Democrat Mike Johnston served in the Colorado Senate from 2009-2017, where public education was a big part of his legislative career. He was the architect of Colorado's teacher evaluation system. He also fought for a statewide tax increase for schools in 2013, which voters defeated resoundingly. And one of his opponents on the Democratic side of the race, Cary Kennedy, was endorsed by the state’s largest teachers’ unions.
We’re asking each candidate for governor about education, health care and transportation, and posting a transcript and audio of the conversation. And, since this is the first Colorado primary in which unaffiliated voters can participate, we're linking to the Colorado Secretary of State’s online guide.
Read more about each of the candidates running in the primary in our Colorado Governor's Race page.
Johnston on education choice, funding and Betsy DeVos:
"I think that obviously we want to have choice for parents. I think parents have made clear they like to be able to choose different types of schools that are public. I oppose privatization. I oppose vouchers. I was the first to oppose Betsy DeVos' nomination as Secretary [of Education], so I think there is a real wrong road to go down there, but I do think there are parents in Colorado who want public school choice as long as you hold charters to the same set of standards. I've also been the one to fight to say that charters ought to make sure they serve all kids and ought to keep their doors open to all kids. I ran a special ed facility. I've ran a district center program for students with special needs. I think that all public schools should keep their doors open to all students, but schools that do that, should get funding and should get support."
On his health care plan calling for people who have to spend more than 10 percent of their income on a plan could buy into a Medicaid public option:
"What we want to do is we want to provide choice in all the parts of the state where people don't have choice, which is what's driving up prices. What you don't want to do is destabilize the markets that are working effectively, and so we've offered as a public option to buy into Medicaid in any places where the plans are currently unaffordable, which is like the Western Slope."
On the possibility of a tax increase to support transportation funding:
"I am likely to support it. There are a number of measures being considered right now, so I'd want to see what the final one is. But, these are all led by the business community and the Chamber's of Commerce who are just saying for our own economic needs, we have to be able to make this change. I've chaired the finance committee for four years in the Senate, so I can tell you there are not nine billion dollars in the couch cushions of the state budget to fund roads and bridges long-term. That's just the first nine years of needs, another $11 billion for the next 11 years after that."
Read The Transcript
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Who will be the next governor? In about two months, Coloradans will narrow the field in primaries, that for the first time, are open to any registered voter. Between now and then, we're meeting the candidates to talk about education, transportation, and healthcare, among other issues. Today, Democrat Mike Johnston, who introduced himself recently to voters gathered at a home in Denver.
Mike Johnston: I grew up on the Western Slope of Colorado. I'm the only candidate who's not from the Denver, Boulder, Front Range area, but my mom was a music teacher and my dad was a bartender, and they moved to Eagle County in the 1960s, and my dad was running a bar there, and my mom bumped into the guy with the handlebar mustache and the purple chopper and the fishnet shirt, and said, "That is the father of my children."
RW: Johnston served in the Colorado Senate from 2009 to 2017. Prior to entering politics, he says his life was moving on a very familiar path.
MJ: I eventually followed my mom into the real family business in our family, which is public school teaching. I'm proud that I'm a fourth generation public school teacher. I started my career teaching high school English, which was the one rule in our house because my grandmother was an English teacher, and my grandfather was a school principal, and then my grandfather ran away with the math teacher. And so, my grandmother always used to say, "Baby, you can be anything you want to be, just not a math teacher." So.
RW: Johnston went on to make education reform a big part of his legislative carrier. There were highs and lows for him. He was the architect of Colorado's Teacher Evaluation System. He also fought for a statewide tax increase for schools in 2013, which voters defeated resoundingly. Mike Johnston, welcome to the program.
MJ: Thank you so much for having me. Delighted to be here.
RW: What's the single biggest problem facing Colorado, and how do you propose to solve it?
