Interview: Gov. Polis on abortion rights, decreasing property taxes and the fentanyl bill

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24min 47sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the State Capitol on Tuesday, April 19, 2022 during an interview with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Correction: Due to an editing error, we misstated Gov. Jared Polis' position on abortion. He is an abortion rights advocate.

In his regular check-in with Colorado Matters, Gov. Jared Polis touted his administration’s accomplishments in the latest legislative session.

He defended the fentanyl bill, which will target dealers rather than regular users, and will put more money toward treatment. While conservative critics say it doesn’t do enough to penalize possession and progressive critics say it’s going back to failed war on drugs policies, Polis said on Monday the bill is a step toward making Colorado one of the 10 safest states over the next five years. He plans to sign the bill. 

Another law he said he was excited to sign was a statewide property tax package that would save homeowners $700 million in property taxes over the next two years. The law aligned with his overall goal for this session of saving people money.

This year, Polis also signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, a bill that ensures abortion access in Colorado should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. Though he said he’s pro-choice, he would not say whether he supported amending the state constitution to further protect abortion access or to open up state funds to pay for abortions.

He said he would want to see specific language first to make sure there were no unintended consequences before voicing official support.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ryan Warner: Let’s jump right in. You signed a bill into law that protects abortion access in the state, but activists want to go further in 2024, and enshrine reproductive rights into the state constitution while removing a ban on state funding for abortions, which voters approved in the early 80s. Governor, I'd like to get you on the record. Do you support removing the ban on state funding for abortion?

Gov.  Jared Polis: My goodness, Ryan, as usual, you're just moving so fast. We just signed a law that protects the right to choose in-state. To be clear, Colorado has been a pro-choice state where abortion has been legal since 1967. When Republican governor John Love signed the law, allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy, it was several years before Roe v. Wade. What we are all afraid of and worried about with the Supreme Court case is those national protections disappear, which is why we now have them specifically in Colorado law.

Now, if you're asking about other proposals, I would want to see them. I'm pro-choice. Always have been, always expect to be. I don't think women or doctors should ever face a threat of prison, or prison, for making very difficult decisions about whether to terminate a pregnancy. So I'm happy to look at any other proposals along those lines, but I'm very proud that no matter what happens Roe v. Wade, Colorado will remain a state where it is legal to end a pregnancy.

Warner: I know that you don't have a specific proposal to look at right now, but we do know that there is a ban on state funding for abortions in Colorado's constitution that has been there for a generation. Do you think that it's wise to keep that in the state constitution?

Polis: The procedure for changing the constitution doesn't come through the governor; it requires a 55 percent vote from the people of Colorado. So, if somebody collects petitions and puts it on the ballot, it would require a supermajority, or 55 percent [for it to pass]. It would then be part of our constitution. I'm happy to look at any proposal on those lines. I have not seen one yet.

Warner: Do you think that state funds should be used for abortions?

Polis: Look, you probably get into the situation of: is it a medically required abortion, in that it will jeopardize the life of the mother, or is this something that you're talking about that's more elective? So there's a lot of nuances to that policy. In general, the state doesn't cover elective procedures. But even if you look at plastic surgery: there's reconstructive plastic surgery if you're in an accident, and then there's such things like a nose job if you want to look better.

So, I can't possibly get into what the state insurance plan covers. That's a negotiation we have. We want to give the very best coverage to our state employees at the lowest possible cost. We actually reduce the cost that [state employees] have to pay for insurance. We want to continue to do that, but obviously that's not the kind of policy that's normally dictated in a state constitution. We just want to get the best deal possible and the most benefits possible for our state employees, because we value the retention of our state employee workforce.

Warner: I don't think I hear you being willing to commit to saying whether state funds should pay for abortion of any sort.

Polis: Well, I just don't really hear a specific policy proposal there, Ryan. When you talk about things at the conceptual level, it's easy to say, "I support this or that."

Warner: It isn't that conceptual.

Polis: The question is: what are we talking about here? Are you talking about something that costs the state money and every state employee would have to pay more for insurance? I would be very skeptical of that; I want to save people money on insurance. Are we talking about something that decreases insurance costs? I am for that. Show me what it means [and I would be] happy to share my thoughts, but at this point there's not even been a proposal, no less something on the ballot.

Warner: Would you like to see abortion access cemented in the state constitution, given that what you signed this session was statutory?

Polis: You're getting, again, very hypothetical. Haven't seen language, but I am pro-choice [and I] want to protect a woman's right to choose. We did it in statute. If you put something similar in the constitution that made sure women and doctors wouldn't be put in jail for any pregnancies, of course I would be inclined to support it, but I'd want to see what that was and what you're doing first. And that there weren't any unintended consequences [of the amendment].

