DENVER — In an annual State of the State address on Tuesday morning, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he is focused on recommitting himself and his administration to bold ideas that continue to push Colorado and its residents forward.
Polis was inaugurated for the second time in front of the state capitol a week before the address.
"But Coloradans should know that no matter what comes our way, I’ll continue to fight every day to protect our state," he said.
He urged the state, as it starts a new legislative session, to see the state as a colorful collection of opinions that fall outside of the box of "red," "blue," or "purple."
"We've seen the consequences of divisiveness and what happens when we retreat into silos and stop having productive conversations, and that's just not who we are," he said. "With extreme partisanship grinding progress to a halt in Washington, it is more important than ever to lead the Colorado way."
Notably, there is one big celebration just ahead. In three years, Colorado will turn 150 years old. Currently, Sen. Rachel Zenzinger and Rep. Marc Catlin helped create the America 250 - Colorado 150 Commission, which is planning events for the state under the roof of History Colorado. Those activities will begin July 1, 2025 and last through Dec. 31, 2026, according to the bill.
Looking ahead — at an introspective level — Polis said Colordans should ask themselves three questions as 2023 begins: First, who do we want to be in 2026? Second, what work can we do leading up to then? And third, how can Colorado serve as a bright light for the rest of the United States?
He outlined several goals he hopes the state can achieve by 2026, Colorado's 150th birthday year. He started with housing and the struggle statewide for residents to find a place they can afford to call home.
"We need an approach that creates more housing now, protects Colorado's resources and reduces sprawl," Polis said. "It’s clear that the actions of one jurisdiction impact others, especially when it comes to housing, our environment, transportation systems, roads and transit, water and sewer infrastructure, and indeed our economic prosperity and growth."
In the past 50 years, housing prices increased about four-fold, he said. It has put the dream of owning a house on the backburner or completely out of reach for many Coloradans.
"This has got to stop," he said. "We need to bring our land use policy into the 21st century and prepare ourselves for success these next 150 years."
Concurrent to the plan to address housing issues is the state's climate goals.
"Building smart, efficient housing statewide, especially in urban communities and job centers, won’t just reduce costs, it will save energy, conserve our water, and protect the lands and wildlife that are so important to our Colorado way of life," Polis said. "It will also support our vision for public transit, which is to create lower-cost ways to travel that gives Coloradans more choices and leads to more breathable air and less traffic."
With investments from Senate Bill 260 — which will preserve, improve and expand existing transportation infrastructure — and the creation of the Front Range Rail District, the state has created a foundation for a statewide road and transit system that meets Coloradans' current needs, Polis said. In addition, the state put American Rescue Plan Act dollars toward multiple projects, and voters passed Prop 123 to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to affordable housing in the next few years, Polis said.
He provided a few examples of progressive steps: Grants from House Bill 1271 — titled Department Of Local Affairs Innovative Affordable Housing Strategies — encourages homes with smaller footprints, microhomes and more. In a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, Greeley is also creating more home ownership opportunities. In the mountains, Summit County and the Town of Breckenridge are building a new 52-unit workforce apartment complex near the downtown area for local workers. The county has partnered with a Buena Vista company called Fading West that can build a home in about 18 working days.
"But listen, the reality is that projects like these are the exception, not the rule," he said. "The more common scenario is that housing projects are rejected or mired in years of red tape, adding costs and time.... This means that we need more flexible zoning to allow more housing, streamlined regulations that cut through red tape, expedited approval processes for projects like modular housing, sustainable development, and more building in transit-oriented communities."
Polis said the state is making parcels of state-owned land available for housing. That includes building 80-unit housing at the Dowd Junction in Vail Valley for local workers.
He added that he hopes to reduce property taxes in Colorado.
In 2022, Coloradans saved about $700 million through historic property relief for homeowners and businesses, he said, all while protecting school funding. But the growth continues — residential values grew more than 26% over the last two years.
"If we don’t act, property taxes will go up by hundreds, even thousands, of dollars," Polis said. "We need to prevent these steep increases by taking decisive action."
Part of that includes the state passing a long-term property tax relief package to protect residents from being priced out.
"A more just tax system that promotes prosperity for all is a passion I share with many of you in this chamber," he said, looking around the room. "While we don’t always agree on the path, I know all of us want to save Coloradans money."
Ensuring the state is an affordable place to live will also help reduce homelessness statewide. Polis said the state is seeking proposals from local governments to utilize $200 million that the legislature invested in 2022 for this goal. He noted successful approaches in other states that Colorado could replicate.
In his speech, Polis then addressed the issue of water in Colorado.