MJ: I think the single biggest problem facing the state is how are we going to make the necessary investments in our people in this state, which is around K-12 education and higher education, and in our infrastructure, which is around roads and bridges. If you want to be able to grow this state in a way that protects what we love most about it, those are the two most important things, is people and infrastructure. And I think to do that, you're going to have to have a governor who's going to lead and going to the ballot and repealing the worst parts of TABOR so we can actually restore funding to a system that right now, we have one of the fastest growing economies in the country, and one of the worst funded K-12 and higher ed systems and roads and bridges, infrastructure, in the country.
RW: Okay, so the theme there is investment and that obviously points to the need for the state, in your mind, to have more money. So you talk about repealing the worst parts of TABOR. TABOR is the Taxpayer Bill of Rights in the Colorado Constitution, and it says state and local governments cannot raise taxes or spend beyond a revenue cap without voter approval. At that house party we visited, you demonstrated how you would change TABOR using a wine glass or a beer mug. Help us understand how that illustrates what you -
MJ: Like the worst and best of Colorado at the same time, TABOR and the beer mug, but yeah, I find it's a simple example, which is the most damaging part of TABOR, I think, is the fact that it puts an absolute cap on the state budget, no matter what the state economy does. So the example I use, if you look at a beer mug and say, if this full beer would have been the entire set of state needs, for K-12 education, for roads and bridges, for higher education, what TABOR does essentially is come and cuts a hole halfway up that glass, which means it doesn't matter how long you put that under the tap, that glass is never going to get full. You'll never fill the set of state needs because the beer will always pour out when you get to that hole in the glass. And so my proposal has been, you don't have to raise taxes, you simply tape up the hole in the glass, which is what people that follow this would call de-Brucing the state or allowing the state to keep the revenue that's coming in under the current economic recovery.
RW: This would require a vote of the people, state-wide
MJ: It would. You'd have to go to the voters. I propose you do it in 2020, which will be a historically high turnout election, I think, for this state.
RW: Presidential election.
MJ: Presidential election.
RW: All right. There are those who would argue that more money in the hands of citizens, not government, is how you create economic development. What would you say?
MJ: I'd say the CU School of Business did a projection of what Colorado's future will look like economically, and their projection is that the economy will start contracting as early as 2019, not because we don't have great businesses here but because we're going to be missing two things. One is the people with the skills they need for the jobs that are emerging, and the second is infrastructure that you can move goods and services around the state on. So I think if you don't fundamentally have infrastructure and talent, that's going to be the biggest gating factor to economic growth here.
RW: But if TABOR were to exact a negative effect on this state, wouldn't we have seen more draconian effects by now? That is this is a state with low unemployment, I think advocates of TABOR would say, whose economy is doing well, and where business is thriving.
MJ: So I think there are ways that we've kicked the can down the road as far as we can right now. We also see as we have $20 billion, with a b, dollars of backlog needs for roads and bridges that are crumbling over the next 20 years. We have 300% increases in tuition at higher ed institutions over the last 10 to 20 years, so college is becoming less and less affordable. We have billion dollar holes in K-12 funding each year. So yes, as we see now, our teachers and our higher ed institutions are trying to do more and more with less and less as are our roads and bridges, but you're reaching the breaking point on those things. I think now is the moment where we've outrun the capacity to still grow under TABOR.
RW: Okay. We will unpack transportation, education all in this conversation, and why don't we start with education because you would funnel more money to schools. Education, a marquee issue for you, and yet one of your opponents in the democratic primary, Cary Kennedy, was endorsed by the state's largest teachers' union, which said of her, "She aligns with all of the issues and values that our members share." I think this illustrates what appears to be a split in the democratic party, one that was very evident at the state assembly earlier this month. And education reform group that you're a part of was told to take Democrat out of its name. What does it say that there's such a disconnect between you and many of those in the family business, as you put it, and that is teaching?
MJ: Well I'm very proud of the fact that we have a deep well of support from teachers from across the state include the teachers I worked side by side with as a principal here and the union presidents I worked with who are big supporters of mine.
RW: And yet not the statewide union.