Warner: Given the leaked opinion from the Supreme Court on abortion that indicates a reversal of Roe v. Wade and the right to privacy, what other protections might be in jeopardy and that Colorado might also want to enshrine?

Polis: Well, look, I'm always for freedom and for people's ability to make their own decisions, so I don't see any downside to protecting contraception and same-sex marriage in state law. I, again, would want to see what those proposals were, but if it protects and expands our freedoms, I'm for it. And if there's a threat to these freedoms from our own Supreme Court or Congress, we want Colorado to be a place where we're able to protect people's freedom and the choices people make.

Warner: Your right to marry your husband is actually newer case law than Roe V. Wade. Do you worry about the future, say of your marriage in terms of federal recognition, given the makeup of the court?

Polis: Well, I sure hope it doesn't come to that. I think it's very important that we respect marriage. I support it in our state law that makes it explicit, because we don't currently have that. We just have same-sex marriage because of the Supreme Court, which we're grateful for. 

Like you, Ryan, I grew up in a time where we looked aspirationally and hopefully towards the Supreme Court for expanding freedom. We read about historic decisions like Brown v. Board of Education that integrated our schools; Loving, which allowed for interracial marriage; of course Roe v. Wade; Obergefell v. Hodges, which allowed same sex marriage. I do worry, like a lot of Coloradans, that we're now in a situation where we're worried about the Supreme Court taking away our freedoms. And of course, as Coloradans, we want to stand up for protecting our freedoms.

Warner: The state legislature has adjourned, sending a parade of bills to your desk. One piece of legislation that seems to leave just about everyone displeased is the fentanyl bill. Overdoses in Colorado are some of the highest in the country. Conservatives say the bill doesn't go far enough in terms of penalties, while progressives say this is the failed war on drugs all over again. Governor, last time we spoke, you said that you'd sign any legislation that toughens penalties, which this does. So, can I assume that you will sign this bill?

Polis: Yes, Ryan, unlike your other extremely hypothetical questions, this is a bill that I have read, that is on [my] desk and I will sign it. I'm happy to tell you that because I know what's in it. We provided input. It is a compromise. Sometimes when the far left and far right are both upset about something, it probably makes some sense and is a good path forward. This is a comprehensive bill, Ryan. People focus on the criminal penalties and yes — criminal penalties on dealers, on pill presses, is very important. This bill is a lot more than that. It's about treatment for addicts. It's about getting detection kits and strips into the field, so that we can identify when other substances are infiltrated with fentanyl earlier in the process. So, rather than finding dead bodies, or hospitalizations, we can identify where something's contaminated early and go after those responsible. So absolutely this bill is a step towards making Colorado one of the 10 safest states over the next five years, which is my expressed goal that really informs all my work around public safety.

Warner: Are there unintended consequences, or perverse outcomes, that you will be looking for that tell you the bill isn't doing what it intends to do?

Polis: Yeah. I'm tracking fentanyl deaths. We expect with these new tools that fentanyl deaths will go down in the year after it gets implemented. And we want to adjust it along the way to make it work even better. But that's the bottom line indicator here: saving lives.

Warner: What about on the criminal justice side? Are there potentially perverse outcomes in terms of sentences that would alarm you?

Polis: Not really. Because in the bill, as it passed, there's a lot stronger penalties for fentanyl dealers and those who mix in and contaminate other products with fentanyl. They are killing and poisoning people and they should be behind bars for many, many years. That's what this bill does. It's a good step forward. And the new treatment options for addicts will absolutely help people recover their lives and their dignity. When you or I have a friend or relative that is battling addiction, they get the help they need. Many members of our indigent population or our homeless population just don't have those options. This bill will help expand options alongside our behavioral health package to make sure that there's better treatment options and support for people to become sober and stay sober.

Warner: Some people don't know that the drugs they have are laced with fentanyl. How do you hold someone responsible for something they weren't aware of? Are you concerned about that?

Polis: What is particularly nefarious about fentanyl is it is contaminating and poisoning other drugs, including legal drugs like marijuana. Now, if you buy your marijuana from a legal supplier, the chances are minimal, but if you're buying street marijuana — illegal marijuana — which is yet another reason not to, by the way, because that could absolutely be contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Other opioids are contaminated. Frankly, this should be a wake up call to all drug users and addicts: seek help, because in addition to whatever risks you have perhaps made peace with, this is a significant additional risk for the drug users of Colorado, above and beyond the normal risk of drug use.

Warner: Do you think the war on drugs was successful? And do you think this is different from it?

Polis: I've long called the war on drugs a failure. I'm proud of Colorado legalizing marijuana, [being the] first state to do so. Legalizing marijuana did not increase underage use. It does lead to a safer marijuana supply. In fact, this is a perfect example: For states where marijuana is still underground and illegal, it's a lot more likely to be contaminated with fentanyl or other toxins that could kill or severely harm people. Here in Colorado, I'm proud of our regulatory system. 

