Gov. Jared Polis on passenger rail, tax cuts and what wasn’t said at his State of the State address

Listen Now
19min 28sec
state of state 2024
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post, Pool
Gov. Jared Polis arrives at the House chamber before delivering the 2024 state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, Colo. on Thursday, Jan.11, 2024.

A “moon shot” that could reach all the way to Moffat County, an emphasis on housing and another call for income tax cuts highlighted Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ State of the State address Thursday. 

Polis dedicated significant portions of his speech to passenger rail investments, including a proposal that could one day see Craig connected all the way to Denver.

One thing his speech did not touch on was a recent influx of migrants to Colorado who crossed into the United States over the southern border. The city of Denver has said services for the new arrivals could force budget cuts elsewhere. 

Polis spoke with Ryan Warner about that issue and others facing the state.

Read the transcript

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ryan Warner: Governor, thank you for being with us.

Jared Polis: Thanks for joining me, Ryan, to talk about our State of the State address.

By my count. In that address, you said “train” seven times. Mixing your transportation metaphors, you call the train between Denver and the mountains, specifically Steamboat Springs, a “moonshot” and you link transit to more affordable housing. Help us understand the concrete steps you want the legislature to take this session to achieve this vision.

Well, there's a lot there, and as I said, we have the planes and automobiles. We just need the trains — that's the old Steve Martin movie reference. Yes, we do need passenger rail in Colorado. Two specific corridors we talked about, one is Front Range passenger rail — Pueblo to Fort Collins, and that includes finally fulfilling the behind-schedule FasTracks promise, which is Denver, Boulder, Longmont.

Right now they have buses.

There are buses in different parts of our state. Buses are a part of what we want to expand. We operate, meaning we, the state Colorado Department of Transportation, Bustang, (Snowstang), Pegasus. Three hundred thousand Coloradans took those last year. So it's more than a drop in a bucket, that's actually 300,000 less cars on the road and less traffic. We need to do more. It ties in to passenger rail because very often buses are for that final leg that you get to your destination. 

So, if you can get from Fort Collins to Denver, Colorado Springs to Denver, and yes, Denver to Steamboat or Winter Park, but also for workers in Hayden and Craig that are needed in the resort communities to commute. The reason we have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate passenger rail in Colorado is because of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Act that invests over $60 billion in new rail corridors in the country.

It's simply a question of whether Colorado will be one of those corridors and pull down our fair share to deliver on this promise. This is all using existing rail that's in the ground. It's used for freight today. Some of it needs some capital improvements for safety. But by getting this right, working with a Front Range rail district, CDOT, the legislature, RTD and other transit agencies, I truly believe that we can deliver on all of these passenger rail promises this decade and get many of them locked in by our sesquicentennial, which is 2026.

Sesquicentennial, the state's 150th birthday. When you talk about corridors, you picture housing on those corridors.

A big part of the speech today is about transit-oriented community. So, yes, it's about having access to bus and rail, but it's also more people should have the opportunity to live affordably near a bus and rail stop. It's both of those and the two very much go hand in hand because the more people live close to transit and for whom it's convenient, the more customers there are for bus and rail and that drives the economy of scale. It drives the efficiency and reduces the cost, increasing the scheduled service for those transit opportunities. So they all really tie together.

Is it possible you are too reliant on federal dollars for this? In other words, there's a presidential election this year and there's no guarantee that Mr. Biden will remain in the White House.

Well, the money's already been passed by Congress. It's over $60 billion as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. It would take, yes, an act of a future Congress. That means both the House, the Senate, and a president if they were to try to rescind that or to spend it in a different way, but the money's already been appropriated. I think, as somebody who has served in Congress for a period of time, I would say it's not impossible as you indicated, but it's unlikely.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An RTD FasTracks train at Union Station, Denver, April 11, 2016.

I'm fascinated by this. Your administration, in a climate letter, has suggested that toll revenues could pay for trains and transit. Should drivers be prepared for higher tolls?