MJ: I think what we've focused on now is the most significant challenge facing the state going forward is the same, which is how do you actually fund schools, whether they're district schools or charter schools that are both public. What I think you've seen in this debate is when resources get scarce, folks start fighting over the crumbs off the side of the table as opposed to solving how you fix the biggest problem there, which is funding resources. Of course, I believe there are things that I'll take a stand on, and I'm willing to disagree with folks in my own party and disagree with folks on the other side of the aisle. That's why-
RW: And in education, where is that? Is that particularly in the investment in charter schools and innovation schools do you think?
MJ: I think that obviously we want to have choice for parents. I think parents have made clear they like to be able to choose different types of schools that are public. I oppose privatization. I oppose vouchers. I was the first to oppose Betsy Devos' nomination as Secretary, so I think there is a real wrong road to go down there, but I do think there are parents in Colorado who want public school choice as long as you hold charters to the same set of standards. I've also been the one to fight to say that charters ought to make sure they serve all kids and ought to keep their doors open to all kids. I ran a special ed facility. I've ran a district center program for students with special needs. I think that all public schools should keep their doors open to all students, but schools that do that, should get funding and should get support.
RW: On Thursday and Friday, teachers across the state plan to walk out to protest low pay and what they say is often out of pocket expenses for work. They're buying supplies for their classrooms. Are they right to walk out? Would you walk out with them if you were still an educator?
MJ: They are right, and not only would I walk out with them as an educator, I will be there with them as a candidate. I'll be joining this week because I think what you find is, yes, when you ask what the impacts of TABOR are, one of the impacts of TABOR are we now have some of the lowest teacher salaries in the country here in Colorado. You go to a place like Montezuma County where I was recently, starting salary there for a teacher is $29,000 a year. That's barely above minimum wage. So you have folks who say, I was going to teach but I decide to wait tables instead because I can make more money there. You can't find the best talent we need for the most important jobs in the state at that kind of compensation, so I do think that the long-term wait of TABOR and others is starting to bear down on our schools. They've been doing more with less for too long.
RW: You blame TABOR for a lack of education funding, and yet TABOR says, listen, if you want to raise taxes go to the voters and ask them. You did that in 2013. You failed. Isn't that your failure, not TABOR's?
MJ: Oh, no. I think we did exactly what TABOR asked us to do, which is to say if you want more resources, go to the voters and ask for it. We followed it and made that request. The voters did not want to do a tax increase at that stage. That was the hole in the school funding, which was about a billion dollars, so that's what we asked for. They said, no. What I did was listen to their feedback and came back to the legislature the next year and found a way to pass with bipartisan support, one of the largest increases in school funding we've seen in the last 30 years. I think we can always find a way to work within the constraints, but if folks want to know what would it take for us to have, say, teacher compensation that's on par with at least the average states in the country, rather than being at the bottom, you would need to have the ability to make more investments.
RW: You think that's through fixing, as you call, the worst parts of TABOR. You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we've begun our conversations with the people who want to be your next governor. We're starting with Democrat, Mike Johnston. We have talked briefly about workforce training. One of the programs you're touting is called the Colorado Promise. In essence, it's a kind of educational national guard. Coloradans of all ages, not just young people, would be able to go to school for two years and learn new skills, debt free. In return, they'd volunteer for Colorado in some respect, giving back. Who do you think is in need of that kind of program?
MJ: I think if you look at coal miners on the Western Slope, or you look at truck drivers, or you look at bank tellers, all of these industries that stand to be automated or changed, or eliminated even potentially. We know we're going to have many, many Coloradans who are going to be in transition. We know that the new jobs they're going to want to seek are going to require new skills. So I think we need a new vision for public education, which is not the old one, where at age 18 you get a degree, and that's an inoculation shot that keeps you employed for 50 years. That's not the new world. The new world is you got to change jobs eight to ten times over your career and those need new skills. We want a way for everyone to be able to get access to those skills at any stage of their career when they're making those changes.
RW: You would use online sales tax to pay for the bulk of that. A tax that the state is not yet currently, fully collecting. Okay. Transportation. According to CDOT, there's a nine billion dollar shortfall for transportation. Needs, Republican lawmakers say, the money's already there. The state just has to make it a priority. But if some sort of measure were to get on the ballot, perhaps alongside your name, asking for a tax hike for transportation, would you support it?
