisis. And of course we are never going to solve air quality or climate issues. If we look at the person next to us and say, “You. You do something about climate.” If we want to preserve our way of life for future generations, then we all need to lead on clean air and climate.
Polis never mentioned the word oil, nor the word gas during his roughly hour-long speech, which stood in contrast to the protests that began the day.
The governor pointed to his work on Senate Bill 181 last year, Democrats’ omnibus oil and gas regulation rewrite, as proof of his work on the issue.
And in fact, the states and counties that embrace the renewable energy future will reap the economic rewards. That’s why we have taken bold action to put us on the path toward achieving 100% renewable energy by 2040.
But the truth is that due to the price reductions and technological advances, the shift towards renewable energy is happening, and it’s being driven by the private sector that sees a profitable future in renewable energy.
Just this morning, some exciting news, Tri-State and its members announced that they will be replacing their remaining coal power in the state of Colorado with thousands of megawatts of cheaper and cleaner renewable energy sources by 2030. This announcement will result in a 90% reduction in the utilities’ in-state greenhouse gas emissions.
Tri-State says it will close its Escalante Power Plant in Prewitt, New Mexico, by the end of 2020. It plans to close Craig Station and the ColoWyo Mine in northwest Colorado by 2030.
Republicans are already expressing anger over the closures, pointing out that they will result in the loss of hundreds of jobs. “The closure and loss of jobs is the direct result of the State Legislature and Governor Polis’ policies passed in 2019,” U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Cortez Republican whose district includes the affected areas, said in a written statement.
You know, this transition includes expanded energy efficiency programs and a significant investment in electric vehicle charging stations working with their member coops.
We’re also excited to work with Tri-State and their 17 member co-ops across our state to help make sure that they are empowered to generate more renewable energy locally. We want communities to have the option of reaping the benefits of clean, low-cost local energy generation, and with talks underway, we’re hopeful that significantly more local flexibility in Tri-State members will be finalized by April of this year.
This transition means lower energy costs and savings for rate payers, more renewable energy jobs and reduced air pollution. It’s a bold step to protect the future of the planet and to prepare Colorado to succeed in the future.
But we need to recognize the disruption caused to workers, families and communities that are impacted by the private sector’s turn away from coal. That’s why I intend to work with utilities, including Tri-State, and our new Office of Just Transition to expand opportunities in renewable energy and help ensure that no worker and no community is left behind.
Colorado lawmakers created the office in legislation from 2019 and ordered a draft plan by July 1. The final plan is due by the end of the year. It is designed to look at how to transition coal workers — who made an average annual salary of $94,000 — to new jobs.
And we’re confident that this transition works because it’s happening right now. And here is an example in Pueblo, Colorado. The EVRAZ Rocky Mountain steel plant uses a lot of energy, it’s an energy intensive industrial process. EVRAZ had to find a cheaper power source to stay competitive and to stay in Pueblo.
So, working with Xcel Energy, they are building the largest behind-the-meter solar project in American history to power the steel plant, creating hundreds of solar jobs, keeping thousands of steel jobs in Pueblo, reducing costs and helping to save our way of life — all at the same time. That’s what our renewable energy future looks like.
That’s about innovation, growing jobs, growing opportunity, about saving people money and doing our part to reduce air pollution in the process. And we don’t have any time to waste.
Those of you who know me well know that I’m a big science fiction fan. Last year I had a Spiderman quote. This year, it’s not Star Wars — it’s going to be Lord of the Rings. In the first part of the trilogy, Frodo, the protagonist, laments that he needs to carry this awesome burden of saving the world from a growing darkness. Gandalf, his guide, responds with a charge that applies to really all of us here in this chamber today: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
The governor is a nerd. He enjoys using social media to show his humorous side. And in last year’s speech, he quoted Spiderman: “With great power comes great responsibility.” If you’re wondering where this year’s quote came from, check out this video.
Every lawmaker here — myself included — is term-limited. What do we want our legacy to be? When our great-grandchildren open their history books, what do we want them to read about us and our time? Will it say that we were too scared to tackle the big issues?That we were too timid to act on evidence that’s right under our noses? That we were perhaps too cynical to even try? Or will we be remembered as the generation that rose to the challenge of our time?
To look beyond the daily news cycle or the next election and found a way to work together to forge a brighter future, and that lived up to the expectations of our children and our grandchildren, whose future we hold in our hands.
We have the power to do the right thing. All we need is the courage to use it. Colorado has always been a state of trailblazers of frontiers men and women. Ours is a state of can-do people and can-do attitude. We don’t back down from a challenge, and we don’t quit when the going gets tough.
The state of our state is strong. It is forward-thinking. It is dynamic. It is bold. It is courageous. Now let’s get to work and show the world what we can accomplish together. God bless you all, God bless the great state of Colorado and God bless the United States of America.
This is the one line the State of the State speech needs to include, and Polis saved it for the end. The state’s economy remains vibrant, but dark clouds on the horizon — in part because of a tight labor market and global market volatility — make economic forecasters wary about what the future holds and whether the state can continue its top-in-the nation rankings.
Staff writers John Ingold, Erica Breunlin and Jennifer Brown contributed to this report.
The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.
This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.