I think it's more a proposal of using some existing toll revenue for that. We believe it can, if we build private lanes — and there are some being built through public-private partnerships — I do think it's fair that some of that money and tolls that people pay should go toward increased transit services, whether it's bus or passenger rail, might depend on the area. But, I do believe that there are opportunities in that area as we look at how we build out transit and mobility across the state.

To the core of my first question, which is what you want the legislature to do about this vision. On housing in particular, last year you took a stab at making it easier to build dense housing, so not just single-family homes, but duplexes and condos and casitas overriding local zoning to some extent and giving property owners more options. That sweeping land use bill failed and drew a lot of criticism for ignoring local input. Now you're asking the legislature to approach this in a more piecemeal way. Does that let them avoid the hardest changes that you think are necessary?

Well, I think there's, rather than one big bill, there's going to be six or seven or eight bills that reduce the cost of housing. One of the ones I focus on today is the transit-oriented community one: This can only be done in an inter-jurisdictional way because whether it's a bus or a passenger rail, it might go across 26 municipalities and 12 counties. So how do you plan for this in a cohesive way? Obviously, the state is a key convener in those conversations. We want to position ourselves to support anything that reduces housing costs, and that's why there were a broad range of things. Some were just a laundry list I put out there.

It could be fire insurance reform, it could be construction defects reform. It could be getting rid of parking requirements above and beyond what the market wants. So any of those cost drivers we're happy to work with legislators on. Many of those have bills. Some are bipartisan and we hope that we can get most, if not all of them, across the finish line so it starts moving the right way rather than the wrong way in our state. 

What did you learn here? You tried to serve a full meal last year and this is more of a buffet, I guess.

I think one big piece that we didn't have last year that I think enhances it is the whole piece around transit. My original plan would be, let's do that land-use piece last year where we're going to do transit this year anyway. But the reason I think they work better in tandem is part of what we heard from mayors is, “Oh, this transit transit-oriented community stuff sounds great, but if we do it, how do we make sure that the transit is actually delivered?” And our only answer at that point is, “oh, wait till next year. We'll do that next session.”

Now we're doing them at the same time. We're taking both transit-oriented development and transit. People need confidence in the transit to be there and, frankly, there's a bad flavor in the mouths of some cities, Longmont, for instance, Westminster, Broomfield. They put money into depots and stations and the transit was never delivered that they were promised and expected. So I think by handling these together, we can address the concerns that yes, the transit will be there in spades.

Even when cities try to address housing, they often face incredible backlash from property owners who want growth and density somewhere else. Do you think property owners in some ways need to be saved from themselves?

We really need to lean into property rights. Montana did a similar set of reforms facing record increases in many of their metropolitan areas where you say, look, if you're the owner of your house, you should be able to build an accessory dwelling unit and have a tenant there if you choose. Right? And what does that mean? They're not impossible to build today, but it can often take a year-and-a-half of paperwork, hiring lawyers and planners, $15,000, $20,000. Only then do you get to building it.

If we can eliminate that cost, reduce the time, make it easier, I know that homeowners want to step up and be part of the answer to the problem. We had a homeowner here today who built an accessory dwelling unit in Denver that in addition to providing a lower-cost unit for a family of four that he rents to, provides some additional income for him to keep up with a rising cost. So where they can create a win-win, whether it's accessory dwelling units, whether it's transit-oriented development, these (ideas) are really a way we can make Colorado more affordable rather than less affordable.

In this session, you hope to increase funding for schools. You are looking for a long-term solution to keeping property taxes low and you're trying to increase affordable housing. You still want to cut income taxes. Is that combo possible? Don't Coloradans need to pay more to get more?

Well, you're talking about a lot of different things there. By the way. I would say teachers are among the professionals that need more housing opportunities that they can afford close to work. Our frontline workers, nurses, firefighters, teachers, law enforcement, should be able to afford to live in the communities they serve. On the income tax side, we're simply talking about surplus money, so not money that could otherwise be spent. There's a lot going on in your question, but I would just say that in the world of education, and yes, we plan to eliminate the budget stabilization factor and fully fund our public schools.

This was kind of an IOU the state gave schools that has been around for a long time now. 

For 15 years, it'll be 15 years, but we also need to make housing more affordable for teachers, paraprofessionals, principals, and people that work in education among other fields.

Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post, Pool
Gov. Jared Polis delivers the 2024 state of the state address to a joint session of the legislature in the House chamber at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, Colo. on Thursday, Jan.11, 2024.

So you think this is all possible, and that they don’t create some inherent tension. You had a line that drew like no response from the room, which you remarked on in the speech. “Of course, cutting the income tax isn't a panacea, but to spur continued economic growth, it should be a significant part of progressive reforms to TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) refunds.” What kind of reforms do you think would be a fair trade-off for that kind of income tax cut?

Well, I think this is where we hope Republicans and Democrats are able to work together. I think Republicans are very supportive of cutting income tax. Democrats have been very supportive of progressive reforms to TABOR refunds. 

What does that mean by the way? It means things like the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit and so I think the challenge is to figure out how we can pair those two into a solution that appeals to moderates, conservatives, progressives, and that's really the work that we hope to do with members of legislature.

Are you reaping political rewards for supporting cutting taxes without taking political risks to make it happen? 

Well, there were two tax cuts at the ballot box that I supported that passed. We've cut the income tax twice since I've been governor, but it did have to go around the legislature rather than through it, which is fine. That's also how we got preschool referred to the ballot and passed. These were citizen initiatives but I'm for cutting taxes however we do it, and I think it's always better if we can figure out a way to work with legislators to provide that surety that people's income tax, property tax, sales tax can go down so we don't over collect taxes only to be forced to refund them a year later.

On that IOU to schools that's finally being off, districts from Denver to Grand Junction have actually closed schools because of low enrollment. Is Colorado going to be educating fewer children, governor?

It's hard to say, Ryan. I mean certainly there's growing districts and there's shrinking districts. Even within districts like Denver and JeffCo, there's just demographic shifts where they're building schools in some areas, closing schools in others, that's the norm. Families move. Some areas have an aging population — less kids in five or 10 years. You have other areas that young families move into.

In general, I would say probably we will have more kids in public school in Colorado in 10 years and 20 years, probably a lower amount relative to our population as our population ages, but I think the net amount will likely be larger in 10 and 15 years.

Outside the capitol. As you delivered your State of the State address, there was a mix of protestors demonstrating for stronger climate policy and in support of Palestinians. Do you believe Colorado has any role to play in what's happening in Israel and Gaza right now?

Well, first of all, there's always people here at the Capitol expressing their free speech rights. And as you indicated, I think there were several different causes people were talking about today, and I'm sure that'll be the case throughout the session. And, as long as it's peaceful and they're not threatening anybody, we hope that people do get to express their free speech. 

And there's a dimension to public safety that's related, and I highlighted that today. We are trying to support particularly communities of faith that have been targeted for specific violence during these challenging times — generally as a result of the Hamas attack on Israel. We had a Fort Collins Islamic Center, we had Beth Jacob, a private Jewish school from Denver (in attendance) and the state is supporting additional security grants, including cameras, better glass. These are the types of improvements that have been made in areas that might be facing targeted acts of violence in our state.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Abdullah Elagha speaks during a protest, call for a ceasefire in Gaza as Gov. Jared Polis gives his annual State of the State address inside the Colorado State Capitol. Jan. 11, 2024.

And so you see the state purview on this issue pretty well within the boundaries of Colorado. I don't hear you saying we need resolutions and declarations about what's happening abroad.

Well, I think American foreign policy matters. Colorado does not have a foreign policy. We are a state. But obviously as a legislative matter, I think that the biggest focus should be on making sure that Coloradans who are Jewish, who are Palestinian, who are Muslim, who are Christian, feel safe in their places of worship, that we create an atmosphere that supports free speech, but also make sure that nobody is threatened or attacked.

You did not mention migrants in your State of the State. I'm sure there are some mayors who would say that's the most pressing issue they face now. I mean, Denver is talking about budget cuts because the city spent so much on services for new arrivals. I know Denver's mayor, Mike Johnston was in the audience for your speech. You mentioned him. Why the omission?