MJ: I am likely to support it. There are a number of measures being considered right now, so I'd want to see what the final one is. But, these are all led by the business community and the Chamber's of Commerce who are just saying for our own economic needs, we have to be able to make this change. I've chaired the finance committee for four years in the Senate, so I can tell you there are not nine billion dollars in the couch cushions of the state budget to fund roads and bridges long-term. That's just the first nine years of needs, another $11 billion for the next 11 years after that.
RW: Every democratic candidate in this race is talking about how to make sure all Coloradans have health insurance, but these candidates, including yourself, differ on how to get there. Representative Jared Polis, among the democrats, wants a single payer system. Former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy talks about a public option for anyone through Medicaid, or as both she and Donna Lynne suggest, through the plans offered to state employees.
Your proposal is more tailored than that. People who have to spend more than 10% of their income on a plan could buy into a Medicaid public option. Why that more targeted approach?
MJ: Because what we want to do is we want to provide choice in all the parts of the state where people don't have choice, which is what's driving up prices. What you don't want to do is destabilize the markets that are working effectively, and so we've offered as a public option to buy into Medicaid in any places where the plans are currently unaffordable, which is like the Western Slope-
RW: Do you think a statewide plan would be destabilizing?
MJ: I do think it would be.
MJ: What you would see is a lot of private healthcare providers who'd probably leave the state. We'd have less choice. We'd have higher prices.
Energy And Environment
RW: You back a number of initiatives when it comes to energy, espousing what you call a clean energy economy that would achieve 100% renewable energy in the state by 2040. But on your campaign website, you barely touch on oil and gas, which is a huge part of the economy here. Also, a source of a lot of tension in Colorado. As governor, is there anything you'd change about how oil and gas is regulated by state or local governance?
MJ: I think there's quite a bit of work to do, and actually we just released a new part of our plan this week, so you may just see it. But yes, we've come out and said we'd like to move the state to 100% renewable. Short term, we have to do far more to protect health and safety. So, I've said yes, I think you have to push back setbacks statewide. I think you should not allow folks to drill in places that are environmentally sensitive, like the Thompson Divide or the sand dunes.
RW: So, further setbacks.
MJ: Yes, I think-
RW: They've already been moved.
MJ: Yup. I think those need to be pushed back. They need to be pushed back statewide as one, I think you don't want where neighborhood by neighborhood, county by county are separately negotiating against the oil and gas companies to see who gets the lowest setback. I think there ought to be one statewide setback, and-
RW: What do you say to the people whose property is underground and taken by that, who don't have access perhaps to their minerals as a result?
MJ: I don't believe that you can ban people's access to those minerals. I still believe they have access to recover them. But right now we know, and I've visited with these companies, right now they're running two mile horizontal drills underground to be able to get to minerals, so a 500 or 1,000 foot setback is not going to make it impossible to get to those minerals. It just means you have to keep away from schools and homes.
RW: Did you want to get to perhaps one other proposal for oil and gas?
MJ: Yeah. I think the other one is we clearly have to cap the more than 1,000 orphan wells around the state, which are the kind of leaking wells that cause the home explosion in Firestone where I spent some time with families. So that ought to be the responsibility to get those all capped and plugged, and then we ought to make sure we get to zero leakage among all those pipelines so we don't have more and more families worried that if they go into the basement to fix a pilot light, they might have their home explode.
RW: Briefly, to guns, you would ban bump stocks, create gun violence restraining orders, but at least one candidate in this race has called for a ban on assault style weapons, like the AR-15. You have not. Why not?
MJ: I have, actually. I was the first one to come out and call for a ban on it. We had the discussion in the debate, and I've said yes, of course I would ban assault weapons, but I think the more important thing to watch is the size of the magazine. Because if you look at just two high profile shootings in Colorado, of course the Aurora theater shooting, 100 round magazine on an AR-15, but if you just ban the AR-15 by itself, you still have the Columbine shooting, where you had a shooter who walked into a high school with a handgun with a 52 round magazine in it. If you have handguns that still carry 52 round magazines, that is the real thing to watch. So I was proud to sponsor the ban on high capacity magazines. Every Republican candidate said they would repeal it. It's most important to protect that ban on high capacity magazines, saves the most lives, but also yes, I would sign an assault weapons ban if we could get that done.