Just like moonshine killed people when alcohol was illegal because [it was] improperly made. These days, you go to a liquor store, or Safeway, wherever you go — unless you drink too much and have alcohol poisoning, alcohol is not in low amounts, toxic. Same with marijuana. So, it's a good reason to regulate and make sure we have safe marijuana and alcohol. 

We are now worried about fentanyl infiltrating other drug supplies. It's not that cocaine isn’t dangerous, it is. But [it is in] a totally different category of risk than fentanyl, which can kill instantly. Many drugs like meth and cocaine kill slowly over time.

Warner: You've spoken several times about treatment. Does Colorado have the treatment infrastructure in place to truly address the addiction side of this?

Polis: With the one-time funds that Colorado received under the American Rescue Act, working with Republicans and Democrats and our legislature, we identified three major areas for investment: housing and affordability, because we need to make housing more affordable; Workforce development, [which includes] opportunities for training; and behavioral health. A big part of that is expanding access for drug and alcohol treatment facilities, [which would be] residential and several months to help get people clean and stay clean. To give them the benefit of the best possible science and treatment around addiction, recovery, and the best chance of recovering their dignity and being able to get their lives back.

Warner: Do you think that investment will cover it, or will there need to be more?

Polis: It'll generate hundreds of new beds, upwards of a thousand new short to medium term treatments facilities. We also have funding for step-down and immediate detox facilities. It all depends on what the demand is. I'm also hoping that fentanyl is a wake-up call to potential drug users to avoid illicit drug use. If you want to recreate safely, you can use substances that are regulated in moderation, like alcohol or marijuana. But at this point, anything underground is dangerous, because fentanyl has indeed contaminated a significant part of it and it can be fatal on the first dose. And sadly it is fatal on the first dose for far too many people.

Warner: The bill to ban flavored tobacco products statewide failed this session. You were vocally opposed to it, saying it should really be up to local governments. But your drum beat is to save people money on healthcare. With that in mind, an analysis from a noted California tobacco researcher cited by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, found that a one-percent reduction in cigarette smoking would save the state $46 million the following year in Medicaid costs. So if banning flavored tobacco helps you achieve a savings, why wouldn't you support it statewide?

Polis: This is a similar discussion to the last one. I don't support banning marijuana, or banning liquor, or alcohol, or banning smoking. These are freedom issues. Now look, it doesn't mean that any particular city has to permit a dispensary. I don't view that as a right. I view that as a local decision. 

So obviously in a state where it's up to cities whether they have marijuana or not, or whether they sell liquor or not, of course it would be up to cities whether they allow legal tobacco products or not. And most of them do. And again, that's a freedom Coloradans have. I don't personally smoke and I don't personally use marijuana, and I don't personally drink more than maybe one beer every other month or something like that. So these are not things that I personally partake in, but of course I fully respect the ability of adults to make their own choices in our state.

Warner: For you, that trumps the savings in this case?

Polis: Well look, I would say more to ban alcohol — my goodness, look at the horrible human cost of drunk driving, of alcoholism — the nation tried that and failed. It would save money to ban marijuana. It would save money to ban pizza, because it leads to clogged arteries. It would save money to ban steak. This is a freedom issue and I absolutely think I'm cooking steak tonight for the kids. In moderation, that's okay. Fundamentally, I believe that adults have the ability to make that choice here in our state. I'm proud that we're one of the first states to legalize marijuana.

Warner: The tobacco industry vastly outspent tobacco-control advocates when an increase in the tobacco tax failed at the ballot box in 2016. In Denver last year, the mayor vetoed a flavor ban saying this is a state issue. Meanwhile, you say the decision is up to locals and I'm left to wonder, does the tobacco industry call the shots in Colorado, Governor Polis?

Polis: I don't think they have much of an influence here like they might have in tobacco-growing states. In our state, most people want marijuana to be legal, and tobacco and alcohol. Frankly, if they had to ban one of those three, the one that causes the most harm is alcohol. Between alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, alcohol is the worst, but neither I personally, nor the people of Colorado, want Colorado to be a dry state.

Warner: The legislature passed a bill this session meant to help residents of mobile home parks. But residents say what they really need is some sort of rent control, which is something you threatened to veto earlier this session. Your office said you would support reforms that won't lead to closure or abandonment of mobile home communities. What evidence do you have that rent stabilization would lead to closures?

