DENVER – In his 2022 State of the State speech Thursday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said he would be unveiling a plan to expand the state’s health care workforce as the state heads into its third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, made commitments to reducing crime, and pledged to work on cutting emissions that are causing climate change, turned the fire season into a year-round event and caused persistent poor air quality.
“The state of our state, just like the people of Colorado, is strong, it is steadfast, and in spite of everything, we are boldly moving forward,” Polis said to round out his annual speech.
Polis started the speech with a moment of silence for the Coloradans killed by COVID-19, violence, and natural disasters like the Dec. 30 Marshall Fire. And he moved on to acknowledge some of the hardest parts of the past year for many Coloradans – things he pledged to continue to act on.
“Evil acts against innocent people in the places where we once ran errands or recreated have also made us feel less safe. We have feared the ever-changing nature of the virus, wondering if what protected us yesterday will protect us today,” Polis said. “We learned that the words ‘fire season’ don’t apply when the most destructive fire in Colorado history happens on Dec. 30. And we were reminded, once more, that our lives, and everything we hold dear, can go up in flames in an instant.”
Health care workers and public health officials received a standing ovation during the speech as Polis discussed how the state had one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the country.
He proposed waiving licensing fees for nurses and mental health care workers, as well as for employees at long-term care facilities. And the governor said he would be proposing a three-year plan in coming days to bolster the health care work force.
“Moving forward, we can’t let our society and our economy be impacted by hospital capacity, and I look forward to working with legislators and health care leaders to ensure that no matter where this pandemic takes us, we will be ready,” Polis said.
Colorado is currently seeing among its highest-ever hospitalizations for the virus ever as the omicron variant sweeps across the state, pushing the seven-day average positivity rate to near 30%.
Polis also talked about climate change as a group of protesters stood just outside the Capitol saying the governor was not doing enough to address that very topic.
He talked about the Marshall Fire, the historic 2020 wildfire season and the mudslides in Glenwood Canyon that followed the Grizzly Creek Fire – also acknowledging the smoke and ozone-filled air that has plagued parts of the state for especially the past two years.
Lawmakers did pass several wildfire and climate-related bills last year that the governor touted during his speech, and he said he was committed to “targeted mitigation efforts” to prevent small fires from blowing up into larger fires.
“I’m requesting additional support for the men and women on the ground, including personal protective equipment, training, and other equipment needs for local fire departments,” Polis said. “The fresh mountain air that so many people associate with Colorado isn’t a given. We have to fight to protect it. I’m committed to cutting emissions and getting this done by improving air quality.”
Polis also said the state will “continue to protect and aggressively assert Colorado’s rights under all existing water compacts” after Nebraska’s governor said earlier this week he had a $500 million plan to divert water out of Colorado under a 99-year-old compact.
“Because water is the lifeblood of our state and our critical agriculture industry, we must work together across industries, divides and state boundaries to secure a sustainable water future for all Coloradans,” he said, adding that he was committed to updating the state water plan to make it “more climate resilient.”
The governor also talked about crime and public safety – two issues that have risen in the political spectrum with the November election coming up in which Polis and other state officials elected in 2018 are up for re-election. Republicans have worked to make crime in Colorado one of their top topics for the cycle.
“I’m proud to put forward a responsible public safety plan that builds on historic legislation of years past, gives much-needed support and funding to local law enforcement while also investing in community-based approaches and organizations that can help prevent violent crime for occurring in the first place,” Polis said.
He said lawmakers and himself would focus on training and recruiting officers, community policing, increasing mental health service access and early intervention programs, and school safety improvements.
He said he wanted to make Colorado one of the top 10 safest states over the next five years in terms of violent crime and property crime. According to ConsumerAffairs, Colorado currently ranks 39th. Polis also said he wanted to strengthen penalties for fentanyl dealers and work more on crime prevention.
And with respect to homelessness in Colorado, the governor said the state needed more affordable and transitional housing, substance use treatment programs and residential programs, and permanent housing.
The governor used pop culture references throughout his speech – a modified Paul Simon song about lowering taxes, along with references to Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, South Park and Casa Bonita. His version of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” involved a promise to have 50 ways to save Coloradans money.
“My administration will work with both parties to continue cutting taxes and fees wherever we can, but never at the expense of teachers and law enforcement,” Polis said.
Heading into reelection season and with the 2022 legislative session already underway, the governor said he was hopeful after two tough years that things could improve moving forward.
“In spite of all we have faced this last year, I count it the greatest honor of my life to serve as your governor and am hopeful as ever about the promise of our Colorado,” he said.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, called the governor’s plans discussed in the speech “a bold vision.”
“I look forward to working hand-in-hand with Gov. Polis this session to keep more money in people’s wallets, take historic steps to improve public safety, and create a safer and healthier Colorado so that every family can thrive,” Garcia said in a statement.
Kristi Burton Brown, the chairwoman of the Colorado GOP, called Polis a liar in a statement and again focused on crime. Violent crime in Colorado hit its highest rate in 25 years in 2020 but is still well below the rates seen in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s and similar to rates earlier this decade and in the mid-2000s.
“Our commitment to Colorado is focused on solving the issues that Democrats have created – issues like affordability, high crime, and schools that aren’t delivering for all students,” she said in a statement. “We can do better and we will do better – under Republican leadership.”
After the speech, Democratic lawmakers told Denver7 they felt the speech set the right expectations for the work that's ahead.
"I think it's focused," said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. "It's highlighting and prioritizing a lot of the agenda items that we as Colorado Democrats have been talking about."
Republicans like Rep. Tim Geitner, R-Falcon, called the speech disingenuous and said it was creative messaging. He took aim at the moments of levity in the governor's speech, saying they were not appropriate for the time.
"Here we are kind of singing through the state of the state, you know, there are real problems that Coloradans are experiencing," Geitner said.
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, meanwhile, said the governor wasn't painting an accurate picture of how Colorado is really doing.
"The governor was trying to stay away from the idea that the state of the state is not good. But we are strong, we are resilient," he said.
McKean told Denver7 many of the ideas that were brought up in the speech have been pitched by Republicans before without success, but said the temporary fee relief isn't a solution.
"That's only a partial solution," he said. "What we have to do is find ways to make our government more efficient."
House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, rebuffed Republican accusations that Democrats are reversing on their policies by delaying some fees, instead insisting that this is a recognition of the changing environment and the need to help families now. He believes the difference in tones between the two parties around the state of the state are indicative of a larger issue.
"I think the Republican Party is desperately searching for their identity," Garnett said. "They've been stuck and deep in the woods for the last decade, and this is their last good chance at trying to carve out a place here in Colorado, and so they're trying to find a message."
After the State of the State address and all of the priorities the governor laid out, it's now up to lawmakers to determine how to move forward and which policies to pass.