Well, I think we, first of all, the focus of our speech was on matters of statewide concern, and one of them relates to migrants, and that is housing. It relates to homelessness, it relates to migrants, it relates to every Coloradan. There's people who have been here for decades who can't afford a home, and there's people who are homeless, and there's people that arrived recently that need to shelter over the head, particularly when it's cold. So that's an area where we appreciate the leadership of not only the four mayors that were in the room, but mayors across the state. We are working closely with all of our municipalities in helping to meet their needs. And in the case of Denver, of course, front of mind is the migrant crisis they're facing. We worked with a joint budget committee to get $5 million out the door, and the state is contracting with non-governmental organizations to provide legal services to help asylum seekers process their work permits. We're also assisting with transit and logistics around the influx of migrants in Denver. 

So you think there's enough state coordination among cities, nonprofits, volunteer groups. You don't see a bigger role for coordination?

There's a much bigger role for coordination. And the big piece that's missing is the federal coordination piece.

This is fundamentally, no matter how you look at it, immigration is a national issue. Colorado does not patrol our borders. It is the federal government's responsibility to secure our border. The federal government's responsibility to expeditiously process asylum claims. And, yes, I agree with Mayor Johnston. It should be the federal government's responsibility to help pay the city of Denver back and to a certain extent the state for the services that we are providing because of the failure of federal action.

The trouble is the Mayor of Carbondale, for instance, where there were families living on the streets, that mayor can't call Joe Biden when more than a hundred migrants arrive with no place to go. So should he be able to come to you for help? 

Again, we are always happy to work with any of our cities on the pressing issues they face, and it's homelessness, it's public safety. In some cities, it's migrants, it's drug use, it's behavioral health. I view my role as governor as a partner with our cities. So we're always happy to talk to the mayor of any town about how we can better meet the real-life needs that they're facing in their city.

Editor's Note: Gov. Jared Polis' office said after this interview the state will send Carbondale $223,000 in Department of Local Affairs money to help serve migrants in that area.

Joe Wertz/CPR News
A line of tents in an encampment outside a city-run motel being used as a shelter on Zuni Street on Jan. 1, 2024. Many people living in the tents are migrants from Venezuela and recently arrived from the U.S. southern border. In late December, city officials announced plans to sweep and clear the encampment for obstructing the public right of way.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott is sending migrants to blue states, including Colorado. He's made a big deal out of the fact that he sees this as a Democratic problem. You are a Democratic governor in a state with all Democratic control of the legislature and the majority of the delegation in Washington. Do you think Abbott's winning this message battle? 

Well, look, I know President Biden has called for stronger border security, better resources around processing asylum claims. It's Congress that's failed to act, and that's a Republican house. It's a Democratic Senate. They obviously need to get on the same page to be able to support the President and get the changes we need to resolve this crisis. I share the frustration of Governor Abbott because, at the end of the day, there's very little that Texas or Colorado or New York or Illinois or any of the other states affected can directly do. We have to live with the hand we’re dealt by the failure of federal immigration policies. 

So it's time for the federal government — and that means Congress — to step up. President Biden can only accomplish so much alone. By and large, it needs resources and legal changes which only Congress can provide, and that would obviously be a more constructive way for Governor Abbott to devote his efforts toward pushing Congress to step up and finally secure our border and reform our broken immigration system.

Finally, a public safety question. You reopened the investigation into Elijah McClain's death amid protests over police brutality and systemic racism. The trials exposed the degree to which McClain's humanity was not respected. His life was taken. One of the officers admitted on the stand he went against his training and wished he could do the encounter differently, and yet he and another officer were acquitted. Do you believe there are the right accountability measures in place, or does the state need another way to hold a system accountable for a death in police custody where specific criminal acts were not apparently committed?

And to be fair, there were also criminal convictions that came out of that investigation as well. We're open to the discussion of who handles these complaints against law enforcement entities. Obviously, it's a best practice to have a neighboring or a different jurisdiction handle in-house complaints. We're certainly open to the discussion about how that's best handled. We also, of course, have the redress through our civil court system, but I think that the criminal court system is a very important piece of making sure that people are safe.

Governor, thank you so much for being with us.

Thank you, Ryan.