Polis: First let's talk about what we did pass. Senate Bill 22-160, which provides $35 million in funds for residents of mobile home parks to purchase their park (we also have a right-to-refusal that residents have to do that). The issue with regards to only allowing a three percent increase a year, or something like that, is there simply won't be any mobile home parks in another 10 or 15 years. With inflation at seven or eight percent, mobile home parks would rapidly be redeveloped into apartments and other utilizations. You could argue that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I don't think the state policy should force that. Fundamentally, I believe mobile home parks are a good thing to have. It's good to have affordable housing that's entry level for many people, and I'd like to keep it as affordable as possible rather than see them disappear.

Warner: So you think rent stabilization would lead to their disappearance? You think that's a market force? Is it something you've seen elsewhere?

Polis: Well, it's obvious. No one's forcing it to be a mobile home park. So, if you can make more money as a development, you're going to develop it. And rent has to keep up with inflation the way rent occurs in apartments and everywhere else. With inflation at seven or eight percent, you would lose 80 or 90 percent of the mobile homes in the state within a decade if you limited [rent] to two or three percent.

So, I think that's a bad outcome for our state. I think it's important to have mobile home parks and frankly, they're a big part of the housing solution. I'm hoping that our additional funding will help residents and mobile home parks purchase those parks. And then, of course, there's no longer that economic pressure for increased rent: they're effectively running it as a co-op, which is a good long-term sustainable model for keeping rent low.

Warner: You signed a property tax package that would temporarily reduce assessment rates and save homeowners approximately $700 million over the next two years. But in 2020, voters repealed the Gallagher Amendment, which already kept residential property taxes low. Does this latest package just undo what voters approved two years ago?

Polis: First of all, voters did not approve a statewide property tax increase. They approved a repeal of an arbitrary statewide formula that had different impacts in different areas. My big focus is saving people money; It was the first effort we tasked our lieutenant governor with. We reduced insurance rates in the healthcare exchange by over 20 percent. Now we're reducing property taxes by over $700 million across the state, which helps deliver a needed relief to homeowners and small-business owners in every part of our state.

If you're fortunate enough to own a home or business, you benefit from increased value of that property, but what good is that if your income hasn't kept up with the rate of increase? And so I'm really excited that I was able to sign a bill today that delivered meaningful property tax cuts for every Colorado homeowner and business.

Warner: There will be a ballot measure this fall to cover the cost of school meals for all students by limiting tax deductions for people earning $300,000 or more. This would permanently extend universal meal access that started because of pandemic emergency relief. Chalkbeat, the education publication, reports that many districts saw more kids eating lunch when it was universally offered. Do you support this ballot measure, governor, which the legislature actually sent to the ballot?

Polis: Ryan, that's also something that did not come to the governor — meaning I haven't read it or seen it yet. Like every voter, I'll look at my blue book when I get it and I'll look at the arguments for and against it. And I'll cast my ballot just like every other Coloradan does.

Warner: It sounds to me like you aren't going to be front and center for that measure, even if you supported it before?

Polis: Well, I'm not really aware of what it is. It's not part of the business of the governor, which keeps me more than busy. But I'm a voter too; I care about our state. I usually review ballot initiatives and I think the time period is still open when others will qualify. If I have an opinion after researching both sides, I'm never shy about sharing that with other people. I'll look forward to looking at what's on the ballot. And I said, [the ballot is] not done yet. I don't think we know what's on our ballot till August, with regard to all the different initiatives that could occur.

Warner: All right. That’s something we might circle back and ask you about. I do want to ask about COVID-19 because modeling by the Colorado School of Public Health indicates that infections are on an upward trajectory. Projections are that hospitalizations could reach 500 or more by mid-June. I'll note that in your own backyard, Boulder, the city council is back to remote meetings because of the spread. Is the state taking any specific steps at this point?

Polis: Those are the same models that inform our actions. We are not concerned about statewide hospital capacity if there are 500 people hospitalized from COVID — we have been up around 1700 and 1800. Our promise from the start was not to overwhelm our hospitals and we avoided doing that. The reason that's less of a danger now is there's not only more resistance for those who are vaccinated, but there's a significantly reduced likelihood of hospitalization for folks who have been triple-vaccinated, and even for people who have been double-vaccinated, as well as people who have had prior infections. At this point, I think we're at 124 people hospitalized today. Some of the projections show an increase in the next few weeks or months, but none of them show it anywhere close to as high as it was during the Delta wave or the Omicron wave.

Editor's note: In early January, 2022, amidst the delta and omicron waves, emergency physicians reported being at “a breaking point.”

Warner: This is something you're monitoring, but it doesn't sound like you're prepared to take any major policy steps at this point?

Polis: I would point to our post-COVID roadmap. There's several bills that have passed the legislature that I'll be signing that better prepare us for the future, in terms of surge planning at hospitals. We have testing and free masks available across the state. So there's a number of ongoing steps that we're taking and also making sure that we're never in the dire straits that we were in the heat of the pandemic.

Warner: Governor, thanks so much for your time.

Polis: Thank you.