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Governor says Colorado is “bruised, battered and shaken,” but will be built back better than before

The biggest policy proposal Jared Polis introduced during his third State of the State speech, which we annotated, was around taxes

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his third State of the State address in front of the Colorado House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (Pool photo by Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
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Gov. Jared Polis delivered his third State of the State address on Wednesday, promising to build back Colorado better than it was before the coronavirus crisis, while also warning that the pandemic isn’t over yet.

The Democrat, who is gearing up for reelection next year, promised more work on criminal justice reform and on reducing health care costs. He also said he wants to see more than $1 billion in stimulus dollars spent on projects across the state to help jump-start the economy.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The biggest policy proposal Polis introduced during his speech was around taxes. He said he wants to loosen the business personal property tax, expand the Colorado Child Tax Credit and stop taxing seniors’ Social Security benefits.

To do so without damaging the state budget, however, he wants to eliminate tax breaks for “special interest groups,” which is sure to stoke pushback from Colorado’s business community and Republicans.

Polis said he plans to “close loopholes that benefit the few and the well-connected and instead have broad-based tax relief.”

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.

My Fellow Coloradans,

I’m mindful that as I speak to you this morning, many of you are facing some of the toughest challenges that we’ve faced in our lives. Too many of us have lost someone close to us due to this terrible pandemic, many of us battled illness ourselves as we have in our family, or dealt with the anxiety of having loved ones in the hospital without being able to be by their bedside to comfort them.

Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, contracted coronavirus late last year. The governor experienced only mild symptoms. Reis was hospitalized and released after two days of treatment.

Both have since received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine.

Many others have lost jobs that not only filled days with purpose, but kept a roof over your family’s head. These truly have been difficult times for humanity. And as if the pandemic and resulting global recession was not enough, in Colorado we have also weathered record-breaking wildfires that have destroyed homes and claimed lives in a statewide drought.

More than 1 million Coloradans filed a new claim for unemployment in 2020. The state paid out $6.82 billion in federal and state unemployment benefits between March and December. Colorado’s unemployment rate hit an all-time high of 12.2% in April and ended the year at 8.4%.

We’ve witnessed brutality inflicted on Black Americans, and grappled with how to address systemic discrimination against people of color. And we’ve watched in shock and horror as the foundation of our democracy itself came under attack in Washington, D.C., by a violent mob intent on overturning the results of a free and fair election.

In short, this has been one of the most challenging years of our lives as Coloradans and as Americans.

But as Coloradans, we face down tough times with grit and overcome them together. When I became governor, I knew that leading our state through good times and bad — but especially through darkness, whenever and however it came — would be the most important and solemn responsibility of this job.

Still, like many of us, I never envisioned this…

I don’t think any of us did — gathering in this room separated by plexiglass and wearing our masks — or that our kids, my kids, too, would go months without hugging their grandparents.

Many Republican lawmakers present in the House chambers for Polis’ State of the State address were not wearing masks. The capacity of the chamber was also limited, and some senators chose not to attend as a result. Instead of the normally raucous atmosphere for the speech, those gathered this year were much more subdued.

We’ve faced the unimaginable this year. And the state of our state, above all, is a reflection of our strength and resilience as Coloradans.

We’ve worked together to protect our families and our communities, by staying apart. We’ve endured loneliness. We’ve put off joyous weddings and birthdays, and graduations.

We’ve worn our masks — to save lives and to keep our economy going.

We’ve given what we could, and together, we’ve raised over $24 million for the Colorado COVID Relief Fund, which has supported 1,000 nonprofit organizations in all 64 counties of our state.

And there are so many Coloradans to acknowledge, but I want to acknowledge and thank just a few Coloradans here whose sacrifices stand out, among so many unheralded, daily acts of generosity and heroism:

Of course, day after day, our brave health care workers put their own lives on hold and made incredible sacrifices to save so many souls. People like Toni, a nurse at UCHealth in Greeley who continued to show up for her patients while she herself was undergoing chemotherapy for stage 4 ovarian cancer.

And Dr. Greg Golden, the son of a Colorado nurse and Army vet, and father to three beautiful children. Who not only spent many hours helping COVID patients in the intensive care unit at Banner Health in Greeley and Fort Collins, but when Colorado cases started going down, he went to Arizona and Wyoming to help patients in our neighboring states deal with their surge. He and his colleague Dr. Cowden created a consistent process to care for COVID patients

Hospitals have made tremendous strides in saving lives during the pandemic, as doctors and nurses have learned more about the virus. By summer, the mortality rate of COVID-19 patients in Colorado hospitals had dropped to about 10%, compared to over 15% in the spring.

We’re also joined by Nelly, an environmental services technician at UCHealth Medical Center in Loveland, who took extra precautions over the last year to clean the rooms, and sanitize the rooms that housed COVID patients. And now she is committed to getting this lifesaving vaccine to as many Latinos as possible. Gracias Nelly por tu trabajo!

