Democratic Gov. Jared Polis covered the issues landscape in a conversation with Colorado Matters on Wednesday, Nov. 13.
As a former Congressman, he talked about the mood he’d like lawmakers to set as impeachment hearings begin.
In his current role as governor, he floated possible solutions for transportation and education funding after voters defeated the ballot measure Proposition CC that would have yielded hundreds of millions of dollars for the state from TABOR refunds.
Polis also talked about the Supreme Court's impending DACA decision, health care in Colorado and marijuana clemency.
Polis was in Congress for 10 years before becoming governor. He said he won’t miss being in Washington for the impeachment hearings.
"It's not very pleasant. The only kind of side note is, yes, you'd be a witness to history. I mean, this is only the fourth time our nation has undergone an impeachment inquiry. I wish them well in their very serious deliberations and I hope that they show the wisdom that has traditionally guided the governance of this country in making an informed decision."
On immigration hearings at the U.S. Supreme Court
The court held hearings this week on a Trump administration effort to end DACA, the program for people who entered the U.S. illegally as children. There are 15,000 DACA recipients in Colorado.
"We of course treat our DACA recipients in Colorado, our residents, like any other. We fully support their ability to be here to work. They're an important part of our economy. It's not just the DACA recipients themselves who would suffer if the (court’s) decision overturns the program, it's also all the companies that employ them, it's the institutions of higher education they attend. It's their American children or spouses, in many cases, who would lose their partner or their mom or dad.
So this is so important, and we are very hopeful that the Supreme Court will not allow President Trump to end the legal presence of 15,000 people and create more illegal immigrants."
On the defeat of Proposition CC
Voters last week rejected a proposal to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep an estimated $350 million in taxpayer refunds and spend them on education and transportation.
"It’s really fascinating because when I'm out and about people say ‘do something about traffic, do something about the roads.’ And the last three things that have been on the ballot to do that all failed by similar margins — one was bonding with new revenue from a sales tax increment, another was bonding with no new revenue for roads, and the third was keeping the (TABOR) surplus.
So the voters have turned down three ways of investing in our roads and reducing traffic. So what I think they want, trying to read the tea leaves, is they want us to be creative in those financing solutions, which means what can we do with our existing authority."
On funding transportation, after voters rejected three funding measures in two elections
Polis’ proposed budget includes $605 million in additional money but that’s a one-year fix. A longer-term answer might be public-private partnerships like the one that built U.S. 36 from Denver to Boulder.
“When the voters say no to funding, one of the things you look at are these public-private partnerships which are from my perspective the last place you go, they’re the least desirable way to build infrastructure because effectively your financing costs are 8 and 9 percent instead of 3 or 2 percent."
So, Prop CC Failed. What Happens Next With My TABOR Refund?
On convincing voters to pay for education
The governor is asking the legislature for a pilot program to help convince local voters to approve tax hikes for their schools.
"One of the things we're looking at is how can you do an incentive for school districts to do a mill levy for increasing teacher pay? If the state is kicking in 10 cents and they're kicking in 90 cents, in areas of the state that either haven't gone to their voters recently or their voters have said no, how can you sweeten that pot a little by adding some matching state funds when they ask their local voters if they'd like to pass a mill levy to support competitive teacher salaries so that they can adequately staff their schools?"
On clemency for marijuana convictions
"We're certainly looking at people that were convicted of possession of marijuana before it was legal and that's permanently on their record. That's something we'd love to help them expunge ... We're happy to look at some of these cases on a case by case basis, help people clear up their record if they've demonstrated that they are committed to following the law."
On when a public option for health care will come to Colorado
"We are hoping that a public option, starting in the individual market so everybody who gets their insurance on the exchange will have an additional choice, (at an) estimated savings of 10 to 15 percent would be available in 2022. We also hope to expand that to a small and medium-sized businesses to make it available for them."
Answers have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Read The Transcript
Ryan Warner: Today, Gov. Jared Polis, and this time a smorgasbord of issues — marijuana convictions, the closure of a private prison, and a novel way to pay for schools. We spoke Wednesday at the Colorado Capitol. Governor, thanks for being with us again.
Gov. Jared Polis: Always a pleasure,
RW: You were in Congress. Is there any part of you that wishes you were in the house impeachment proceedings right now?
