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Littwin: Jared Polis just showed how to make an election-year State of the State speech

Polis wants to save Coloradans money, which may not be the most controversial public-policy pitch ever made. More controversial was Polis’ decision to sing about it.

When Jared Polis gave his State of the State speech on Thursday, he left little to the imagination. He might as well have called it the Kickoff to My Re-election Campaign speech. All that was missing was the music — he did, uh, produce some of his own — and the bunting and balloons.

The message certainly wasn’t subtle. And if progressives don’t like some of it — and many don’t — they obviously weren’t the governor’s primary audience.

As Polis put it, “If it isn’t clear, saving Coloradans money and keeping our state affordable is my top priority this session.”

Mike Littwin

Democratic Speaker of the House Alec Garnett had already said as much in his speech. It’s clear, all right. And state Republicans are hopping mad because that’s sort of their message, too, and some have accused Polis of co-opting it while — because it is a campaign-season session — also making sure to call the governor a hypocrite.

I wouldn’t put it quite that way. I would call it basic election-year politics in a year in which Colorado has a bunch of federal stimulus money and higher-than-expected tax revenues to spend — with figures estimated as high as $5 billion — making it easier for the governor and the Democratic-run legislature to cut costs where they can, including postponing fees (a TABOR-avoidance word for tax hikes) that Democrats passed in just the last session, including a hard-fought 2-cent fee on each gallon of gas.

I think we can agree that postponement of most of the fees Polis mentioned — including driver’s license fees, fees to start a new business, licensing fees for nurses and those in the mental health field — are likely to be popular in 2022.

And if the issues this year are rising prices due to inflation — which, of course, Polis and the legislature are basically helpless to combat — and crime — which, again, is a nationwide trend visited upon Colorado — Polis still made sure to frontload those issues in his speech as well as in his agenda. 

There’s also, of course, the runaway omicron COVID variant and the governor’s stand against renewed statewide mandates on either masking or vaccinations. And, of course, we must mention climate change and the prospect of wildfires again spreading to suburban communities. Polis did mention these things, of course, and the state’s resilience in the face of multiple tragedies.

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But for Polis, the emphasis would be on saving money for Coloradans while being as bipartisan as possible when doing so. No one can be surprised by that. What’s harder to explain is Polis’ decision to make this argument by sort-of-singing heavily revised lyrics to the Paul Simon song “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” 

In Polis’ version, it goes this way: “Just cut the tax, Max; lower the rate, Nate; you don’t need to pay more, Thor; just send your kids for free (to preschool and kindergarten).”

He also did, yes, a brief Taylor Swift number. Let me just say it makes one pine for the days of John Hickenlooper and his banjo.

As for crime, Polis said he wanted to spend the next five years (one more in this term and four more, if the voters agree) making Colorado one of the 10 safest states in the country. It’s hard to pinpoint where we are rated now — it depends on how you measure these things — but the middle of the pack is probably close enough.

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Why we’ve seen these crime spikes nationally is unclear, although it’s almost certainly related to the pandemic. And as for the nation’s skyrocketing murder rates, I’d suggest that the presence of something like 400 million guns among American civilians probably plays a role. In one area Polis did clearly separate himself from many Republicans, he did not call for higher crime penalties but for ways to stop crimes before they’re committed. 

This is much of who Polis is, anyway, even in a non-election year — the nerdy libertarian tax cutter. He went out of his way to praise coming TABOR refunds, which is not exactly in line with mainstream Democratic thinking. In fact, Dems in the legislature will likely look at ways to reduce future refunds, which may or may not make it past Polis’ desk.

Polis praised the reduction in state income tax — another Polis-backed issue which definitely does not align with the thinking in his party, but was, not incidentally, approved by voters. On another occasion, Polis has gone as far to say he wants to eliminate the state income tax altogether. 

In a year of the Marshall fire, which highlights for many the climate crisis we’re facing and the need to address it however possible, Polis mentioned the word “climate” three times in his State of the State while mentioning Taylor Swift twice (hat tip to Sun reporters Jesse Paul and Daniel Ducassi for that little nugget.)

At the same time, climate activist groups in the state were announcing a significant ad campaign — expected to cost more than $100,000 — to pressure Polis to, in turn, pressure the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to force the oil and gas industry to come up with many millions of dollars to clean up abandoned wells. 

Although Polis is strongly pro-choice, he said nothing about the legislation coming in this session that will codify Coloradans’ access to abortion in anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling that will almost surely either overrule or greatly limit protections provided by Roe v. Wade. The legislation will pass, Polis will sign it, but you can imagine the fight to come.

Meanwhile, as you may have noticed, King Soopers workers are on strike for increased wages and improved working conditions, and Polis failed to mention anything about unions.

Polis did make pitches for progressive issues — most that add up to saving money — that he and the legislature have produced, including all-day kindergarten, an increased earned income credit, a generous child tax credit, reduction in health-care costs, an insulin-cost cap. And he noted that much of it will be paid for by reducing tax loopholes used by the wealthy among us. In other words, not by me and probably not by you. 

All that said, don’t expect this to be an easy session of the legislature, because legislative sessions are never easy, even when one party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor’s seat. And because, beyond our ever-increasing political polarization and the reduced state of Colorado Republicans, it’s an election year for both parties. And every vote made, from left, right and in between, will serve as a reminder of that unavoidable fact.

Or as Polis might put it — and we can all sing along — it’s your choice, Royce. It’s your time to choose, Suze. It’s your chance to pick, Rick. Voting is free.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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