Data from the early stages of vaccination shows racial disparities in who is getting inoculated. White Coloradans made up 68% of those who have received one dose of the vaccine so far. Black and Hispanic Coloradans, however, accounted for 1.8% and 4.3% of those vaccinated, respectively. Nearly 4% of Colorado’s population is Black, and nearly 22% is Hispanic.

I also want to thank our hospitals for their incredible service, from medical surge planning to vaccination clinics, large scale and small scale. Colorado’s hospitals have truly been our partners in this pandemic and I want to thank them on behalf of the state for that spirit of collaboration and partnership.

But the heroes of the pandemic are not only in our hospitals, they’re really everywhere we look. The grocery store workers, ag, food supply workers; restaurant and retail workers. Truck drivers who continue to do their jobs under the most trying of circumstances to put food on our tables.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has been critical of Polis’ shutdown measures. The group appealed to the governor to “do everything within your power to avoid shutting down restaurants or placing further restrictions upon them” as more than two dozen counties entered level-red coronavirus restrictions in November.

– Our Colorado National Guard and law enforcement, first responders who’ve put themselves on the line to protect the health and safety of our communities.

– Our census workers throughout the state, who did everything they could to ensure an accurate count here in Colorado, because we know that everyone counts.

– And you, our legislators, who met under challenging conditions during the special session to get needed help and relief to those who needed it the most.

And finally I want to personally thank all those on my team who have led us bravely across uncharted waters, working day and night with faith and with persistence.

Joining us today are: Jill Hunsaker Ryan of the Colorado Department of Public Health; Stan Hilkey of the Colorado Department of Public Safety; Lisa Kaufmann, my chief of staff; Rick Palacio, strategic adviser. And over this last year, Jill, Stan, Lisa and Rick have led a coordinated pandemic response that prioritized data and scientific evidence. And I don’t think they slept a wink. Thank you.

Some Republicans remained seated as the governor thanked his staff. Democrats rose and clapped.

Hunsaker Ryan has faced criticism for CDPHE’s response to the pandemic. Local public health officials found the agency unresponsive at times and have been frustrated with a lack of communication on state-issued changes to COVID-19 restrictions.

I’m also deeply thankful for Colorado’s COVID Response team. Our incident commanders Scott Bookman and Mike Willis, our state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy and other epidemiologists, our emergency management professionals, our state employees at the Department of Public Health and Environment, our Public Information Officials, local elected officials, and folks who put their own expertise to work because they knew that our community and our country needed them.

In April there was a dust up between Bookman and Polis.

Bookman told reporters that “the governor is very clear that the state will not reopen until he has the capacity to make everyone safe.”

Polis followed up by saying that wasn’t true. “I don’t have — no governor has, the president doesn’t have — the capacity to make everyone safe,” Polis said. “I just want to set expectations out there that there is nobody that can make everybody safe, because the virus is going to stay with us.”

With a special debt of gratitude for our partners in local public health who are implementing the response on a day-to-day basis for their communities, against all odds, working tirelessly to keep our communities safe.

Local public health officials have been critical of the governor’s response to the pandemic. They’ve asked Polis to be more transparent and communicative about changes to coronavirus restrictions.

Also, public health officials have taken a lot of flak for policies implemented by the governor, as well as their own work to limit the spread of COVID-19. A number have quit as a result of the stress. Some have been targeted by vandalism and threats.

Many of the members of the COVID response team and local public health agencies are here today so that we can acknowledge them.

But tragically, as we all know, many of us personally — including myself — not everyone has made it through. As of today, Colorado has lost 5,655 souls to COVID-19, each loss seared into the mind and collective memory of our state.

And today, as many Coloradans observe Ash Wednesday, let us reflect on the past and each of our sacrifices over the last year. As Ecclesiastes 3:20 reads — “all go to one place, and all come from dust and all return to dust.”

If we could have a moment of silence for those who we lost.

In the words of poet Hannah Senesh: “There are stars whose light reaches the Earth only when they are gone and no more. And there are people whose sparkling memory illuminates the world when they themselves are no longer in our midst. These lights, which shine bright in the darkness of night, show us the lighted path.”

Senesh was a poet and paratrooper trained to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. She was captured and killed by the Nazis. Her diary and literary works were published posthumously. Polis is Colorado’s first Jewish governor.

And I know many in this chamber have lost friends and family members to COVID. I have lost friends as well. And they will forever live, and may their memory be a blessing to all of us.

Gov. Polis was invoking a common Jewish saying to honor the dead here.

Of course, the greatest way to honor the immeasurable sacrifices of the last year is to do right by one another and prevent further unnecessary loss.

Our goals in Colorado have remained the same since the early days of this pandemic: Avoid overwhelming our hospitals, save lives and ensure economic stability for Colorado families and small businesses until a cure or a vaccine is readily available.

Thankfully, as we speak, the vaccine is making its way into communities and into arms across our state. Today, Colorado has one of the highest vaccination rates and one of the lowest transmission rates in the country.

Colorado ranks 39th in the country for per-capita coronavirus cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to a New York Times analysis. The state is currently 27th among states for the daily average of new cases reported over the past week.

