Democratic Candidate Jared Polis On What He’d Do As Governor

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Photo: Rep. Jared Polis
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder, is running for governor of Colorado.

Democratic governor candidate Jared Polis doesn’t “personally support or endorse” two proposed tax increases for transportation and education on the November ballot.

The Proposition 110 transportation proposal, Polis noted, calls for a $6 billion increase in sales taxes.

“It’s not what I would do,” he told Colorado Matters. If the measure passes and he’s governor, he’ll implement it, Polis said. “If it fails then we’ll work with Republicans and Democrats and the business community on better finance mechanisms.”

The Denver Chamber of Commerce and other major business groups crafted and supported 110. It’s also been endorsed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Critics have often complained that sales taxes put an unfair burden on people with lower incomes.

A separate initiative, called “Fix Our Damn Roads,” would authorize the state to issue bonds for $3.5 billion in road improvements, with the bonds repaid from the state operating fund. Polis opposes this initiative

“It would put the state in debt without any additional revenue to pay for it and crowd out everything we want to accomplish in schools. The cost of college would go up, health care costs would likely go up and it would drain our classrooms of money.”

As for Amendment 73, the $1.6 billion education tax package, Polis objects because it would be enshrined in the state constitution — potentially putting it in conflict with an array of other amendments that govern state taxes and spending.

“I’ve long been on the side of trying to simplify and get many of these fiscal provisions out of our state constitution so that our state can be more governable, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, it really ties the hands of our legislature and the governor.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Polis vowed to shield the state’s residents from the impacts of growth, and outlined plans to control health care costs, and to enhance safety around oil and gas drilling rigs.

The state’s rising population and booming economy have spawned complaints about traffic, crowded schools and skyrocketing housing prices, and Amazon’s consideration of Colorado as the location for its second headquarters has sparked concern in some quarters. Polis said the state could accommodate Amazon’s estimated 50,000 workers — but not without making sure the company chooses the right site.

“In general we want to attract jobs to Colorado but you have to go beyond that and say ‘OK, where is it going to be, how will people get there? Where is the affordable housing?’ ” he said.

Polis has donated more than $18 million of his own money to the campaign so far — a strategy that might become more difficult for future candidates if an initiative on the November ballot succeeds. The plan, under a proposed title of “Campaign finance reform for the purpose of protecting elections from the undue influence of millionaires,” says if a candidate donates more than $1 million to his or her campaign, opposing candidates would be allowed to accept donations five times higher than what’s currently allowed.

Polis amassed his personal fortune as an internet entrepreneur before he got his start in politics as a member of the Colorado Board of Education. He said he’ll vote for the campaign contributions measure.

“On the margins it improves things,” he said, but it doesn’t really solve the dilemma of big donors dominating the process. He called for a public financing system that would match contributions from small donors.

The congressman, who has represented much of Northern Colorado in Congress for 10 years, voted in 2017 for a resolution to begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Although, if he’s elected governor, Polis said he’ll be able to work with Trump and his administration.

“First of all, I’m willing to take on the party leadership on either side,” Polis said. “I can work with anybody, even this president, on issues that improve the quality of life in Colorado. If President Trump is sincere about investing in infrastructure, I look forward to working with him … but at the same time I think it’s very important that Colorado doesn’t have a Donald Trump yes man as governor.”

The interview for this story with Polis was recorded before a 1999 police report surfaced on a conservative website. Polis was accused of pushing a former female employee as she tried to steal sensitive business information. Ultimately, she was the one who was charged and sentenced.

A Colorado Matters interview with Polis’ Republican opponent, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, is scheduled for Oct. 1.

Read The Transcript

Ballots for the midterm election start hitting the mail in just three weeks, and Coloradans will be choosing their next governor. Today, our in-depth interview with the Democrat in the race, Jared Polis -- currently a Congressman from Boulder.

We recorded the conversation last Friday, and you’ll notice we’ll stop the tape, and add some perspective, when Polis makes a claim about his opponent, Republican Walker Stapleton. Stapleton’s interview is scheduled to air next Monday.

OK -- to Jared Polis. On this year’s ballot there are also some hefty tax and spending measures for schools and transportation statewide. We wanted to know where he stands on them because, if he’s elected, he’d have to implement them. So let’s start with the two transportation questions. One would raise the state sales tax and includes transit; another would focus on roads and relies on bonding-- essentially borrowing -- to pay for that.

