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Republican gubernatorial candidate and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, right, responds to a question during a debate with Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, faced his Republican challenger, University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, in a live, televised debate Thursday night hosted by CBS4 in partnership with The Colorado Sun. 

The two candidates battled over their views on the economy, water, crime, abortion and education. 

Here’s what we learned from the debate: 

Ganahl didn’t offer backup plans 

Ganahl’s economic policies hinge largely on Colorado voters approving the conversion of fees into taxes. That’s how she plans to eliminate the state income tax, which funds about a third of the state budget and more than half of the state’s general fund, and also how she plans to complete her transportation-funding proposal. 

But Colorado voters have been mostly uniformly unwilling to pass statewide tax increases in the 30 years since the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was approved, changing the state constitution and requiring voter approval for all new tax increases. 

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Ganahl didn’t explain during the debate Thursday how she would accomplish her policy objectives if voters say “no.” Instead, she simply said she’s confident voters would approve the conversion because of their dislike of fees.

Ganahl’s plan to eliminate the state income tax also calls for a state hiring freeze. She said that wouldn’t include the Colorado State Patrol, but she didn’t say whether the freeze would include the Colorado Department of Corrections. Both agencies are understaffed

(Ganahl has also vowed to cut the state’s 22-cent-per-gallon gas tax in half. The revenue from that tax funds the State Patrol, and Ganahl didn’t explain how she would maintain funding for the agency if the tax is halved.)

Polis, too, has advocated for eliminating the income tax, but only if the revenue is replaced. He has suggested that enacting pollution and carbon taxes may be one way to do that, even though he wants Colorado to run on 100% renewable energy by 2040. On Thursday, he said that the tax would have to be shifted in the future as climate policies are adopted. 

The governor didn’t provide specifics on whether he’d push to eliminate the income tax if he is reelected in November to a second four-year term.

Polis wouldn’t express regret on fentanyl 

Ganahl hammered Polis on rising crime rates and a 2019 bill he signed into law that made personal possession of up to 4 grams of fentanyl a misdemeanor. The law was revisited by state lawmakers this year, who made it a felony again to possess a gram or more of fentanyl and increased criminal penalties for dealers.

Polis avoided directly addressing a question from Ganahl whether he regretted signing the 2019 law. 

When asked whether increasing criminal penalties for certain crimes should play a role in his effort to make Colorado one of the nation’s 10 safest states, Polis said he would want to see data that doing so would be effective.

“You show me a penalty that increases safety and decreases crime, we’re for it,” he said.  “If it makes us less safe, I’m against it. I think people know if you’re dealing with people who have an alcohol or drug problem, there needs to be a route to addiction recovery and substance abuse treatment. For some, a night in jail might scare them straight and help. For others, time in jail might connect them to criminals and make them a part of a criminal network.”

Ganahl said to tackle crime she would “replace the parole board, replace the heads of the department of corrections, public safety.” 

She would also advocate for making the possession of any amount of fentanyl a felony.

“Public safety is my No. 1 priority,” she said, “and the first dollar I will spend as governor is cleaning up the crime tsunami that has been put in place over the last four years.”

Ganahl didn’t say where, however, she would find the money to fund public safety initiatives, especially given that she wants to reduce the state budget to accommodate her promise to eliminate the income tax.

Republican gubernatorial candidate and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl responds to a question Thursday during a debate with Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Neither candidate would back Colorado creating a state-run home insurance program

Neither Polis nor Ganahl would commit to backing a state-run home insurance program to ensure Coloradans who live in wildfire prone areas of the state have coverage.

Insurance companies in California have tried to stop insuring some homeowners because of the wildfire threat. Florida, where hurricanes frequently destroy property, has a state-run home insurance program.

Polis said he wasn’t sold on a state-run homeowners’ insurance program being a good idea for Colorado, and that his main priority is to reduce the risks of wildfires.

“There’s proven technologies to do that, whether it’s simply taking down trees and brush around your home, construction materials, especially in the wildland-urban interface near open areas,” he said. “And if we do that successfully, we will be able to drive down insurance rates for every Coloradan.”

Ganahl said she would consider it but needed to learn more about the topic.

“I’ll look at it,” she said. “If it helps people heal and get back on track — and helps people who don’t have other resources — then yes, that’s absolutely an option. But I would need to look into it a bit more.”

Abortion

Polis on Thursday would not voice support for eliminating Colorado’s constitutional ban on state funding for abortions, which pro-abortion-rights groups plan to put on the ballot in 2024. Polis said he would need to see the wording of any measure eliminating the ban.

“When I was in the United States Congress, I did vote against the Hyde Amendment,” Polis said, referencing the congressional prohibition on federal dollars being used for abortion. “Before I would say anything on any policy — the words matter and the details matter. So I’d be open to it, but I want to make sure it didn’t have any unintended consequences.”