Colorado was one of the early leaders in vaccine distribution in the nation. It has slipped down the list a bit since then, but still ranks 11th among all states and the District of Columbia for doses administered per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We have worked day and night to ensure reliable and equitable distribution of the safe and highly effective vaccine. And I’m ecstatic to announce that we are well on our way toward reaching our goals. We have now vaccinated 60% of all Coloradans aged 70 and up in Colorado.

And Coloradans age 70 and up represent 78% of our deaths in Colorado.

And we will continue pursuing every possible opportunity, every innovation to get the lifesaving vaccine to you and your loved ones — no matter where you live, no matter who you are. We are determined to leave no one behind.

And we can see the light at the end of the tunnel — but we’re still some months away from reaching it.

Gov. Jared Polis arrives to deliver his third State of the State address. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

We have to keep doing everything we can to save lives, preserve our health care capacity, sustain and grow our economy, prepare for a robust recovery.

You know, there’s an old proverb: When there’s food on the table, there can be a lot of problems. But when there’s no food on the table, there is only one problem.

And many Coloradans have experienced this global pandemic not just as a public health crisis, but as an economic crisis.

Together we’ve taken extraordinary measures to help Colorado families and businesses, delivering critical housing assistance, food and utility assistance, tax relief, loans and grants for small businesses, and we’ve sent much-needed stimulus checks to hardworking Coloradans struggling to get by.

Polis did not renew the state eviction moratorium when it expired at the end of 2020. Colorado residents must rely on the national eviction moratorium and can also apply for rental assistance through the state’s Department of Local Affairs. By the end of January, the state paid $30.5 million in monthly rent for about 20,000 households.

A $375 state stimulus check was paid to about 408,000 people who were on unemployment last year. The total was approximately $153 million, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

I also want to express my deep appreciation for the federal COVID relief acts. We have two members of our federal delegation with us today, Congressman Crow and Congressman Neguse. Thank you.

These bold measures have been made possible because of close, bipartisan collaboration. And I want to thank the leaders of the General Assembly, both this one and the last — Speakers Becker and Garnett, Leaders McKean and Neville, President Garcia, Leader Holbert, and all the members who came together last December to support a package of legislation that put Colorado families and businesses first.

We didn’t let politics get in the way of action, and we should apply this spirit to all of our challenges — not just the unique ones that we’ve faced this past year, but the ones that we’ve been grappling with for decades.

The governor’s aides have said Polis doesn’t let partisan politics guide his coronavirus decision making, and he has faced criticism from both Democrats and Republicans over how he’s responded to the pandemic.

That being said, Polis frequently attacked then-President Donald Trump’s handling of coronavirus. “The president is taking this in a wrong and divisive direction with regard to his counsel and what he’s advising people to do,” he said at one point.

Republican state lawmakers in Colorado also blasted Polis for not consulting with them on how to spend hundreds of millions in federal coronavirus aid dollars.

When the immediate crisis ends — and it will end soon — we are not forced to go back to exactly how things were before. Here in Colorado, we have the boldness to imagine a better future and we have the ability to bring it to life.

This was the thesis of Polis’ speech.

“We clearly can’t have this pandemic come to an end and then move on,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “We need to actually proactively think about how to build a stronger Colorado that’s more resilient for the next crisis.”

A future where every child receives the education they deserve —no matter where they live.

A future where our roads and highways meet the needs of our dynamic and growing population.

A future where each and every person in our state can access quality, affordable health care — not just now, but always.

Let’s build a future in which the natural Colorado beauty that inspires us is protected.

Let’s make good on the promise of a Colorado where people of all walks of life don’t just get by, but thrive.

And it starts with investments that will create good jobs and give our economy a boost, helping us recover faster and stronger. From tax relief and loans for small businesses — to bolstering key industries, like tourism and energy — to investments in our main streets, the hearts of our communities.

Federal Paycheck Protection Program loans provided $10.4 billion to 109,170 small businesses in Colorado businesses last year. A new round of these forgivable loans is currently underway.

These are key proposals in my budget request that will jumpstart our economy, but we know, we know that we can’t stop there. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not just build back to how things were, but to build back stronger and better than where we were before the pandemic — to fundamentally reimagine Colorado’s future. And to transform that vision into reality. Colorado needs the best ideas from both sides of the aisle, from both parties, so that together we can rise to meet the challenge before us. Nothing could be more important.

Polis has pitched his billion-dollar stimulus package as a key opportunity to not only breathe life into an economy and help the state’s unemployed, but to also pour spending into long-standing state needs, like transportation and infrastructure. He argues spending more now will help restart the economy sooner, and grow the tax revenues that feed the state’s budget.

But Republicans and Democrats are skeptical on a number of fronts.

Democrats want to see how much money the next federal coronavirus aid package provides the state before allocating the dollars.

Republicans, meanwhile, would like to see money directed toward backfilling budget cuts before it is spent on stimulus.

“If we had a Republican governor and a Republican House and Senate and we were proposing to spend state tax dollars in new ways right now after cutting them last spring, I think teachers would be screaming, the union would be screaming, that Republicans don’t care about teachers and kids,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican. “We think we ought to restore as best we can with the limited tax dollars before we find new ways to spend them.”

