Gov. Jared Polis wants Colorado to become one of the top 10 safest states in the U.S. within five years, he said Thursday night during a virtual Colorado Sun event ahead of the 2022 legislative session, which begins next week on Wednesday.
“It’ll take a lot of work to get there,” he said.
Polis, a Democrat, joined four top state lawmakers at the event to outline their policy plans. The politicians also shared their perspective about hot issues affecting the state as the 2022 election season begins in earnest.
Polis said he plans to focus his efforts at the Capitol this year on measures aimed at ensuring Colorado is not just “a great place to live, but that people can afford to live here.”
It’s an acknowledgment of how inflation has hit Coloradans’ pocketbooks.
“What’s frustrating people is how costs have gone up faster than incomes,” Polis said.
The governor said the main way he plans to drive down Coloradans’ costs is by providing relief from government fees. That includes reducing the price to register a car, eliminating the costs to start a new business in the state and reducing the amount of money people have to pay to get licensed in certain medical occupations.
Polis is also asking the Legislature for about $60 million to delay for one year the implementation of a new fee on gasoline that’s aimed at raising money for transportation projects.
Finally, he wants to avoid increases in payroll costs by paying back much of the state’s $1 billion debt to the federal government in pandemic unemployment spending, and pre-paying some of the state’s new paid family and medical leave premiums.
“If we fail to act, payroll taxes will go up in Colorado, costing businesses and workers money,” he said.
Polis said he wants to do “everything that we can as a state to save Coloradans money: increasing affordability, decreasing costs, protecting communities.”
He pointed to the Legislature’s plans to spend $500 million in federal coronavirus stimulus dollars on affordable housing, as well as his past efforts to bring down health care costs and introduce universal prekindergarten
Polis also highlighted his 2022 proposal to invest more money in K-12 education. The state has a constitutional requirement to increase per-student funding each year to keep up with inflation, but state lawmakers haven’t met that requirement in years, resulting in what amounts to a multibillion-dollar IOU to school districts.
The governor’s budget proposes making a dent in what’s called the “budget stabilization factor,” with $150 million each year for the next three fiscal years.
Another big priority for Polis is making the state safer, saying Colorado is “in the middle of the pack with regard to crime rates.”
He wants to see the state have one of the 10 lowest crime rates in the country within five years.
“Let’s start this legislative session with a historic opportunity to invest in a package to tackle crime and promote public safety,” he said.
The package would include more funding for policing, community based grants to promote safer streets and monitoring and youthful offender intervention. He also wants to boost funding for the forensics lab for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, as well as explore restorative justice programs and co-responder models that pair police officers with mental health workers.
He also said he wants to prevent crime before it happens by investing more in behavioral health.
Two prominent Republican state lawmakers agreed with many of Polis’ goals, though they have different approaches to how they want to accomplish them.
State Rep. Janice Rich, whose Western Slope district includes Grand Junction, said Polis’ “priorities seem to be very familiar or similar to ours.”
“One of our top goals is to make Colorado more affordable because we do live in a state where middle class families cannot afford their homes, gas or groceries,” she said. “And we as Republicans want to reverse the excessive fees, taxes and regulations that threaten to put the American dream out of reach.”
Rich also sees public safety as a priority, asserting that crime, “under the Democrats watch, is spiraling out of control.”
Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, said he thinks the Legislature can make a lot of progress on affordability and education.
“But having said that,” he said, “we will not neglect our responsibility as the minority party to have alternative proposals, and to be very critical of some of the aspects of the proposals that we’re seeing.”
He said he sees opportunities to address behavioral health issues and early childhood education, but that those efforts “come with new bureaucracy.”
Rankin is concerned about requests from agencies to add new full-time employees to the government’s payroll, and specifically how the growth of state government will affect Colorado’s long-term financial health.
Rankin also said he wants to see the state be more aggressive with the budget stabilization factor and the state unemployment trust fund. Rankin wants to provide enough funding to eliminate the budget stabilization factor entirely, and believes increasing property tax revenue will help the state get there.
He also wants to see more money go toward paying down the state’s unemployment trust fund debt, noting the governor’s $600 million proposal won’t eliminate the $1 billion deficit.
Rankin said “we need to do a lot more” on forest management and wildfire mitigation, providing more support for local fire departments as well as equipment and benefits for volunteer firefighters.
He also defended his party’s positions on climate change, arguing the state has been so focused on wind and solar energy that it has overlooked other renewable alternatives, and “we’ve neglected a slower transition when it might actually support jobs and people.” He argued that “taking a hard look” at the state’s efforts to transition to renewable energy “does not mean that we deny climate change, nor do we deny the need to move to renewable energy.”
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, largely echoed the governor’s legislative agenda.
Esgar also said she will be focused this year on passing legislation in Colorado that would ensure a woman’s ability to get an abortion in Colorado as the U.S. Supreme Court mulls the future of Roe v. Wade.
“It’s clear that a patient’s fundamental right to have an abortion is at risk nationwide in our country right now,” she said. “And we’re not going to just stand by and let Republican politicians put it at risk here in Colorado as well. We are going to codify the right to an abortion and stop any and all efforts to limit abortion access in our state.”
On education, Fenberg said Democrats would love to eliminate the budget stabilization factor but that he wants to make sure it’s not just for one year.
“Getting rid of it for one year doesn’t do a whole lot of good,” he said. “We have to get rid of it in a way that is sustainable so that it goes away forever.”
He argued that paying off the budget stabilization factor this year would mean having to rely more on property tax revenues in future years.
“It’s complex, but we absolutely are there as a partner if the Republicans have ideas that are sustainable to address the structural problems that we have in funding,” he said.
Fenberg also pushed back on Republicans’ criticisms about rising crime and inflation on Democrats’ watch.
“I think the handling of things that nobody ever saw coming has been on the Democrats’ watch,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think voters generally support our policies, much more than the Republicans.”
Finally, Esgar addressed returning to the Capitol amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. Last year, Democratic leadership paused the legislative session to let an increase in the disease’s spread wane.
“We’re taking every step necessary to ensure the health and safety of everyone who comes into work in this building while balancing the public’s right to participate in the political process,” she said. “We have to remember that’s key. And that’s essential. While we’ve been seeing how rapidly things can change over the course of this pandemic, the vaccine is highly effective. And we feel that with sufficient safety protocols in place, the session can proceed safely at this time.”
Esgar said the situation could change and that Democratic leadership is “being very flexible.”
“We’re going to continue monitoring the situation,” she said.