Republicans Side With Colorado’s Democratic Governor On Taxes. Health Care … Not So Much

January 9, 2020
Gov. Jared Polis' State of the State address, Jan. 9, 2020.Gov. Jared Polis' State of the State address, Jan. 9, 2020.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Gov. Jared Polis' State of the State address, Jan. 9, 2020.

Colorado’s lawmakers sat, stood, clapped and sometimes grimaced as Gov. Jared Polis delivered his State of the State speech to launch his second year in office.

As expected, Polis underlined his support for paid family leave and a public health option, among the Democrats’ biggest ambitions for the year — as well as for a rewrite of the tax code that is more popular with Republicans. 

The reaction in the legislative chambers gave a preview of the session ahead. Often, it was just Democrats standing to applaud their executive, while Republicans stayed quiet. When Polis declared his support for DREAMers and refugees, the Democratic side of the room cheered. When he talked about universal preschool, the ovation came again from his left.

On other issues, though, the room rose in unison, as when Polis honored Kendrick Castillo, who was murdered while protecting other students in the STEM School shooting. Castillo’s parents were the governor’s guests at the speech.

And in a few rare moments, Polis found himself applauded primarily by the Republican side of the room — especially when he said he wanted to make broad changes to the state’s tax code.

“Some of it sounds good. We definitely like the idea of a permanent income tax reduction,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican, just after the speech.

Polis said that the state could lower the income tax rate by “broadening the base,” including by eliminating certain tax breaks and incentives for “special interests.” His own party was slower than Republicans to applaud the tax message.

“I think it’s because we’re waiting to see the details. We don’t want a tax program that is really not a progressive tax,” said Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder Democrat. “If we just do one (cut) across the board, is that really going to help the people who need it?”

At least in these opening days, leaders from the two parties are keeping their comments largely genial, despite the major policy battles and the election looming ahead.

“There was a lot of substance, but not a lot of details in it,” Neville said, reviewing Polis’ speech.

But GOP officials had sharp criticisms for one of the major Democratic priorities for the year: a public option health plan. Their objections foreshadow a fight over health insurance much like a state-level replay of the Obamacare debate that gripped the country 10 years ago.

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican, worked with Democrats on last year’s reinsurance law that is credited with reducing insurance costs. He said there’s still room for cooperation on price transparency and other measures, but warned that the proposed public option plan — to be administered by private companies — would go too far.

“The public option has two things that I’ll vehemently oppose — one of them is mandatory participation by providers and the other is price controls,” he said. “The biggie is whether we go with a public option or a more cooperative approach.”

Chris Holbert, the Republican Senate Minority Leader, took a page from the earlier arguments about President Barack Obama’s landmark health insurance law.

“We’re hearing much the same promises as were provided at the federal level with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. (Today) I’m not paying less for health care,” Holbert said. “If we can talk about anything as a solution, I would say get government out of the doctor-patient relationship.”

In his speech, Polis said that the private market is failing Coloradans, quoting studies that have found one in five people have skipped health care because of the cost, while one in three can’t afford prescription drugs.

“I see it in my clinic every day … The private market is not working here in Colorado. The government is here to ensure that what the private market has to offer is accessible to everyone in Colorado,” said Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat and pediatrician, in an interview Wednesday.

Democrats are not united behind the idea of creating a public option however, with some in the caucus sounding a note of caution about wading into such a complex arena.

In the opening days of the legislature, Democrats, including Polis, have homed in on the theme that Colorado’s economy is leaving many behind even as the state succeeds overall. Republican leaders offered two different responses.

Holbert, in the Senate, said that many voters won’t buy those concerns.

“What we’re seeing in the current economy is that people are saying ‘Yes, we’re better off than we were four years ago,’” he said. “Getting government out of the way and allowing people to prosper is better than redistribution, which is really the only power government has, to take from some and give to others.”

Neville, in the House, said that many people are pressed by higher rent and other costs — but that the government’s only making it worse.

“I think most people in Colorado, one of the major issues they’re facing is the cost of living crisis in Colorado,” he said. “The last thing you want to do when the cost of living is increasing is take more of the people’s own money.”

With the opening formalities finished, the legislature will now move into its four-month sprint to consider dozens of laws and finish the state’s budget.