Holbert said some of the money should be spent on buying down the so-called negative factor, which is what the state legislature owes schools to make up for cuts made during the Great Recession.

My budget request moves forward vital projects, starting with much-needed repairs on roads across Colorado — from the Eisenhower Tunnel to rural roads that our farmers and ranchers rely on. We’re going to make it easier for Coloradans and visitors to travel our great state — access the ski resorts and public lands that we love — while reducing traffic and improving our vibrant, beloved main streets in the process.

Where the stimulus money is spent is not a done deal, though Polis and Democratic leadership are working toward an agreement.

“We’ve been talking about the stimulus spending for more than a month,” Fenberg said. “It’s very much a collaborative process. It’s genuinely a collaborative process.”

We will invest in our rural communities, continue bringing broadband to every corner of our state so that students and small business owners from Fort Morgan to Fruita can seize opportunity.

The Colorado Broadband and Deployment Board has provided $34.1 million in matching grants to 43 projects since 2016. The projects target underserved and rural areas. Other local and national providers have worked with school districts to improve internet service.

And we must work to protect the natural splendor of our state, and the animals with whom we share it, by maintaining our public lands and continuing to invest in wildlife crossings and migration corridors.

These shovel-ready projects are tried-and-true measures to boost the economy in tough times — creating good jobs for hardworking Coloradans while improving the quality of life for all of us.

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his third State of the State address. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Looking ahead, we see transportation changing before our very eyes: more deliveries, car shares, ride shares. And I look forward to working with you to accelerate electrification, expand multimodal transit options, save commuters money on gas, reduce emissions, and improve our air quality.

As our transportation habits change, so should we change the way we support our transportation system. We should reduce vehicle registration fees to save people money and support the recovery, while modernizing the way we fund our transportation system. And I want to thank Sen. Fenberg, and Sen. Winter, and Speaker Garnett, and Rep. Gray for their leadership on this critical Colorado issue and their work to bring together the business community, local governments, and environmental advocates around the important need to reduce traffic.

Statehouse Democrats and business groups are supportive of implementing a gas fee to raise money for Colorado’s multibillion-dollar transportation needs. This will likely be one of the most divisive, partisan battles at the Capitol this year as Republicans and conservative groups want the funding question to go before voters.

One thing we all realized in the pandemic is how precious time is. And time lost in traffic is time away from kids and family and friends, and that’s something we value even more than we did before the pandemic. And as Coloradans face tough times, we need to help folks get back on their feet and make life more affordable in our state — from job training, to affordable housing, to reducing the tax burden on middle-class families.

From the start of my administration, we have worked together to make Colorado’s tax code more fair by getting rid of special interest tax breaks that benefit the few, and using those savings to lower taxes for the rest of us.

This year, I propose that we eliminate the business personal property tax for tens of thousands of small businesses, reducing paperwork and protecting them from onerous and costly tax requirements.

Republicans, who have long tried to eliminate the tax, were ecstatic about this section of the speech.

The business personal property tax is what business owners pay for equipment, machinery, furniture, supplies, signs and other personal property that is used for the operation of their business or to generate income.

“We’ll see exactly what comes out in terms of legislation, but I do know the business personal property tax is one of the most damaging, hurtful things to businesses in Colorado, especially during COVID,” said state Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican. “That’s one of my priorities. I look forward to working with the governor on cutting business personal property taxes.”

Polis said in an interview with reporters after the speech that he is open to raising the $18,000 credit cap or the $7,400 cap on the amount that people get to pay no taxes on.

“It’s likely and it’s possible because of the interface with the Gallagher Amendment and the repeal of the Gallagher Amendment,” Polis said. “Repealing this tax would no longer hurt our local governments or our special districts.”

By eliminating the business personal property tax, it will save small businesses time and money and let them focus on what matters — their customers, their services, their products competing in the marketplace.

To help hardworking Coloradans, I propose that we double the Earned Income Tax Credit, and provide up to $600 in tax credit per child for nearly 200,000 families in our state through the Colorado Child Tax Credit.

And I propose that we stop taxing seniors’ Social Security benefits. You know, many seniors live on fixed income. They’ve already borne the brunt of the health side of this pandemic. Seniors live on fixed income, we should not tax the Social Security benefits that they’ve earned by paying in and that they depend on. With the leadership of Sen. Moreno and Sen. Hansen, Rep. Weissman and Rep. Sirota, I am confident that we will get it done.

This is the tax section of the speech that Republicans were much less excited about. Their fervent applause dissipated as it became clear here that Polis plans to make up for the revenue generated by the tax cuts he called for by ending tax breaks for corporations.

Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, proposed sweeping legislation last year to end many of those breaks, angering the business community and drawing blowback from fellow Democrats. She is planning to work on similar legislation this year — and apparently has Polis’ support.

“The measures that the governor mentioned, we have been working collaboratively on for several months,” Sirota said. “We think these are good policy choices but of course they can’t come at the expense of paying for education and health care.”