JP: Not really, Ryan. It's not very pleasant. The only side note is yes, you'd be a witness to history. This is only the fourth time our nation has undergone an impeachment inquiry. I wish them well in their very serious deliberations and I hope that they show the wisdom that has traditionally guided the governance of this country in making an informed decision.
RW: The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week on the fate of DACA protection for Dreamers, brought to the country illegally when they were young. You'll be on a call this week to discuss the program. You say Colorado's 15,000 DACA recipients contribute greatly to the economy. What role can a governor play, if any, if the court allows the Trump administration to end DACA?
JP: Well, I've been a strong supporter of deferred action from its inception. We of course treat our DACA recipients in Colorado, our residents, like any other. We fully support their ability to be here to work. They're an important part of our economy. It's not just the DACA recipients themselves who would suffer if the decision overturns the program, it's also all the companies that employ them, it's the institutions of higher education they attend, it's their American children or spouses in many cases who would lose their partner or their mom or dad. So this is so important and we are very hopeful that the Supreme Court will not allow president Trump to end the legal presence of 15,000 people and create more illegal immigrants.
RW: Those who are reading the tea leaves seem to think that the court is leaning in the direction of the Trump administration here. The president has said if that's the case, if he's allowed to end the program, that there will be a solution in Congress. You were in Congress. Do you think that's likely?
JP: Well, look, I sure hope so. And I will also indicate the only permanent solution for these folks is in Congress. The only way we could do it is in law to someday give them a route to actually become citizens, to get their green card, only Congress can do that. In the meantime, deferred action is the best that we can do to allow them to go to work without the constant fear of deportation. And yes, if the Supreme Court were to overturn that, it would put an urgent issue in Congress's lap and I sure hope that Republicans and Democrats could see through their differences to expeditiously address that.
RW: I want to talk about last week's election -- the defeat of Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state to keep refunds that go to taxpayers under TABOR, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. This money would have been spent on education and transportation. You supported CC, voters rejected it by about 7 percentage points. In a statement on election night, you said voters want elected officials to do more with their existing tools and that you look forward to working on new and innovative approaches to reduce congestion — speaking of roads there. What's an approach you'll bring to the table when it comes to reducing congestion?
JP: Yeah, so this is really fascinating because when I'm out and about, people say ‘do something about traffic, do something about the roads,’ and the last three things that have been on the ballot to do that all failed by similar margins. One was bonding with new revenue from a sales tax increment, another was bonding with no new revenue for roads, and the third was keeping the surplus. So the voters have turned down three ways of investing in our roads and reducing traffic. So what I think they want, I'm trying to read the tea leaves, is they want us to be creative in those financing solutions. Which means what can we do with our existing authority, meaning the legislature and the governor, to really address that backlog of congestion given …
RW: What's your best idea?
JP: Well, I think that we want ideas from both sides. And this is going to be a discussion with the business community, Republicans, Democrats, about our transportation needs. The start is we included $605 million in this year's budget, but that's just a one-year investment. There needs to be some capital mechanism or some bonding mechanism, as it's traditionally done with construction to actually make substantial improvements in reducing traffic.
RW: But the voters said no to this.
JP: Yeah, look, it's not uncommon that voters always like to have their cake and eat it too. They want their roads fixed, but they don't want to pay for it. That's very normal. They want funding for schools, don't want to pay for it. So it's all up to the voters in this state and as I said, the voters have turned down the three different ways of doing it. If voters want elected officials to address trafficking congestion, we have to show we can do more with what we have.
RW: I think that I hear you saying, then, you can only get so creative.
JP: Well, it's a question of the law of course. There are certainly bonding mechanisms that we can look at using.
RW: Without a vote?
JP: Well, there's a scheduled vote on another one. This would be the fourth one, for 2020, which is very similar to one that failed in 2018. I'm not that supportive of that. I think they should probably remove it from the ballot. It already failed once, I don't know why they'd necessarily want to go through doing it again. The voters have been clearly heard that they are not interested in using these mechanisms to fund roads.
RW: So it sounds like the creativity that you want to see, you don't necessarily have that yet, we'll see that emerge in the next session.
JP: It's really a call for ideas. Obviously when the voters say no to funding, one of the things that you look at are these public-private partnerships, which are of course, and from my perspective, the last place you go, they're the least desirable way to build infrastructure because effectively your financing costs are 8 percent, 9 percent instead of 3 percent or percent.