"Increased demand, chronic and extreme drought, conflicts with other states, and devastating climate events are threatening this critical lifesource — and we’ve all seen the impacts," he said. "Wildfires have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres, and devastated entire communities. Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs."
By the time Colorado turns 150 in 2026, Polis said he wants the state to have the resources for farms, communities and industries to not only survive, but thrive. To do this, the state must continue investing in water projects.
"For every dollar the state invested in Water Plan grants last year, we got $4 back," Polis said. "In the last fiscal year, we awarded more than $23 million in grants that supported nearly $100 million in projects, and we’re hoping to once again position Colorado to punch above our weight and pull down major investments from the federal government."
He said as of now, the most important way to save water in Colorado is to protect its waterways and rights. He acknowledged that challenges will come, but the state is "gearing up" and bringing in expertise "to defend what is ours."
"This is about water, but it’s also about our future, our livelihoods, and the very foundation of who we are as Coloradans," he said.
It's a similar approach for the state's goals and approach to climate.
"We have already secured more than 80% renewable energy by 2030," he said to a large applause. "By the time Colorado is 150 years old, we look forward to having a clear path to 100% renewable energy by 2040."
That was first announced in May 2019.
A big part of this goal is sustainable development, but also reducing oil and gas emissions and holding polluters accountable, he said.
"And I’m proud to propose $120 million annually in new, clean energy tax credits," he said. "With this tax relief and incentives, we can improve our air quality, accelerate innovation, and make more rapid progress towards our goals, while saving people money at the pump and on their utility bills, and increasing access to clean, low-cost transportation options."
The state is also exploring clean energy technologies like geothermal and hydrogen. Through a Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative launched last summer, Polis said a budget request would provide funding for Colorado Mesa University to expand geothermal systems across the campus. He said the goal is to make the university the first in America to be fully powered by geothermal.
He said efforts like these will help the state achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040. It will also help prevent utility bill spikes, like the one Coloradans are currently facing.
Along the lines of the state's climate goals are its wildfire safety goals. Firefighters have responded to more than 2,000 wildfires in the state since 2019, Polis said. In recent years, authorities have increased efforts in fire prevention and response. That has included the state's first Firehawk helicopter, forest restoration, mitigation efforts and more.
But there's more to do, he said, including more support for firefighters, more aerial capabilities, and preparing for a drier climate.
Polis transitioned to then discuss healthcare costs in the state, which are among the top 10 in the country.
"Too many Coloradans are forced to choose between the care they desperately need, paying their rent or mortgage, or putting food on the table," he said. "... Together we’ve reduced costs for health care coverage through Reinsurance, the Colorado Option, OmniSalud, and expanded Medicaid and CHIP." (CHIP stands for Children's Health Insurance Program)
He said 34,000 people have enrolled in Colorado Option plans, far surpassing original estimates.
"Our work to save people money on healthcare is more urgent than ever before, and we must leave no stone unturned," he said. "When we turn 150, I want Colorado to be a state where everyone can get the care they need easily and affordably."
That includes prescriptions, which has not escaped increasing costs with inflation. Polis said in 2021, 10% of Coloradans couldn't fill a prescription due to its price. Saving money on prescriptions will lead to the prevention of higher healthcare costs, he said. Colorado will work to strengthen the Prescription Drug Affordability Board, Polis said.
He pointed out that some health insurers profit from Colorado patients as administrative costs soar. Along the same vein, he said large hospital systems are making record profits and overcharging customers. Polis said it's time to hold them accountable, and that starts with not overcharging patients.
After healthcare and housing, Coloradans are also paying high costs related to education. By 2026, he said he wants an education system that prepares every student for success, starting in early childhood.
Free preschool will launch this fall, saving families at least $6,000 each year, he said. Tuesday marks the first day families can apply to enroll their children. As of the time of his speech, Polis said more than 4,000 families had already started the application process.
To create more hours of free preschool, Polis said he is calling on the legislature to refer a ballot measure allowing the state to use excess funds from Prop EE for preschool.
He also proposed to raise funding by an additional $925 per pupil in kindergarten through 12th grade, which equates to an additional $20,000 for Colorado classrooms every year, he said. These funds can be used to increase pay for staff.
Students have struggled in the past couple years and that is reflected in test scores. Polis said the state is "increasing our commitment" to programs before and after school to help students pass their classes and graduate — sometimes, with more than just a diploma. More than half of all high school graduates earn college credit while in high school, which helps them cumulatively save about $53 million on tuition costs each year, he said.
When their talents take them into the workforce, they can find industries across the board that are in need of good workers, Polis said. For every person now in the workforce, there are two available jobs, he said.