Polis said he wants to “close loopholes that benefit the few and the well connected and instead have broad-based tax relief.”

All of this, along with the voter-approved reduction in the state income tax, will deliver the most substantial and comprehensive tax relief in decades for hardworking Coloradans and small businesses.

Conservatives led the push to pass a question on the November ballot lowering Colorado’s income tax rate to 4.55% from 4.63%. Polis supported the effort despite opposition from statehouse Democrats and liberal policy groups.

This is why we were sent here by the voters — to take on the big challenges and make changes that will improve the quality of life in our great state.

Just look at how over the past few years, we’ve broken down barriers that held too many young families back, and made Colorado one of the best places in America to raise a family: Family leave, child care, kindergarten, preschool.

And I want to thank the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers who supported putting Proposition EE on the ballot last year. Because of your work, and the support of over two-thirds of Colorado voters, we can now combat one of the worst challenges confronting our children — smoking and vaping — while investing in one of the best things for our children: universal preschool.

Proposition EE, which voters passed overwhelmingly in the November election, raised taxes on nicotine and tobacco products in Colorado, with a major exception for one category of tobacco products called modified-risk tobacco products. Altria, the company behind a third of those products, was involved in writing the language in the bill that put the ballot question before voters.

Polis is now being sued by a discount cigarette brand over the measure.

The proposition was pitched as a major funding source for one of Polis’ key initiatives — a universal preschool program. Critics point to the fact that revenue from the measure would flow into the state’s discretionary general fund, so there’s no legal guarantee that lawmakers can’t spend the money on other things.

And especially in this time of division it’s so wonderful to see more than two thirds of Colorado voters come together around supporting preschool for our kids and I look forward to working with the general assembly to continue to make progress for families.

Now as we know — this has truly been a school year unlike any other. And tragically, the effects have rippled throughout society, not only impacting our children’s education, but straining families and, in particular, forcing millions of women across our country out of the workforce.

Many parents, disproportionately women, have had to choose between working and caring for their children at home. And sadly, but not surprisingly, women of color have been disproportionately impacted, with a 8% decline in labor workforce participation over the last year.

In Colorado, women filed for unemployment at a faster rate than men early in the pandemic. While initial claims have evened out by gender, more women nationwide are leaving their jobs and accounted for 80% of workers over the age of 20 who dropped out of the labor market in January, according to a National Women’s Law Center analysis.

When women across Colorado — across America — suffer, our communities and our states suffer too.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by strong women throughout my life. Many of you have heard me speak about my mother, many of you have met my mother. She’s a very important part of my life and it’s been nearly a year since she’s been able to hug her grandkids.

When I was growing up she was not only a best-selling poet but also president of the small family publishing company she founded with my father.

My grandmother, June, was sales manager of the family company for thirty years. She cooked amazing food, she knitted up a storm and she worked long weeks in the office, and was loved and feared by sales reps around the country.

And now, I’m the father of a very strong-willed 6-year-old daughter. And I owe it to her to do everything in my power to support Colorado women, and yes, men too, as they work to balance the already difficult task of raising families in this time of uncertainty. And while of course we need in-person school now for our kids, we also need it for Colorado moms and dads.

Polis has pushed hard to get kids back inside classrooms, creating a back-to-school task force last fall. But even as the state has released guidance for districts on how to educate kids safely during the pandemic, local districts have largely been responsible for making their own decisions about school operations.

Many districts have switched back and forth between in-person classes, hybrid school and remote learning, depending on coronavirus case counts in their communities.

“I think it’s imperative we get our students back to school, but we’ve got to do it for a safe way, not only for students but for everyone who is part of the school community and school environments,” said Rep. Leslie Herod. “People of color and low-income folks are actually youth and students and are disproportionately impacted by the learning loss we’re seeing in schools.”

It’s simple: our efforts in Colorado to support families fall short if we can’t ensure that Colorado women have a secure place in our economy.

That’s why it’s so important — with the Leadership of Sen. Danielson and Sen. Pettersen, and now Sen. Buckner, Rep. Gonzales-Gutierrez — we passed a law to ensure that women are finally paid the same as men in Colorado.

This isn’t really accurate. But the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act that the governor is referencing provides more salary transparency for everyone. Employers cannot ask about salary history and must post salary ranges for job openings.

As we recover, we will continue to grow economic opportunities for women across our state, support hard-working parents by keeping kids in the classroom.

This crisis has forced us to realize the value of things that we once took for granted, like having a safe place where our children can learn and thrive and play and grow.

As parents of two young children, Marlon and I share the newfound appreciation that so many Coloradans feel for teachers and other school professionals who have gone above-and-beyond to make sure our kids are learning under challenging circumstances.

Teachers like Michelle Grimes, a fourth grade teacher at Clayton Elementary in Englewood. Michelle has risen to the occasion, as so many educators have, in her case by spending hours looking for students who fell off remote learning, getting them back on track. She helped organize a drive through gift drive for her students and their families over Christmas, sharing a little joy during tough times. And I’m so excited to express our appreciation for all Colorado educators and to welcome Michelle Grimes, who’s with us today — thank you for your commitment, Michelle, to Colorado students.