Jared Polis: First of all, we have to be able to make the investments we need to build out a 21st Century infrastructure with a growing state. We have to look at the cost of doing nothing and I think the average Coloradan spends about $600 a year being stuck in traffic and additional wear and tear, and lost productivity. There are two measures. One is very harmful. The other is a way of doing things that is not necessarily one that I would write if I was writing it. The dangerous one would be bonding without new revenue. It would put the state in debt without any additional revenue to pay for it and crowd out everything we want to accomplish in schools. The cost of college would go up, the healthcare rates would likely go up and it would drain our classrooms of money. So if you’re going to bond, it’s important that you have what’s called the dedicated revenue source.

Ryan Warner: You opposed Fix Our Damn Roads is the bonding proposal – their words, not mine – and are you taking a position? Will you take one with me on the tax increase?

JP: Yeah, it’s not what I would do. I think that particular vehicle is a sales tax increase. It’s not something that I personally support.

RW: You will not vote for it?

JP: I haven’t personally supported it or endorsed it. I am open to a wide variety of ways of paying for infrastructure. If it gets done, then we will enact it as efficiently as possible. If it fails, then we’ll work with Republicans and Democrats in the business community on better finance mechanisms.

RW: There is also, on the ballot, a tax increase for schools using a different mechanism, not the sales tax. What do you think of it?

JP: Well that one is actually a constitutional amendment and in many ways, our constitution is already extremely cluttered with fiscal provisions. There is Amendment 23, there’s the Gallagher Amendment, there’s TABOR. I have long been on the side of trying to simplify and get many of these fiscal provisions out of our state constitution so that our state can be more governable regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. It really ties the hands of our legislature and the governor.

RW: That is to say it sounds like you would vote against that as well.

JP: If it passes, we will use that money as efficiently as possible. If it doesn’t, we will approach things in a way to try to simplify our state constitution and decades of underinvestment in our public schools, and of course, fulfill my goal of making sure that every child has access to preschool and kindergarten across the state, which would save young families so much money on daycare.

RW: So not a ringing endorsement but not an outright -

JP: Well, you’re asking about ballot initiatives. My focus is on what I can do as governor. Our focus is preschool and kindergarten. We have finance mechanisms like social impact bonds, like the Pay for Success program in Westminster that all – has already achieved universal kindergarten and at least half-day preschool for all their kids for free. We can fund it out of future savings to the system. Certainly, we’ll have to see what the voters do in terms of setting the tone for the next administration, but as a candidate for governor, I’m really focused on what we could accomplish working with the state legislature and with the executive authority of the governor.

RW: If the education measure doesn’t succeed – statewide tax increases have not fared well in recent Colorado history – what do you suggest as revenue streams? Why don’t we start with education and then move to transportation?

JP: So a very big difference between Walker Stapleton and myself on funding education. His marquee proposals would actually take money out of our public schools. One of them is creating private savings accounts to pay for tutors or piano on the side. Again, that would forego revenue that would otherwise go to our schools. The other would be a sales tax holiday for notebooks and school supplies, also taking money out of our schools.

RW: OK. Let’s pause here for a second. It’s true the Republican candidate wants a sales tax holiday for school supplies, which indirectly could reduce tax revenues but not expressly take money out of public schools and Polis’ opponent does want tax-free education savings accounts. That could reduce some revenue for governments, but once again, not expressly for schools. OK, here’s Polis on his own education vision.

JP: We are interested in investing in our schools, reducing class size, paying teachers better. This will be a priority for general fund expenditures, which in what we hope the current projections show, a flush budget year, we would make our – certainly our number one priority not just investing in our schools, but I’m not afraid to make sure that those resources reach the classroom, meaning of course, it’s up to districts at the end of the day, but we can certainly make sure that they reach the classroom in the form of smaller class size, better teacher pay and don’t go to administrative inefficiencies along the way.

RW: What has to be sacrificed in order to say, “This general fund revenue is going towards schools?”

JP: Well, that’s certainly our priority. Again, I think it’s all a matter of priorities. I think that we as a society over-incarcerate. We need to do better a job dealing with issues like opioid abuse and drug abuse through the healthcare system where it’s less expensive and more effective, and we can represent some of those savings by investing in our schools.

RW: I’d like to talk about growth. CPR reporters have been all around the state for the last couple of months talking to people about what’s on their minds. Growth certainly is on their brains these days. One of the folks we ran into is Rusha Lev of Golden.

Rusha Lev: We have thousands of people coming into this state and we don’t have resources for them, and that shouldn’t happen in a state where we have like the lowest joblessness rate.

RW: You hear Lev’s three boys in the background. Is Colorado growing too fast?