(Polis is pro-abortion rights. He signed a bill into law this year that guarantees abortion and contraceptive access in Colorado with almost no restrictions.)

Ganahl, who opposes abortions except in cases of rape and incest or when a mother’s life is at risk, said she wouldn’t sign any abortion restrictions into law if she’s elected governor. 

“I’ve made a pledge that I will not make any substantial changes to the abortion law without pushing it back to the people of Colorado for a vote,” she said. 

Ganahl called the abortion access law passed by Democrats in the legislature and signed into law by Polis this year “extreme” and “radical.” She’s previously said she would rip it up if she were elected governor. 

Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, a Republican, make remarks Thursday during a debate Thursday in Denver. Candidates discussed topics ranging from abortion to the economy and inflation in the debate hosted by The Colorado Sun and CBS4. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Tax returns

Ganahl and Polis have said they would release their tax returns if their opponent does, too. The Sun and CBS4 offered to simultaneously receive their returns Monday at noon.

Polis, who was a prominent voice in the demand for former President Donald Trump’s tax returns, said he would “be happy to discuss with my opponent what additional releases are necessary,” noting that he has released some of his returns in the past.

Ganahl responded: “We don’t have to discuss it. I’m happy to.” 

In his 2008 campaign for Congress, Polis — a multimillionaire who spent $23 million of his own money to get elected governor in 2018 and has spent about $11 million so far in 2022 — did release his returns and received criticism for how little he paid in taxes.

A 2021 article from ProPublica, based on tax returns obtained without Polis’ permission, said the governor didn’t pay federal income tax from 2013 to 2015. They also reported that from 2010 to 2018, his overall federal tax rate was 8.2%. A worker making $45,000 in 2018 would have paid 19%.

Climate change

Ganahl criticized Polis’ policies aimed at addressing climate change as going “too far, too fast,” but when pressed on what is the right approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she said she would support the oil and gas industry.

“The right approach is to put our oil and gas workers back to work,” Ganahl said. “We have the second largest natural gas reserves in the country right here in Colorado.”

Polis said Colorado needs “a green dividend for replacing high-cost coal with low-cost solar and wind.” But he also said he opposes the Environmental Protection Agency’s push to force the sale of reformulated gasoline in the Denver area to help improve air quality. The EPA estimates the change would cost motorists about 3 cents more per gallon. 

Polis said he would support the mandate “if it led to cleaner air.”

“The problem,” he said, “is this is an outdated requirement from the Clean Air Act decades ago, we have much better ways to clean our air that don’t increase the cost of a gallon of gas.”

(Ganahl claimed the reformulated gas would cost 30 cents to 50 cents more per gallon, which is 10 to 17 times what the EPA says it will be.)

Odds and ends

Other highlights from the debate:

Both candidates agreed that Colorado faces a struggle to cope with drought and water shortages. But neither would say if agriculture, which consumes more than 80% of the state’s water, should be forced to pare back more of its use. (Both candidates acknowledged work already being done by farmers to be more water efficient.)

Polis danced around a question about whether celebrity Kim Kardashian called him about his controversial decision to reduce the prison sentence for a truck driver who lost control and caused a crash on Interstate 70 in Lakewood killing four people. Polis in December reduced the sentence to 10 years from 110 years.

“I’m gonna be a governor who does what’s right for Colorado,” he said, “not what’s right for Kim Kardashian.”

Asked about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ use of state money to fly Texas migrants to Martha’s Vineyard and whether she would do the same, Ganahl replied, “I appreciate the attention it brought to the border crisis.” But she didn’t say whether she’d consider a similar move.

Polis asked Ganahl how people could trust her to “be a reality-based governor” when she’s appeared on a radio talk show with an antivaccination host and chose a running mate who said that Democrats stole the 2020 election from Trump.

Gubernatorial candidate Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, responds to a question during a debate with Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Ganahl’s response was pointed.

“You know, I’m a mom,” she replied. “I know what a spoiled brat acts like and you are a spoiled brat.”

And it wasn’t the only time things got chippy.

“You’ve answered every question with ‘Jared Polis, Jared Polis,’” the governor interjected at one point during the debate as the two started talking over each other.

Ganahl did, in fact, mention Polis multiple times during the debate when responding to questions about her own proposals.

“Polis is the problem here. He talks, he talks and talks, and studies and studies,” she said. “I’m a problem solver. I want to fix the problems that our state is facing.”

The CBS4/Colorado Sun debate is scheduled to be the only live, televised debate between the gubernatorial candidates before the Nov. 8 election. County clerks can start mailing ballots out to voters on Monday.

Elliott Wenzler

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter...

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The...