Locating students who became disengaged during remote learning has been one of the most pressing challenges for school districts. Many districts have deployed staff members to students’ homes in an attempt to make contact with them. Colorado’s largest districts lost touch with thousands of students during remote learning last spring and scrambled to try to find them and get them back on track at the start of the school year.

I salute all of the children, parents, and educators who have done their best to adapt.

That’s why we should continue the General Assembly’s bipartisan efforts, led by Rep. McCluskie and Sen. Lundeen, and their work through the School Finance Interim Committee, to make funding more equitable and student-centered, so that every Colorado child has a chance to succeed. We should also seize this opportunity to pay down our education budget deficit to the lowest levels in more than a decade.

Because improving education is so important. But we know that it is only one part of our obligation to create a more just society where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

Some lawmakers were frustrated that Polis didn’t mention mental health during his speech.

“He didn’t say mental health once,” said Rep. Dafna Michaeson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat.

Rep. Tim Geitner, a Falcon Republican, said he would have liked to have heard the governor touch on the subject, too. “Certainly there wasn’t really a whole lot of acknowledgement on that side,” he said.

Geitner said he also thinks Polis “glossed over” educational loss and how to help Colorado students make up for not being in the classroom for months on end.

In the past two years, the legislature has taken tremendous bipartisan steps to correct inequities in criminal justice, and make us all safer, including bail reform, sentencing reform, juvenile justice reform, and police reform.

But the ongoing effort to ensure opportunity and justice means more.

Last June, Polis signed a sweeping police accountability bill in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The bill, which was proposed in the wake of mass racial justice protests, added new limits on police use of force, allows officers to be sued in their personal capacity and requires officers to intervene in inappropriate behavior by colleagues, among other changers.

Legislators are expected to tackle more criminal justice reforms this session.

It means taking our lead from Rep. Herod and Sen. Buckner to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, by investing more in school counselors and less in overly harsh punishments.

It means honoring those Coloradans who have bravely served our country in the United States military, yet been dismissed and prevented from receiving certain state Veterans’ benefits because of who they love. With the leadership of Sen. Moreno, Rep. Ortiz, and Adjutant General Clellan, we will start to right this wrong. And I will be excited to see the Restoration of Honor Act reach my desk.

It means partnering with Sen. Gonzalez and Rep. Gonzales-Gutierrez to ensure state data isn’t used to enforce a broken and inhumane immigration system.

Sen. Julie Gonzales and Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez are pushing a bill that would prohibit state employees from sharing individuals’ personal identifying information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a warrant or subpoena.

An open records request submitted by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition last year found that Colorado’s Division of Motor Vehicles staff shared information via email with ICE agents that did not have a court order.

And it means working with tribal leaders and strengthening our government-to-government relationships so that we can tackle the unique hurdles facing our Native American communities and tribal nations.

It means addressing our unaffordable health care system.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” – end quote.

You know, because it’s really our lives, it’s about breathing, it’s about being alive. And that was true in 1966, and it’s true over 50 years later, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

When the virus struck last year, we moved swiftly to boost our hospital capacity. We took swift action to prevent folks from losing their coverage — getting more Coloradans enrolled in Medicaid, extending the enrollment period for the state health insurance exchange.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the state estimated that as many as 500,000 people would be added to the state’s Medicaid rolls. Nearly a year later, the numbers haven’t hit that high, but are expected to continue rising throughout the year since, per federal rules for the pandemic, the state is not dropping people from Medicaid when they phase out of eligibility as it normally would.

And thanks to the bipartisan work of this legislature — and the work of our talented lieutenant governor, Dianne Primavera, who heads our Office of Saving People Money on Health Care, we were able to make great progress.

And I want to thank the legislature — especially the members of the Joint Budget Committee — for continuing the reinsurance program, which has successfully reduced rates on the individual market by over 20% across the state, even more in rural areas of Colorado.

The reinsurance program provides state and federal funding to help health insurers pay their highest-cost claims, allowing those companies to reduce rates for everyone. Lawmakers passed a major bill last year to stabilize the program’s funding and preserve it into the future.

We’ve made significant progress, but too many families still struggle to afford the care they need. And we look forward to working with this legislature on measures to save people money on health care by passing a bill carried by Sen. Jaquez Lewis, Sen. Gonzales, Rep. Caraveo, Rep. Kennedy to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

Colorado is also moving forward with an effort to import prescription drugs from Canada, after a state report found that doing so could lead to huge savings on what privately insured people pay for their prescriptions.

And we also look forward to adding an affordable Colorado Option that gives Coloradans — especially in rural areas — more choice and savings, when it comes to selecting a health care plan. And I thank Reps. Roberts and Mullica and Sen. Donovan for their ongoing leadership on saving people money on health care.

A public health insurance option is one of Polis’ long-standing goals. A bill to create a version of one collapsed last year amid the legislative chaos of the pandemic. The details of this year’s proposal are not yet finalized but are expected to look quite a bit different — with hospitals and insurers agreeing to voluntary price goals in lieu of the state creating its own insurance plan.