JP: So the real challenge is is that we have to make growth work for those of us who are already here. It’s great to have a growing economy. All our economic agenda will lead to more growth in Colorado, but we also need to make sure that growth actually improves our quality of life, meaning, “How can we make sure that we build the necessary infrastructure so traffic doesn’t get worse? How do we protect our public lands, our parks, our open space?” My focus will be how can we help families save more money at the end of every month, save money on childcare, save money on healthcare, save lost productivity and traffic, and really not just get by in a growing state but thrive.

RW: So give me an example of how you take the growth that’s coming and you make it – as you say, make it work for us?

JP: As we look towards building more affordable housing opportunities close to where people work, we need to do the right kind of transit planning and offer different ways of commuting and getting to the places you love. The way I view transportation is lane expansion has a very important role and I’ve worked to deliver that in the Northern 25-Quarter and Highway 36, but we also have to look at light rail expansion, bike transit, transit planned communities so people can live on transit lines closer and get – have a way of getting to where the jobs are. Communities are strongest when people that work in communities can also afford to live in the community that they work in and that’s becoming harder and harder in many parts of our state.

RW: On the question of growth, I think a lot of people have their eyes on Denver being a finalist for Amazon’s new headquarters, which would bring an estimated 50,000 workers to the area. Do you want HQ2 in Colorado?

JP: In many ways, this kind of crystallizes the conversation because it’s everything we’re talking about, growth in a large project. So it’s a question to me of, “OK, in general, we want to attract jobs to Colorado,” but you have to go beyond that and say, “OK, where is it going to be? How will people get there? Where is the housing – affordable housing so it doesn’t make housing even less attainable for those of us already here?” So it’s sort of a “yes, but…” answer. Of course we want to attract -

RW: So yes, you’d like Amazon?

JP: Of course, if we can we do it in an area that we can deal with the roads, the housing and the growth. So it’s not anywhere and anywhere that they would plop down. We want to make sure – it’s 50,000. That really moves the bar. Where are people going to live? How are they going to – what is their commuting route to get to work? Absolutely, we can accommodate that in our state. It can provide revenue and jobs. It can enhance all of our quality of life, but it has to be done right.

RW: Let’s talk about energy and the environment. In the past, you pushed to increase the required distance between buildings and oil and gas development. So that space is called a setback. This year, you are opposing a ballot initiative to establish 2,500-foot setbacks statewide. Why?

JP: Well, I’ve always supported making sure that we put health and safety first with regard to the siting of oil and gas in our state. I’ve supported greater setbacks subject to surface use agreements and that’s one of the shortcomings of the current initiative. I’ve always felt that if the surface owner wants it closer, that’s certainly their prerogative to do it.

RW: So what you’re saying is that there’s no flexibility, even if someone says, “It’s fine to put that close to my building?”

JP: Well this one, yeah. There’s no flexibility and we also have a goal of us achieving 100 percent renewable energy as a state by 2040. This transition will create good green jobs and save Coloradans money and make us more competitive as a state.

RW: Let’s unpack some of what you’ve said there. So first to the setbacks: you recently attended a meeting of an industry trade group called the Colorado Oil & Gas Association and you were booed by protesters there for opposing this measure. What will you say to people who think, “Well this is not a candidate, then, who is going to protect my school, my house?”

JP: Well, of course I will. One of those things I even said in that speech is that we need to measure our school setbacks. Right now, there’s what I would call a loophole in that the required setback from schools are from the school building rather than from any part of a schoolyard like the field where kids are playing or have P.E. So I have advocated specifically changing the state law to measure any setback from any part of the school property where the kids are and that are part of the educational program and we took that message right to the folks at Oil & Gas, and there are some that agree and some that disagree there.

RW: Then this idea of 100 percent renewables, there are those who will say, “That can’t be base load power yet.” That is, wind and solar depend on the wind blowing and the sun shining. What are the technological obstacles to getting there? Have you factored that into the plan?

JP: We have, Ryan and what’s exciting is when the utility providers are looking at pricing for wind and solar, they’re usually looking at wind-plus-storage and solar-plus-storage. Now let’s look at solar because it’s a very simple example. Solar panels produce energy during the day and they don’t at night. So if you’re going to want to use some of that energy at night, you’re going to need something along – what we call storage, which are essentially batteries. I mean, they don’t have to be a physical battery. It can be water being displaced, it can be a variety of ways of doing it. Wind is more reliable in the sense that it’s not on during the day, off at night. Many of the sites that are used for wind have favorable conditions for production upwards of 300 to 300+ days a year, but that still means that you need to have wind across different sites and some additional storage. So that’s priced into that model that shows that it saves money over coal, is making sure we have that reliability through renewable energy.