Take for example, the healthcare industry, he said. In 2022, the state created Care Forward Colorado, which allows students to pursue a career in that field for free at any community or technical college. In the wake of this program, demand and enrollment increased, he said. He proposed expanding this programming to other fields, such as construction, firefighting, law enforcement, nursing and early childhood education.
This can help bump the number of students pursuing postsecondary education or training back up after a recent decline. In another effort to address this, Polis said he is proposing a scholarship for high school seniors graduating in 2024 who pursue postsecondary education, training, or certifications.
Polis said he also wants to continue investing in state employees — think snowplow drivers, staff at the state hospital in Pueblo, prison staff and more. The legislature now has the chance to fund a compensation package that would work to attract and retain those workers.
Polis then moved onto the next topic — crime. The state is in the middle of the pack for crime rates when compared to the rest of the country, but "that's not good enough," he said. We are closing in on becoming one of the top 10 safest states, he said.
A bipartisan safety package in 2022 is working toward that goal, with investments in recruitment and retention, physical improvements in the community, and support for crime prevention strategies. An additional package could provide more resources for law enforcement to help crack down on auto theft, including stronger technology, Polis added. The mayors in the state's three largest cities have helped identify the tools to successfully fight crimes in their cities.
There is also the goal of reducing the number of youths entering the justice system, he said. Polis said legislation passed in 2022 gave funding to the Boys & Girls Clubs in Colorado to launch a pilot across 15 counties. This will "provide meaningful enrichment opportunities outside of school," Polis said.
In this current session, which just started, he urged the legislature to continue its bipartisan efforts to make Colorado safer.
He took a moment to name the five people killed in the Club Q shooting in November, and thanked the two heroes who stopped the shooter.
In the wake of this shooting, he said it's important to strengthen Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law — also called the red flag law — by spreading awareness of it and expanding reporting capabilities out to district attorneys. The law, which passed in 2019, allows a family or household member or law enforcement to petition a court if they believe a person poses a significant risk to themselves or others.
As he neared the end of his State of the State address, Polis said he wants Colorado to be a "beacon of hope and freedom for all."
"No matter your gender, ethnicity, age, race, ability, who you love or who you are," he said. "A Colorado for all."
"Today in 2023, the state of our state is undeniably strong, but we know it can be even stronger, for our potential is truly limitless," he concluded.
Following the governor's address, Colorado Democrats and Republicans praised and criticized Polis for the policies he outlined.
Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Democrat in District 1, said he appreciated the willingness to focus on housing and bold action on climate.
"I would have liked to have heard a little bit more about how we can address the rising cost of rents, and how we balance our approach to build more housing," he added. "I was disappointed to hear the governor talk about wanting to decrease or eliminate the income tax, I believe we do need tax relief for working people for people who are struggling to get by but you know, the wealthiest Coloradans should be paying their fair share. And I think that we could better fund a lot of these things that was proposed if we had a more equitable tax code."
Sen. Steve Fenberg, Senate president and a Boulder Democrat, acknowledged that the speech was policy-heavy but said he thought it focused on the right issues.
"Everything that he mentioned today, he has identified how to pay for it. And that gives us a bit of a roadmap. It doesn't mean we're going to pass it word for word the way he submitted it to us," he said. "He hit one of the priorities right on — we need to improve the extreme risk protection order. It's been very effective. I don't think we should think that just because it needs improvements means it hasn't been a success."
Rep. Mike Lynch, House minority leader and Republican representing District 65, said he didn't see a lot of reality in the governor's proposal.
"We don't have that extra federal fluff money," Lynch said. "So, I saw a lot of things that are kind of unfunded. And they're great ideas, but they're unfunded."
When asked about Polis's plan for income taxes, he said that was one of the areas he was most excited about.
"We'd love to see it go to zero," he said.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, senate minority leader and Republican representing District 9, was critical of the governor and noted that it took more than an hour of speaking before Polis mentioned crime.
"We've got a crime problem in Colorado," Lundeen said. "Murders are up. Violent crimes are up. Private car thefts are up. It's a true challenge that we need to deal with. So, it's something that clearly needs more attention... The reality is there are laws on the books, there are bad laws on the books. I would argue that the governor signed (those) into law."
Lundeen said over the last several years, the state basically decriminalized auto theft.
"The reality is on any of these policies, we need to know what the specific details are, because they butt up against the constitutional rights of the people of Colorado," he said.
In a one-on-one interview with Polis after his speech, he told Denver7 that the state needs to "get tough on auto theft."
"(We need to) make sure that we look at some of the drivers of crime and preventing crime before it occurs, using new technologies and increasing our ability to prosecute people successfully for property, serious property crimes, and more," Polis said.
He said no matter the value of the stolen car, the cases should all be prosecuted as felonies.