Safety Protocols Can Be Vastly Different School To School. Polis Wants To Set Minimum Standards To Fix That

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Alex Scoville/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.

Gov. Jared Polis wants to bring consistency to the school safety strategies in Colorado districts with legislation that would set statewide minimum standards.

Because of the power districts and even principals have in Colorado, schools can have great differences and disparities in how they keep their students safe.

"It's a question of getting everybody on the same page — and that means Republicans and Democrats in our state legislature and school districts — on what we could do to make sure that people are safe to go to school, no matter where they live," Polis said.

Some of the standards the governor would like to see include a single point of entry, more school resource officers and on-site counseling.

"You will always have school districts that want to go above and beyond and do more, and maybe they have the resources to do more in that area," Polis said. "But it's really a question of how we make sure that, no matter where you live in our state, you can be safe at school."

In his monthly interview with Colorado Matters, Colorado's governor also said he supported the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

In 2017, when Polis was still a member of Congress, he voted to move forward with impeachment proceedings.

Polis hopes investigating the president's conversations with the leader of Ukraine will restore confidence in the system, not deepen political fissures.

"It's really the system doing its job. Whether somebody is a Republican, Independent, Democrat, we want a functioning system with checks and balances, because we're going to have Democratic and Republican presidents in the future," he said. "What's important is that no president is above the law, and that we support above all else the rule of law in this country."

In Colorado politics, Polis expressed support for two measures that will be on the state ballot in November.

Proposition CC would allow the state to keep money that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and redistribute the funds to education and transportation.

"We have to do something to repair our roads and bridges. And this is just a common-sense updating of arbitrary formulas that many local jurisdictions have already updated, including very conservative ones," Polis said.

Proposition DD would enable sports betting in Colorado, with proceeds going to the state's water plan. Estimates say it would generate on average about $16 million a year for the first five years, but Polis doesn't view sports betting primarily as a funding fix.

"I don't look at this so much as a water plan solution. I look at it really as just an opportunity for our state, because other states are already benefiting from sports betting," he said. "There's thousands of jobs that could be created in Colorado. It's really just a question of whether we have this industry here."

Elsewhere, Polis said his administration is looking for a fix to the teen vaping epidemic, and it will likely encourage legislators to raise the age to buy e-cigarette products to 21.

Full Transcript

Jared Polis: You might recall my last job, I was actually a member of the United States Congress, and in the last Congress I voted for moving forward with impeachment hearings. And I think it's about time. When there's a lot of smoke, it's Congress's job as an independent part of the government to fully investigate, and if the charges warrant it, ultimately draw up the articles of impeachment. But at this stage it's absolutely appropriate to have an investigation, whether it's the president trying to use his conversations with foreign leaders to further his own political career for personal reasons, or a number of the allegations that have been raised over the years. Of course, we should have an unbiased investigation.

Ryan Warner: That vote that you mentioned when you were in Congress came in 2017. When you cast that 2017 vote, you tweeted that you did so, "With great reflection and sadness." I wonder if we could talk about the sadness piece as it pertains to what is ahead for our country.

Polis: Nancy Pelosi has the appropriate attitude on this. I don't understand all these people who say, "We want to impeach, we want to impeach," and somehow get excited, like this is some good thing. It's Congress doing its job, and it's not something that should be gleefully investigated. It's something that is doing our duty as Congress, as Americans to make sure that we have independent accountability and that the rule of law is Supreme at the end of the day.

Warner: This country can feel so divided politically sometimes. Do you think that this will make the sort of political fissures worse?

Polis: Well, I hope it restores confidence in the system. It's really the system doing its job. Whether somebody is a Republican, Independent, Democrat, we want a functioning system with checks and balances, because we're going to have Democratic and Republican presidents in the future. What's important is that no president is above the law, and that we support above all else the rule of law in this country.

Warner: And yet inherently there's politics in this. Right?

Polis: Well, and that's the challenge is to try to remove the politics from it and to say, look, this is more akin to a judicial process. In fact, the way that the founding fathers designed the impeachment processes is effectively for the house to act as prosecuting attorneys, and for the Senate to effectively act as the jury.