“I’m confident we’re going to get it done this year,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat. “I think we’ve made some important changes to react to COVID, but we also have been able to talk to our colleagues a lot about it over the last year. I think people are feeling a lot more comfortable with the topic.

This pandemic has only further illuminated the stark inequities that Coloradans of color, and those in underserved communities, face. And that’s why each week we are committing portions of our vaccine supply to Community Health Centers, who every day, deliver health care to Colorado’s most vulnerable, often uninsured. We’ve also set up 58 vaccine pop-up clinics in rural and urban underserved areas to ensure access regardless of ZIP code, of immigration status. That no one is left behind.

Black and Hispanic Coloradans have been especially hard-hit by the virus, making up a disproportionate share of those hospitalized and killed. For instance, people who are Hispanic account for about a fifth of the state’s population, but, at one point, more than half of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado were Hispanic. The disparity has shrunk as the pandemic has dragged on, but a new disparity in vaccination rates has emerged.

Data from early vaccinations of people over 70 in Denver has shown marked disparities based on where people live. For example, 247 of every 1,000 residents of affluent Washington Park received a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, compared with 119 out of 1,000 residents of the predominantly Latino Elyria-Swansea neighborhood.

And I want to thank the Black caucus and LatinX Caucus for their incredible partnership on this important issue and our continuing work to address ongoing disparities.

We can, and we will, do better. This pandemic has forced us to be creative as we’ve reimagined health care.

Think, for example, of telehealth — including behavioral telehealth — which isn’t just a useful innovation in a time of social distancing. It’s a convenient tool for folks who want to receive quality care from the comfort of their own homes, it can literally be lifesaving for many Coloradans in rural areas who may live too far away from specialists or doctors, and clinics and hospitals.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

And I also want to thank the Behavioral Health Task Force, which, under the capable leadership of Michelle Barnes, developed the blueprint that will streamline our mental health services, a far too often overlooked area of health care. And I appreciate the bipartisan sponsors — Reps. Young and Pelton, and Sen. Fields and Sen. Gardner — for taking leadership on this vital issue.

In last year’s speech, I thanked our brave Colorado firefighters who answered the call when Australia needed help to contain their worst wildfires in history.

Months later, the world watched as those same firefighters combated the three largest wildfires in the history of our state.

Last year was Colorado’s worst on record in terms of acres burned. The Cameron Peak fire burned 208,913 acres; the East Troublesome fire burned 193,812 acres; and the Pine Gulch fire burned 139,007 acres.

As our homes and communities burned, panicked families fled for shelter, leaving behind what in many cases had taken them a lifetime to create.

And I’d like to take a moment to thank our incredible firefighters, who tirelessly labored to save every life, every home, every piece of property — even in the midst of a global pandemic.

An elderly couple, Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, were killed when their home burned in the East Troublesome fire. Theirs were the only deaths directly related to wildfires in Colorado last year.

Our very own Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Gibbs answered the call as a certified wildland firefighter, fighting alongside many brave men and women at the Grizzly Creek and the Cameron Peak Fire.

And we are grateful to the fire chiefs and sheriffs who led these efforts to protect our communities in a time of great need. I’m honored to be joined here today by somebody who had a major role in fighting two of the major fires, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith.

Sheriff Smith didn’t sleep a wink in summer or fall and helped lead the efforts on Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires that threatened Estes Park.

And to the many others who are joining us virtually, thank you for your leadership and your service.

I want to thank Sen. Rankin, Rep. McCluskie and all of the members of the Joint Budget Committee for supporting wildfire response and mitigation, which will help give Colorado the tools we need to catch and suppress wildfires before they get out of hand.

But wildfire mitigation is only one piece of the puzzle. How many homes and businesses must we lose, and lives — before we resolve to meet the threat of climate change with the seriousness that it demands?

Transitioning to renewable energy isn’t just the right thing to do for our health and safety — it’s the smart thing for jobs, our economy and for consumers. That is why I ran on a platform of 100% renewable energy for Colorado by 2040, and that’s why my administration has taken bold action to move rapidly towards this goal.

Polis Administration’s roadmap for cutting greenhouse gas emissions sets a goal of achieving 90% reductions in 2005 emissions levels by 2050. Environmentalists have criticized the plan as overly reliant on existing trends and too vague to guarantee real change.

Transportation is the largest source of climate change-fueling emissions, and the state plan focuses heavily on a shift to electric vehicles by both consumers and industry. Advocates say the state should pay more attention to transit and reducing overall vehicles on the road.

The private sector is already turning away from fossil fuels and looking forward to a clean energy future. To date, we’ve successfully secured commitments from electric utilities representing more than 99% of the generation in our state to reduce emissions 80% or more by 2030 in just nine years.

Much of this progress can be more accurately attributed to economic and social pressures experienced by big electricity generators in Colorado. Tri-State Generation and Transmission, yielding to the will of its member co-ops and investors, Xcel Energy and other companies have announced early closure of coal-fired electric plants as they move toward renewable sources of electricity, including solar and wind.