RW: This is how US 36 between Boulder and Denver was financed, for instance?
JP: Yeah, exactly. The Highway 25 north project up by Loveland, Fort Collins. So it's a way to get it done, but it does have higher financing costs than a conventional public bond that has a lower financing costs. It's a better value for taxpayers.
RW: Liberal groups are eyeing next year's ballot for any number of changes to TABOR. I wonder if your message to them would be, ‘it's time to give the voters a rest on this.’ To go back to your election night statement, voters want elected officials to do more with their existing tools. How do you feel about the measures that are cooking right now?
JP: Well, look, this is a state where anybody can launch a citizens' initiative and I don't even keep track of how many are filed. So I don't react to all of those different ideas that people have. But my real goal and my responsibility as governor is to make do with what we have and make sure we save for a rainy day. That's a big part of our budget.
RW: You mentioned rainy day. How rainy a day are you forecasting?
JP: Well, I'm not an economic forecaster. What we do know is that inevitably there's economic cycles. We want to prepare the state for the next downturn. Whether that's next year, whether it's in three years, whether it's in five years, it's inevitable that there will be a time with slower economic growth or even negative economic growth. And what we want to do is increase the size of the state reserve, increase the state education fund, which backfills schools during tough economic times, and repay some of the one-time mechanisms that were used in the last recession to free up money in the state budget. So we're hoping to have a prudent state budget, we're hoping that the Joint Budget Committee and the legislature agree and help increase our reserve levels.
RW: Back to Prop CC, its failure. Two-thirds of the money would have gone to K-12 and higher education. Do you have something in mind to raise money there, that, back to that notion of creativity?
JP: Well, kindergarten through 12th-grade education is a joint effort of the state and local efforts. So certainly mill levies and bonds across the state actually at a pretty good level of passage.
RW: This tends to be the way Colorado goes. The statewide tax measures tend to fail, the local ones are usually more successful.
JP: Yeah, and that makes sense. People want to make sure that they know that money that they come up with is invested in their local schools or on their roads, so I think we want to find ways to make that work for us rather than against us to really empower people in their communities to better address their funding needs while also making sure we have our eye on statewide disparities and equity.
RW: So how do you address those? You can encourage the locals, but how does the state address its issues?
JP: So in transportation, one of the things that we're-
RW: And in schools though
JP: Oh, in schools. So one of the things we're looking at is how can you do an incentive for school districts to do a mill levy for increasing teacher pay? Meaning if you... the state is kicking in 10 cents and they're kicking in 90 cents in areas of the state that either haven't gone to their voters recently or their voters have said no, how can you sweeten that pot a little by adding some matching state funds when they ask their local voters if they'd like to pass a mill levy to support competitive teacher salaries so that they can adequately staff their schools?
RW: A kind of state match. If local voters say yes to these measures, that's within your budgetary...
JP: We have a pilot program of about $3 million that we want to work on in that area.
RW: Is that a brand new approach for Colorado?
JP: It is. It's a brand new... It would be a brand new approach. Hasn't been done yet, it would require a new legislation but we think it can be a good approach leading with the carrot and we hope that that can encourage more local investment in education.
RW: As I said, Prop CC also touched higher education. You announced a plan on Tuesday that aims instead of spending more money at cutting costs and one proposal caught my eye governor: As I understand it, you would restructure degree programs to give academic credit for work experience. Why is that important to you?
JP: So this is the way the whole economy's going. We are moving towards a skills-based economy. That means what employers are looking for increasingly is what can this person do and how can we certify that skill level as opposed to just a, let's call it what... I have or what you have a bachelor's degree, which is nice and liberal arts, but it doesn't say what I can and can't do. So how do you move that towards really a skill markation and how do you apply skills that you've acquired elsewhere, for instance, in the U.S. military or in the workforce? How can those be incorporated into requirements in institutions of higher education towards reaching a skill certification or a degree?
RW: Of course there's some of that today, but you think this could go further?
JP: Yeah, we think so. It's part of the agenda for saving people money on higher education. And that means higher education broadly, community college, college, technical certification, credit for skills and the other one is a dual concurrent enrollment where students can get their associate's degree while they're in high school at no cost to themselves. Creating the incentives in our institutions of higher education to have a better time-to-degree, meaning let's get those five years down to four years and four years down to three years, to really looking at that course of study and making sure it's aligned to results.