Warner: Just to reflect back on that 2017 vote, surely you are aware at that time that Republicans controlled the Senate as they do today. In order for a president to be impeached, the Senate has to be involved. It seems like that's not politically likely, given the numbers there.

Polis: I don't think it's political. I fully trust the integrity of the Republican and Democratic members of the Senate. They're going to follow the rule of law, and I'm confident in that process.

Warner: I want to move onto the fact that mail ballots for November's election here in Colorado go out in less than two weeks. Why don't we talk about two statewide issues, starting with proposition CC, it would allow the state to keep money that would otherwise be refunded to taxpayers under TABOR, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, and that this money would go to education and transportation. For the record, do you support CC?

Polis: Of course. Yeah. We have to do something to repair our roads and bridges, and this is just a common sense updating of arbitrary formulas that many local jurisdictions have already updated, including very conservative ones have effectively passed similar initiatives in conservative cities and counties across our state. So it's about time for the state to do that. There's another statewide initiative all with regard to sports betting as well.

Warner: Indeed. We'll talk about DD in just a moment. Will you campaign for prop CC? Will we see you out there pounding the pavement?

Polis: Well, I think that's what I'm doing now, because you asked me about it, right? So, sure. When anybody asks, I'm always happy to talk about why this is important. I think what a governor can do is say, look, the passage of this initiative is the difference between funding this lane expansion funding, this bridge and not funding it. It's the difference between lowering tuition. We can try to provide information to voters about what the difference is with regard to whether that passes or not, and what that means to voters.

Warner: I've seen very little campaigning on either side of this issue. I don't know, is that a deliberate strategy and indication perhaps that even those who are backing the measure aren't entirely enthusiastic?

Polis: I think people are just starting to pay attention to the election period. I would fully expect that of course there's a robust campaign for the passage of CC, and I'm certainly helping them however I can. Absent new funding, let's at least be able to use the funding we have, and really update an outdated formula that arbitrarily says the state can't invest that money into roads that we already collect.

Warner: Onto prop DD, again, on this statewide ballot to enable sports betting in Colorado, with proceeds going to the state's water plan. It would generate on average about $16 million a year for the first five years. But here's the thing, the water plan is expected to cost a minimum of $20 billion between now and 2050. Our DD's revenues so small as to be insignificant in the scheme of things, and what will Coloradans actually get water wise?

Polis: Yeah. I don't look at this so much as a water plan solution. I look at it really as just an opportunity for our state because other states are already benefiting from sports betting. There's thousands of jobs that could be created in Colorado. It's really just a question of whether we have this industry here, or Coloradans interact with people in other States, with companies and other States. So I'm supportive of this measure. I don't think anybody should think that this somehow meets all of our water funding needs.

Warner: You don't see it as a water plan solution, you said. Do you think that's just in there to sweeten the pot a little bit?

Polis: Well, it's certainly any revenues that come out of it that are greater than the cost would go towards the water plan, that can be helpful. But as you indicated, the dollar figures are not sufficient to meet the water needs of the state.

Warner: Given that DD won't be a windfall for water, how do you think Colorado pays for this water plan in the face of a warming climate?

Polis: Well, last year we were able to succeed in getting $10 million from the general fund towards the water plan. We think that it's also important that there's some other dedicated revenues that help go toward it. In a growing state, water is absolutely critical. And under governor Hickenlooper, that we pulled together our first state comprehensive water plan, but a lot of work remains done to make sure it gets implemented.

Warner: $10 million sounds almost quaint in the face of those billions required over the next several decades. Have you given some thought to what a new source of revenue might be?

Polis: Again, I think it calls for the kind of dedicated revenue source that would actually make sure we are prepared for not only the water needs of where we are today, but the water needs of our future. It's something that we're certainly willing to work with Republicans and Democrats with in the legislature.

Warner: It sounds like early days.

Polis: Well I think, again, you indicated this year there is something in that realm. There's DD that's on the ballot. There will also be a discussion of the budget and the general fund, but yes, either one of those or all of those certainly leave open the issues about it's full implementation.