RW: All right. I want to go back to something you said at that house gathering in Denver. You were discussing how your campaign is financed.
MJ: You know, we have also raised more money than any gubernatorial in Colorado history at this stage, Republican or Democrat, and the only campaign that's done it without a single dollar of PAC money, without a single dollar of special interest funding, or without self-financing.
RW: Let's focus on your statement that you haven't taken a single dollar of PAC money. In March, Colorado politics reported that former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, a co-founder of Every Town for Gun Safety, made a million dollar donation to a super PAC which supports you. Is it disingenuous to say you're not getting PAC support even if it's indirect?
MJ: No, it's not. We, all I am responsible for is the dollars I bring in to our campaign, but even so it's about accepting donations from individuals, from human beings with names. PAC's are corporate entities where you don't know who gave the money, or what they gave it for, or what their special interest is. My commitment has always been we'll take monies from individuals, but no, the outside entities that support us, they make those decisions. I don't do that, but I'm proud of the fact that Michael Bloomberg looked around the country, and said, "Who, where is there an elected official who has the courage to actually take on the NRA and get big things done?" And they said I was the one with the biggest track record of being able to do that, so honored to have his support, but what I'm responsible for is the money I raise into our campaign, and we've taken them only from individuals. I'm the only candidate to do that.
RW: Besides the money from Bloomberg, there's another contribution. This one $250,000 that's come from Reid Hoffman, the California entrepreneur who founded LinkedIn. As we pointed out, neither man lives in Colorado. What influence what might they have in your administration?
MJ: Oh, I think there's no influence they'll have in my administration. I think what they're looking out for-
RW: You just said you have Bloomberg supporting you, so he'll have no influence?
MJ: So what I think those people support is they're looking for leaders with track records of accomplishment, and they want to support those people that have the courage to take on hard fights and win. I think they don't find a lot of political courage when you look around the country, and I'm the only candidate in this race who's taken on the NRA twice and won twice, and when the NRA came to threaten me that my political career would be over, if I had the courage to take those stands. I didn't say, oh, I'm worried about that. I said that's not my concern.
My concern is not going to more funerals for 14 year olds, so I think people are looking for, in this moment around the country, where are their leaders with political courage who will take real stands on things that matter, and I think that's in an era when more and more leadership is going to be taken by governors, because the federal government is less and less successful. You're going to look to governors to make changes on the environment, on women's health, on gun safety, on education, all of the major innovations in this moment are going to come from the states, so I think where folks used to look at US senators as a national investment, I think folks now are looking for governors to lead the country.
RW: You are in a strong position financially, but polling shows that you're behind both Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy, about 10 weeks left before the primary. Why do you think you haven't connected?
MJ: Oh, I think we've connected profoundly. What that's a recognition of is name/idea at this stage in the race. There are about 65% of the voters who have yet to make up their mind. That's where this entire race is decided, so a 10 point difference with 65% undecided is a very small number for us, and as you and I were talking about earlier, the rest of the state is just now starting to pay attention to this race. I think when they start to look closely at who is the candidate that has the real track record of being able to take on incredibly difficult problems, and build broad enough coalitions to actually succeed at them, whether it was passing the Dream Act for undocumented kids, or criminal justice reform, or energy or healthcare. I've led successfully on all of those progressive issues in a big way and I think there's no one else who will have that track record.
RW: Thanks for being with us.
MJ: Thank you so much for having me.
RW: Democrat Mike Johnston is running for governor and that's the first of our interviews with the candidates ahead of the June 26th primaries, in which unaffiliated voters can participate for the first time. Tomorrow we're scheduled to speak with Republican, Victor Mitchell, who, despite having served in the Legislature, paints himself as an outsider in the race. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.