RW: I want to talk about oil and gas just briefly. In 2017, as you know, two men were killed in a home explosion in Firestone, Colorado, and a woman named Erin Martinez was badly hurt. It was her husband and her brother who died. A recent federal report blamed the explosion on abandoned underground lines that caused a gas leak. Here's Erin Martinez.
Erin Martinez: (recorded) We allow the oil and gas industry to leave their trash in the ground and then we just take their word for it that that trash in the ground was properly disposed off, and then we allow these developments to come in and build on top of that trash. And we need to be doing our due diligence to be making sure that if we are going to build around oil and gas infrastructure, then we need to make sure that what we're building on top of and next to is safe.
RW: Martinez wants the state to require that all abandoned underground lines just be removed. Should the state mandate that?
JP: So Erin was really the inspirational force behind Senate Bill 181, which put health and safety first with regard to oil and gas development. I've been to her new home and currently the COGCC is doing the rulemaking on flowback and pipelines. And so...
RW: This is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which now has this different mandate and it's putting these rules together?
JP: That's right. They have the new mandate to do the mapping and the rules around flowback and lines to help prevent what happened to Erin's family from happening to any other Coloradan.
RW: Do you think those lines ought to be removed? Is that something you'd push for?
JP: So again, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is currently doing the rulemaking on that. They have the authority to put health and safety first, but look, the days where, as Erin put it, oil and gas companies can leave their garbage out that are a hazard to everyday Coloradans are over.
RW: You recently re-established the governor's Executive Clemency Advisory Board, and it will make recommendations to you on requests for shorter prison sentences or clemency. In this statement announcing the clemency board, this is interesting. You said it’s, quoting here, ‘no substitute for reforming the criminal justice system.’ What's an example on the horizon of how you would do that?
JP: Well, I'll give you an example. I'm certainly, and by the way, if listeners out there meet this category, I would encourage them to apply for a pardon or clemency. We're certainly looking at, for instance, people that were convicted of, for instance, possession of marijuana that is now legal before it was legal, and that's permanently on their record. That's something we'd love to help them expunge, but it would take a larger wholesale action to expunge a large number of people. But what we mean is in the meantime, we're happy to look at some of these cases on a case by case basis, help people clear up their record if they've demonstrated that they are committed to following the law, but it's not a substitute for addressing the inequities in our criminal justice system and fixing some of the laws.
RW: I note in the budget you've just proposed that you'd like to close a private prison and expand a state facility. Can you tell me why you want to do that?
JP: Yeah, so we are proposing about 600 beds at Cheyenne Mountain, a private for-profit prison, will be closed and we would be expanding capacity in the public prison. We are focused on public safety, where you are focused on reducing recidivism. Studies done in Minnesota and other states have showed that public prisons have about a 15 percent to 20 percent lower recidivism rate than similar criminals interned at private prisons. And so this is part of …
RW: That is people who are in state prison, state-run prisons, are less likely to return?
JP: When they leave. Exactly. So people that when they're released from public prisons, in part because of the step-down programs and the work that we're focused on and making sure that they have the skills to support themselves when they're released and don't return to a life of crime out of desperation.
RW: Okay, the Democratic presidential candidates have spent a lot of time debating healthcare. This is an issue that you ran on. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have endorsed Medicare for All. Colorado's remaining presidential candidate, Michael Bennet, has indicated he thinks that proposal could jeopardize Democrats winning the presidency. Last month he tweeted, ‘Medicare for All is not a recipe for winning back the White House.’ I'm curious, Jared Polis, as the strategist, do you think Medicare for All is a winning approach for Democrats?
JP: Well, these days, Ryan, I'm less of a strategist. I'm more of trying to do my best for Colorado. We are working on the public option here in Colorado. So we have a plan to do it. We've had dozens of meetings across the state. We are hoping that a public option, which means everybody -- starting in the individual market, so everybody who gets your insurance on the exchange -- will have an additional choice in the public option. Estimated savings 10 percent to 15 percent, which would be available in 2022. We also hope to expand that to small and medium-sized businesses to make it available for them. That's called the small group market. So that's our focus here. We'll react to whatever comes nationally, but certainly here we want to move forward with increasing choice for consumers.