Warner: I'd like to talk about a different issue that's been getting a lot of headlines recently, and that's vaping, e-cigarettes. They are being blamed for several deaths around the country, and Colorado is investigating at least eight illnesses. Most of them serious enough to have sent people to the hospital. One of those illnesses was Piper Johnson, and 18 year old, who was on her way to Colorado for college when she got ill. Her mom testified recently before a congressional committee.

Piper Johnson’s Mom: I'm here to tell you about the biggest blessing in my life, which is the fact that my oldest child is still alive. What started as an exciting right of passage turned into a terrifying near death experience that involved a week long hospital stay, where my daughter went from a healthy, vibrant 18 year old, to a patient who needed rapidly increasing amounts of oxygen and medications to treat her declining health.

Warner: Colorado has the highest rate of teen vaping in the country, and the last time we spoke I asked you about that and you suggested setting a state tax for the first time on vaping products. The legislature considered that last session, you supported the measure, but it died. Now lawmakers are talking about raising the minimum age to buy any kind of tobacco to 21. Some Colorado cities have done that. Would you support raising the minimum age statement wide?

Polis: We're happy to work with legislators on any data-driven ways that we can reduce teen vaping, teen smoking. The data shows that the price point is extremely relevant, and the most important factor. Right now. Vaping has a loophole. They don't pay the tobacco tax. It's exempt, so it's effectively subsidized compared to cigarettes and other tobacco compounds. What we had tried to do, and as you indicated, it was one of our biggest setbacks last legislative session. While we got the house agree, we weren't able to get the Senate to agree to say, why don't we put forward to the voters? We would have on the ballot right now closing that vaping loophole, and with something that haven't given up on, we certainly plan to pursue it, and of course we're open to many other strategies. You indicated raising the age, I also directed my staff to look into how at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment we can use the tools we now have under law to further reduce teenage vaping.

Warner: What do you think about raising the age?

Polis: As I said, we're very open to any data-driven way to reduce teen vaping in our state.

Warner: You'd like to see the data perhaps on this?

Polis: Well again, raising it to 21, of course we want to see the data, it can be helpful. If that's something that legislators are interested in sending to our desk, we will work with them on it. Again, the price is going to be even more important because what you have is just as you have with drinking, 21, you have an 18 year old, a 19 year old, 21 year old. The 21 year old goes in and buys and gives it or sells it to other people. It doesn't mean it doesn't help, it doesn't reduce it in some cases. It can be part of an overall strategy. What I don't want to see is that as a substitute for doing anything else. So again very open to raising the age of 21, but in no way, shape or form should that be, let's check this box and do nothing else around vaping safety or under age vaping.

Warner: In mid September, the Colorado Health Department issued a statement that said, "While we can't pinpoint the specific cause of these serious lung illnesses, we do know vaping products are poorly regulated and may contain or generate chemicals that are unsafe, potentially making people sick."

Polis: One of the positive silver linings to these terrible tragedies is that it's raised awareness about the dangers of vaping with parents and with kids. I've heard from many parents who just tolerated it before, and now are talking to their kids about it. And I've heard from, of course, many responsible young people who weren't aware of the health risks before this latest round of health coverage. And we can amplify that. We can do what we can to kind of elevate this as a health issue. But again, none of that should be used as an excuse not to try to close the vaping loophole.

Warner: Which means waiting for the legislature to reconvene in January.

Polis: They're the only ones who can do that. In fact, the voters, frankly, are the only one who can do that.

Warner: That's right, because any change to the tax will then go to the ballot afterwards.

Polis: Yeah.

Warner: We aired plastic week on Colorado Matters recently, a series about ubiquitous plastic waste. It is literally raining micro plastics. And we reported that environmentalists will ask lawmakers for a ban perhaps on plastic bags, or polystyrene takeout containers. Should Colorado ban some single use plastics?

Polis: Well plastic waste really plagues our land, our oceans, it's inside of us. You might've seen recent articles that kids and adults have plastic in them. It's one of the areas that we want to empower our local communities to lead the way. Of course there's a state role, and we did part of that when we signed into law the front range waste diversion enterprise grant program to really build recycling capacity around plastics. And there are many communities across our state that already have bag fees or other models that they've implemented to reduce plastic waste.

