Six positions in Gov. Jared Polis’ office this fiscal year are funded by grants from non-governmental organizations, including one funded by the grandson of Walmart’s founder, another that has received large sums from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a third led by the widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs.
The grants total at least $1.3 million and cover several years’ of salary for people advising Gov. Jared Polis and Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera on key policy issues for the administration. Five of the positions are full time while a sixth is part time and ended earlier in 2021. The 2021-22 fiscal year runs from July 1 until June 30, 2022.
State lawmakers do not have oversight of the funds, which the governor’s office can accept under state law. The grant-funded positions have stoked concerns about transparency and accountability and prompted conservatives to put Amendment 78 on the November ballot, which was unsuccessful but would have required state lawmaker approval for the kind of funds being used to pay for positions in the governor’s office.
The grant-funded work includes advising Polis and Primavera on such issues as aging, COVID-19 response, assisting people with disabilities, early education and the environment.
The governor’s office provided a list of the privately funded positions to state lawmakers this year for the first time following reporting by The Colorado Sun and CBS4 in 2020 that revealed Polis and his predecessor, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, accepted millions of private dollars to fund work in their offices.
In addition to dollars from nonprofits and foundations, Hickenlooper accepted money from large companies, including at least $325,000 from Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, two major oil and gas firms, to pay for an internship program and initiatives related to childhood literacy and veteran services.
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The reporting from The Sun and CBS4 last year prompted state Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who sits on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, to request that Polis provide the JBC with a list of privately funded positions in his office.
“I think the state government should fund the state government and if there are private foundations that are funding positions we should have transparency and clarity,” Hansen said.
Here are the positions funded by private donors in the governor’s office this fiscal year, which ends June 30:
- A senior policy adviser on aging, funded by a $450,000 grant from the Next50 Initiative, a Colorado-based nonprofit foundation that says it’s dedicated to improving the lives of the older-adult population and their caregivers. The money is to fund the position for several years.
- An adviser on new American integration, funded by a $280,000 grant from the Emerson Collective, led by Lauren Powell Jobs, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which has received a large infusion of funding from Zuckerberg. The money is to fund the position for several years. New Americans include refugees, special immigrant visa holders and all other immigrants.
- A senior adviser on early education, funded by a $300,000 grant from the Temple Buell Foundation. The foundation is a Colorado-based nonprofit whose trustees include Colorado philanthropist Dan Ritchie; Maggie Morrissey, the wife of former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey; and Dr. Reginald Washington, chief medical officer of Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.
- A special adviser on climate and energy, funded by a $252,000 grant from the United Nations Foundation. The foundation was established in 1998 with a $1 billion donation from Ted Turner, the founder of TBS and CNN. The governor’s office says the Catena Foundation, a Carbondale-based nonprofit funded by Sam R. Walton, a grandson of the Walmart founder, also was part of the grant. The grant money was previously routed through the U.S. Climate Alliance.
- A state disability coordinator who reports to the lieutenant governor, funded by a $20,000 grant from the Denver Foundation and a $50,000 grant from the Telluride Foundation. The money from the Telluride Foundation originated at the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit based in Illinois.
- A part-time COVID-19 response, recovery and resiliency coordinator, funded by a $15,000 grant from the Rose Community Foundation. The position ended earlier this fiscal year. Rose Community Foundation said the grant was part of more than $4 million it distributed last year to support COVID response and recovery efforts. “No donors were involved in that funding decision,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of public affairs at the Rose Community Foundation.
A spokeswoman for the Silicon Valley Community Foundation said it has actually given the governor’s office three grants over the past three years totaling $425,000.
“The $425,000 in grants to the Colorado governor’s office were made through a donor-advised fund,” said the spokeswoman, Erin Musgrave. “SVCF does not disclose the identities of the donors associated with specific grants, and we do not comment on our donors’ philanthropic activities without their expressed permission.”
Polis’ office defended the grant-funded positions.
“The governor’s office receives a general fund appropriation that supports general operating needs,” Polis’ spokesman Conor Cahill said in a written statement. “These grants from nonprofit, nonpartisan foundations support specialized policy positions that enable a singular focus on the big issues that affect Coloradans daily lives and their ability to thrive in our great state.”
Cahill said that while the governor can accept a wide range of gifts, grants and donations to fund positions within his office, they keep their grant-funded positions limited to work “that requires specialized knowledge.”
“We only accept donations from non-partisan nonprofits and we do not accept contributions from corporations or individuals,” Cahill said. “We have been abundantly transparent about the funds that we receive.”
Editor’s note: The Colorado Sun has received or applied for funding from some of the organizations discussed in this story. The Catena Foundation paid for trails reporting in a partnership with Aspen Journalism and is funding a new water reporter position at The Sun.The Sun has at various times been engaged in funding discussions with the Emerson Collective.