RW: Okay, so 2022, you've heard it here, might be when you have a public option in Colorado. It strikes me that you're not going to weigh in on the question of Medicare for All on the national level.
JP: We will react in Colorado to whatever they do nationally to make healthcare less expensive for Colorado residents.
RW: Colorado's unemployment rate is 2.7 percent. Many private companies say they're having trouble getting workers. In metro Denver, RTD is having to temporarily cancel service because it can't get enough drivers and operators. Is the lack of workers making it more difficult for the state to recruit new businesses? Are you seeing other effects of that?
JP: I would say not yet. By the way, it would certainly worsen the crisis if our 15,000 DACA recipients were suddenly unable to work the next day or the next week. But no, our efforts on economic development have been very attractive. What we find is that companies from both coasts appreciate the positive business environment in Colorado, the great quality of life and honestly, they're facing similar difficulties on both coasts with regards to attracting the people they need, and sometimes in Colorado, it can be easier in some ways because there's a lot of folks that want to move here.
RW: Okay, so you think Colorado is better off than some of those other markets that, I don't want to say that Colorado is poaching from, necessarily...
JP: Well, we always like to say we're lower costs than...We have all the advantages of New York and California and none of the disadvantages.
RW: Although the traffic and the costs don't feel quite like they used to.
JP: You know what? If you've been to New York or California and you've been to Colorado, you know that however much we enjoy complaining about our traffic and costs, we're far better off quality of life wise than the folks on both coasts.
RW: You are just back from a trip to India. This is your first trade trip as governor. I note that air pollution is a huge problem in India. The government declared a public health emergency a couple of days before you arrived. Officials handed out five million masks to school kids. If I'm a Colorado business, why is that an environment where I'd want to operate?
JP: Always exciting to fly into a public health emergency, Ryan. We got a little worried when everybody else was wearing masks on the street and I wasn't, but look, economic development is a very important role for governors to play. Governor Hickenlooper, Governor Ritter, attended trade missions. I plan on going on about one a year. The state goes on four or five a year. It's for encouraging investment in Colorado. So for instance, we met with Tech Mahindra, they currently employ about 250 people in Colorado. We're helping to expand their presence here.
RW: What sort of firm is that?
JP: They do information technology. Tata Group Consulting was another one. So we met with companies large and small about why Colorado is a desirable place to expand their footprint for access to the American market, and we are confident that there'll be good business developments out of that trip. We also have Colorado companies with a presence in India like Dish Network, and we visited some of their folks over there as well.
RW: Do you have concerns that the environment there makes it harder for Colorado businesses to expand to India? Do they have those concerns?
JP: Well, the general focus of these trips is expansion of jobs and businesses in Colorado. So our goal there is to attract capital and jobs to our state. So it's really about how we can encourage Indian companies and Indian investors to invest in Colorado to create jobs and help us meet some of our infrastructure needs. Certainly just visually and from a health perspective, what's been happening in New Delhi and other areas is an example of why we need to act boldly on air quality here in Colorado. We certainly don't want that to become a detriment to our own competitive environment here. It's why as part of our budget, we're requesting about two million for air quality control and we continue to move forward with encouraging the use of electric vehicles, multi-modal and commuting solutions and are strongly supportive of Front Range rail to give commuters additional options beyond single occupancy vehicles.
RW: You were in India on Election Day. Was that a deliberate decision because you thought CC would fail? Did you want to be as far away from that as possible?
JP: No, it hadn't really occurred to me. This is something that had been planned for many months and …
RW: We plan for Election Day many, many months out.
JP: Well, what we planned around was actually me appearing before the Joint Budget Committee, which was Wednesday, and I had to be there for that. Obviously I was able to track my various friends running for school boards and city councils from India. It was early morning there, so I was able to keep up with those results and congratulate folks who won.
RW: Governor, thanks for being with us.
JP: Thank you.
RW: Colorado governor Jared Polis, recorded at the State Capitol. We spoke before news broke in the De'Von Bailey case. He's the 19-year-old killed by Colorado Springs police. A grand jury Wednesday determined the shooting was justified. Gov. Polis' office released a short statement saying “nothing can ever prepare a parent for losing a son or daughter. The Bailey family and the community must be given space to grieve and move forward.” Polis had previously called for an independent investigation into the shooting.