Colorado is a national leader in green energy jobs, the fastest growing job sector, precisely because we’ve embraced the opportunities of renewable energy.

Addressing climate change isn’t just essential to protecting our health and building our economy. It’s an essential part of protecting Colorado’s iconic public lands and the biodiversity that we celebrate. As we’ve weathered this pandemic — we have learned to appreciate even more for the sanctuary that they provide.

Embracing the outdoors — being able to get away from the trials and tribulations of the daily grind — has always been a big part of the Colorado Way of Life. And when the crisis struck, our vast public lands became our escape — a much-needed retreat where we could go to feel normal again. To feel free.

Our public lands are a treasure that we must never take for granted, and always work to protect.

And I want to thank the Legislature — and particularly the leadership of President Garcia, Sen. Hisey, Majority Leader Esgar and Rep. Will — for providing the resources to open Fishers Peak, Colorado’s newest state park.

We’re excited for Fishers Peak and the potential it holds for the Southern Colorado economy.

While the $25 million deal to acquire the massive Southern Colorado ranch that became Fishers Peak State Park is done, how that park will be developed is constrained by the fears the pandemic has ruined the state budget, including critical state Lottery funds. So far, only about 250 acres of the 19,200-acre park is open to the public. The park, Colorado’s 42nd, is considered a critical link in a wildlife and recreation corridor along the southern border.

But it’s just the start of what we can do together to keep Colorado wild. Let’s go even further to protect these amazing places for years to come and leave a lasting legacy for future generations.

By offering all Colorado vehicle owners the opportunity to purchase a park and public lands pass when they register their vehicle, we can expand affordable access to our great outdoors and ensure our state parks have a sustainable source of revenue to improve trails, expand camping, open new state parks. This kind of innovation embodies the Colorado way of solving problems, and I thank Senate Majority Leader Fenberg for his partnership on this important initiative.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is not tax funded and has been struggling to boost revenue streams to meet the demands of increased use the governor referenced, particularly on State Wildlife Areas and State Trust Lands. Last year, the agency began requiring users to buy a hunting or fishing license, whether or not they intended to hunt or fish.

In the coming months, we will spend long hours together, working to build back — not just to where we used to be, because, we know, that wasn’t good enough, but to a place that is stronger and a place that’s more inclusive.

No more Band-Aids over gaping wounds. We in this chamber have the power to make bold transformational change that ensures our state lives up to our highest potential. And we can and we will seize that opportunity.

To quote my favorite Star Trek Captain — the best Star Trek captain — Jean-Luc Picard: Quote “Things are only impossible until they are not.”

Polis is still a nerd. He has referenced some science fiction series in each of his three State of the State addresses.

If the problems we face now were ever intractable, today they are not. If, at some point in the past, we lacked the means or the will to tackle them, today we do not.

Over the last year we’ve faced a global pandemic, historic wildfires, a statewide drought, an unprecedented attack on our democracy. And now we have an opportunity for rebirth — for renewal — to rise from the ashes to fulfill the promise of a Colorado for All.

Fulfilling that promise means historic investments in our people, our infrastructure, in the natural riches and beauty that surround us. It means helping Colorado businesses grow and create good-paying jobs.

It means eliminating tax loopholes that benefit the few and well-connected while reducing taxes for businesses and hardworking Coloradans.

It means ensuring Colorado is the best state in the country — the best — to start and raise a family by offering paid family leave, universal preschool, kindergarten, and truly affordable higher education.

After several failed attempts by Democratic lawmakers, in November Colorado voters approved a measure to create a paid family leave program. Workers start paying into the statewide pool in 2023 and could apply for paid time off in 2024.

Expanding full-day kindergarten was one of Polis’ major initiatives in 2019.

University of Colorado system leaders are proposing a 3% tuition increase, after holding tuition flat for three years. Many colleges and universities are facing financial uncertainty because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It means saving people money on health care.

It means ending the system that for too many generations have allowed the color of your skin, your gender, ability, who you love to determine the type of health care you get, getting equal pay for equal work, and whether our justice system will treat you fairly.

It’s often been said during the pandemic that we are all in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. It’s time to ensure that everybody has a sturdy boat to weather any storm that comes our way.

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his third State of the State address. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

As Coloradans, we rise up. We overcome our challenges. Not because overcoming is inevitable — because it’s not — but because we choose to do the work, to fulfill our responsibility. It’s who we are.

It’s what we do.

So the state of the state?

This past year we’ve been bruised, battered and shaken to our core — but nevertheless the state of Colorado remains strong.

This was a major applause line. It seemed as if Colorado lawmakers expected the speech to end here.

This terrible virus isn’t quite done with us yet, but we are working hard to end this pandemic. And coming out of this traumatic year, we are poised for bold transformational change. If we seize the opportunity here in this chamber, we can live up to our fullest potential to truly create a Colorado for All.

There’s a lot of work ahead. But we’re more than ready to take it on.

God bless you all, God bless Colorado, and God bless the United States of America.

Colorado Sun staff writers Tamara Chuang, John Ingold and Erica Breunlin contributed to this report.


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