Warner: When you say we really want to empower our local communities, I hear, let cities and counties make that determination, the state shouldn't be in that role.

Polis: Well again, the state should play a role in the recycling capacity. There's not the capacity today, even if we wanted to recycle the plastics used in our States. So we can work, especially in underserved areas of our state, to build that capacity. And as I said, many leaders and communities across our state are trying different policies, and it's one of those there's not one policy that you can do and say, this solves it all. But I like to see that creativity across our different cities and counties in our state around how they can reduce plastic waste.

Warner: Versus say, a statewide ban?

Polis: Well, again, I don't think ... Many of the towns have bag deposit charges. There's others that have instituted their own recycling, or I think one of-

Warner: You want to leave it to them?

Polis: Well, they all have different garbage pickup. Denver just recently added a fee that they added to their garbage pickup that's going to recycling capacity. So every community is different and that's completely appropriate.

Warner: I want to talk about a recent state audit critical of Colorado school safety efforts, saying that there's no coordination, that some programs duplicate each other, and that nobody's measuring what actually works. What do you think could be done to fix that?

Polis: It's both the beauty and also the danger of a local control system, is that practices are all over the place. What that means is school districts are autonomous entities that run their own schools. Even within a school district, a lot is devolved to the principal level.

So it's a question of what type of safety assurances can we ensure statewide, and how can we make sure that every school district and school is empowered to do those? So it's no surprise to me that there is great differences and disparities. It's a question of getting everybody on the same page - and that means Republicans and Democrats in our state legislature and school districts - on what we could do to make sure that people are safe to go to school, no matter where they live.

Warner: One person is thinking a lot about ... This is John Castillo, whose son Kendrick was killed in last spring's shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Why don't we listen to a little of what he had to say?

John Castillo: I'm advocating for school safety and radical change in what we've done since Columbine. There's been incremental improvements, and I applaud those. But, in the time that we're living in, I think we need to go to School Safety 2.0 and ramp things up. That's kind of what I'm advocating, when I'm not grieving.

Warner: Is there a change you'd like to make? What would it be?

Polis: The data guides the policies and things we need to do to improve school safety means things like single point of entry. That's a capital issue. School resource officers play a very constructive role in school safety. Making sure that counseling is available at school for kids in need is so important to have somebody to talk to - not just around reducing the school violence, but also reducing the suicide rate.

So there's a lot of work to be done, and we look forward to working with the Republican and Democratic legislators to really up the bar on school safety.

Warner: And to bring consistency, perhaps, to some of those issues you've just mentioned?

Polis: Yeah, I think the best way to think about it is to bring kind of the minimum standards across the state on those issues. You will always have school districts that want to go above and beyond and do more, and maybe they have the resources to do more in that area. But it's really a question of how we make sure that, no matter where you live in our state, you can be safe at school.

Warner: During the legislative session last spring, you were clear from the start about your two priorities - full-day kindergarten and reducing healthcare costs - and they passed. Have you set specific priorities for the new session similar to those?

Polis: Well, certainly with regard to healthcare, the work isn't done. While we brought down pricing in the individual market by an average of 18.2 percent, we continue our work to save people money on employer-based health care, small group and large group, expanding the peak alliance model to statewide and other counties.

Warner: What is that?

Polis: This is the model that, in Summit County, led to a 41.5 percent reduction in insurance rates next year. I mean, that's just transformational, in terms of savings.

We are working with groups on the ground in La Plata and Eagle County, as well as a state-wide group, to implement these savings statewide - essentially to give customers across different plans better negotiating leverage with providers to have lower rates. We think that this has remarkable potential to bring down rates for everybody in Colorado in future years.

With regards to early childhood education, we plan to continue our efforts to expand preschool. Last year, the legislature expanded preschool by over 5,000 slots for kids, and we hope that that progress continues.

Warner: Do you think that you might have a less ambitious agenda of new policies, in part because next year is an election year?

Polis: Well, I don't think it's so much about the election year. It's about always focusing on the North Star of what makes Colorado more livable, reduces costs for families, saves people money, and protects our Colorado way of life.

