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Gov. Jared Polis receives a sticker after getting a third dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, at Denver Health in Capitol Hill. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis wants to spend hundreds of millions of dollars next fiscal year to ease the financial burden of government fees on businesses, reduce homelessness and combat rising crime.

The Democrat, who is heading into the final year of his first term and preparing for reelection in 2022, unveiled the wish list Monday as part of his $40 billion budget proposal for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The plan incorporates state tax revenue and federal coronavirus relief dollars and calls for an 8.5% increase in discretionary spending by the legislature, which will determine how much of Polis’ plan to pursue.

Polis said the budget “doubles down” on his previous initiatives and is “our response to the call of the moment” as Colorado works to recover from the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“These are proposals that Coloradans will see and feel in their everyday lives,” Polis said.

The governor’s proposal also calls for major investments in efforts in education and to combat climate change and pollution, including the hiring of 50 new staffers for Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division and spending $150 million to purchase electric school buses to replace their diesel-guzzling counterparts.

An electric school bus is seen reflected from bus doors at an International Zero Emission Bus Conference on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in Denver. 95% of Colorado’s school buses are diesel-fueled. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

One of the largest line items in Polis’ plan is $600 million to address the state’s $1 billion unemployment insurance trust fund deficit. The $1 billion is owed to the federal government, and businesses will have to pay a surcharge to help cover the tab. 

Half of the $600 million will go toward buying down the debt while the rest will be distributed to lower the employer surcharge.

Polis wants $100 million of the $600 million to come from federal coronavirus relief dollars the state received earlier this year. State lawmakers haven’t committed to that spending, though Republicans would like to see as much federal aid money go toward the deficit as possible.

Another $50 million would be spent under Polis’ plan to prepay six months of fees businesses will owe to implement Colorado’s new paid family and medical leave program. Voters approved the program in 2020 through the passage of Proposition 118.

“It would push (businesses’ payments) out closer to when the benefits kick in,” Polis said.

There’s also a $51 million proposal to help businesses hire workers, including through job-training programs and apprenticeship programs. There would also be tens of millions of dollars set aside to increase child care options.

The governor wants to spend $113 million on public safety. The dollars would go toward grants to reduce recidivism and boost forensic and investigative resources. Polis also wants to spread initiatives where behavioral health experts respond with police officers, which have been successful in Denver.

The spending plan also includes $200 million to reduce homelessness, spread across drug and alcohol treatment investments, intervention strategies and community response efforts.

“Homelessness has risen to the level of state priority,” Polis said. “We can no longer just say ‘Denver, you deal with it, it’s your fault. Colorado Springs you deal with it. Aurora you deal with it.’ I think it’s become an issue that affects all of us. … We can either keep doing the same thing, which is not working, or we can say, ‘You know what, cities can’t do this alone. The state needs to step up.’ ”

Crime and homelessness are two areas that Republicans are already attacking Polis on heading into the 2022 election. The issues haven’t been spending priorities for the governor in prior years.

A flock of pigeons descend on a two people sitting amid blankets and sleeping bags in Civic Center Park on Friday, March 20, 2020 in Denver. (Joe Mahoney, Special to the Colorado Trust)

One new proposed program the governor unveiled Monday would pay local transit agencies to offer free fares on high ozone pollution days. This year was the worst in recent decades when it comes to ozone pollution for the northern Front Range. 

“It can play a role in changing habits and support long-term increases in ridership,” Polis said of the proposed program.

Polis also wants to spend $10 million for an environmental study for the potential buildout of a Front Range passenger train system and direct money to help drive down energy-use in cannabis cultivation.

Finally, the governor’s budget proposal calls for setting aside $1.8 billion for future budget obligations, including for schools, transportation and affordable housing, as well as $2 billion as a reserve for future economic downturns.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....