Warner: You have called, in the past, on lawmakers to either reform or revoke the state's death penalty. A bill to do that failed last session. Is that something you'd like to see in the upcoming?

Polis: Well, again, that's something that I've been very clear that, if the legislature passes, I would sign. It didn't seem to have the votes in the Senate and might still not have the votes, but if it has the votes and it reaches my desk, then they can expect me to sign it.

Warner: To Colorado's U.S. Senate race, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, whose running for President, entered the Democratic primary for Senate last month. He wants to unseat incumbent Republican Cory Gardner, and, almost immediately, the National Party, through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, jumped into endorse Hickenlooper. That has angered many of the other candidates. Should the National Party have let the race develop before backing Hickenlooper?

Polis: Well, I think everybody decides who they want to back. I think that the unaffiliated voters who are Democrats are going to have a choice in the primary about who they want to nominate to take on Cory Gardner. John Hickenlooper, because of his work as governor, starts off with a strong lead. But, of course, any race is wide open, and it's always a question of just making the case to the voters about why he'd be the best Senator.

Warner: Is it fair to say that it's wide open when one candidate is getting such a major backing from the party?

Polis: Well, again, the party, if you mean the DNC, they're always neutral in these things. Our county parties are neutral. The state party's neutral. I think you're referring to a wing of the Senate party under Chuck Schumer. But the party's very neutral. There'll be a state convention. Anybody who gets a third of the votes, the grassroots up, can get on the ballot. There's, what, nine or 10 people running? I don't expect they'll all make the ballot, but many of them have the resources and momentum and support to get on that ballot.

Warner: It doesn't sound like you have any objections with how things unfurled.

Polis: Well, I think anybody can run. That's the beauty of our system - a Republican or a Democrat or if you belong to a minor party or no party at all. Candidates just can gather signatures and get on the ballot. I mean, the voters deserve a choice, and that's the way elections have worked and will work. That's part and parcel of what they do.

Polis: John Hickenlooper left a very strong economy in the state and did a great job as governor, and there's other great candidates that are making the case that they want to go to the Senate, too. That's what elections are all about.

Warner: Will you make an endorsement before the primary?

Polis: Again, my priority will be making sure that we can bring the party together after we have a nominee.

Warner: You're not prepared to endorse Hickenlooper right now, or ...

Polis: I haven't endorsed anybody. I've been, obviously, very busy. I don't think having a heavy hand on the political side would make sense. I think it's up to the voters to decide who we want to nominate, who would be the most likely candidate to win, and who'd be the best Senator.

Warner: Okay. We've noticed that, like a lot of politicians, Jared Polis, you have a Twitter game. In this case, I'm actually less interested in what you tweet about policy than some other things.

In August you tweeted, "If you come across a nuclear bomb, please don't try to dismantle it yourself," and there was a link to a Discover Magazine article about how scientists disarm bombs. Earlier this month, a link to a story about a vast network of microbes that some scientists call the Underground Galapagos. What do you tend to read when you have downtime?

Polis: I read pretty voraciously. As you know, it's just sort of all over the Internet, different information, news, science. Obviously, I'm a Rockies fan. Didn't go so well this year, but I certainly tweet about Colorado sports team. Broncos haven't started out that great, but we're still hopeful.

So I certainly keep the content varied and just update people on interesting things that I think can further the knowledge and hope and inspiration.

Warner: Yeah, there's a lot of science on your Twitter feed. I wonder where that love of science came from.

Polis: Well, my father's a scientist. He has a PhD in physics. That's the reason I was born in Colorado. My father, after he got his PhD in physics, got a job at NOAA in Boulder. My sister's a scientist as well.

But, certainly, science, technology are very exciting areas, and I think being future-oriented and making sure that the future isn't something that just happens, but that change works for us, is really an important challenge of leadership.

Warner: Governor, thank you.

Polis: Thank you.

Warner: Gov. Jared Polis. We speak regularly at the state capitol, and Colorado Matters continues in the next half hour as we remember an activist who helped people with disabilities keep their kids. It's a fight she had to take on for herself. I'm Ryan Warner, here with CPR News.