RW: We’re going to bounce back and forth between policy and personal in this conversation, and I figured I’d ask one thing about you people may not know.

JP: Well, I don’t know. I think when you’re -

RW: Tell me about that – how about telling me about that shirt?

JP: Well, I’m wearing a Rockies shirt today because they’re still in contention. I’m not – this might air and they might either be in the postseason or they might not have made it, but no, I’m certainly a baseball fan. I haven’t made it to any Rockies games this year because I’ve been a little bit busy with my day job, representing Northern Colorado in Congress and my “every other moment job”, running for governor, not to mention being the father of a six year old and a four year old. But look, I think – many people don’t know that I’m a computer gamer. I play PC computer games, usually late in the evening and whether it’s League of Legends or Warcraft, that sort of – not a hobby that’s too unusual for people of my age, but it’s something that I certainly enjoy.

I’ll give you an example both legislatively and then as an entrepreneur and nonprofit social innovator. First, we were able to build a significant bipartisan coalition around industrial hemp nationally. I sponsored and passed an amendment that in the last national ag bill, allowed for research at our universities and in this upcoming ag bill, we were able to get language that fully legalizes industrial hemp, which is in accordance with Colorado law. It’s a great crop for farmers. And we brought Republicans, Democrats, the business community onboard.

Another example is the schools that I started, right. So not just being a school board member, State Board of Education for six years, but I actually founded three nonprofit public charter schools here in Colorado – New America School in Thornton, Aurora and Lakewood – and I served as superintendent of that public school network. So that’s an inherently executive position. It’s interesting because it’s an inherently political position being superintendent, but it’s not partisan, right. So not partisan but political and that really describes school board politics, which is what I came up through.

RW: So I suppose in job interview parlance, you’ve given us a version of, “What’s your strength?” What is your biggest leadership weakness?

JP: Well, what I want to be able to do as governor is make sure that we listen to voices that often haven’t been listened to across our state.

RW: That sounds like a strength.

JP: Well yeah, I think so.

RW: So what about a weakness?

JP: Maybe I discount the powerbrokers and special interests too much. I just have a lot of skepticism about the elite and the lobbyists and the powerbrokers, and I try – I -

RW: That sounds like a strength.

JP: Well maybe to you it does, but I -

RW: In this political environment.

JP: I don’t know, but – while I listen to all sides, I probably focus on hearing the voices of regular people more and I do think I’ll need to work within the existing power structure to make lasting and effective change.

RW: Can you give me an example of a special interest group you’re too quick to dismiss?

JP: The pharmaceutical industry. You hear me talk a lot about this during my campaign. Americans are getting ripped off on prescription drugs. We’re paying five to eight times as much for the exact same prescription drug as Canada and Germany. Now of course, there’s another side to that. We value having pharmaceutical research, the profit incentive, the jobs. At the same time, Americans shouldn’t be ripped off.

RW: Let’s talk about healthcare, given that you’ve brought up the cost of pharmaceuticals. We heard from Gail Knapp, whose family farm is cantaloupe in Rocky Ford. She was running the family farm stand when we caught up with her.

Gail Knapp: My husband and I pay $3,300 a month for our health insurance. We’re both healthy people.

RW: You’ve just announced a plan for healthcare in your first 100 days in office, should you be elected. What in that would do the most to help Gail Knapp?

JP: So Gail is right. We need immediate action to lower the cost, expand access and improve quality. There’s a number of areas in that that will save Gail and her family money on healthcare. One is establishing reinsurance at the state level to create larger risk pools. Another is -

RW: Yeah, explain reinsurance.

JP: Sure. Sure; no, happy to. What that basically would allow is it would allow a greater risk pool for some of the most severe and high-risk patients that otherwise could drive up costs within any insurance program. So it’s a way of spreading risk and therefore creating greater savings for rate payers because those risks won’t – whatever plan she’s on won’t drive up the cost of that particular plan.

RW: Might that, though, increase premiums for some?

JP: It should decrease premiums. That’s really the reason that we’re bringing it forward. Our whole goal is to save families money and small businesses money in healthcare. She’s probably insured through a small business if she’s running a farm. Prescription drugs are another one. About a quarter of healthcare costs are prescription drugs and we want to use – whether it’s the Medicaid dollars, be able to have an interstate consortium, we have a number of ways to get there, but we want to have better negotiation for prescription drug prices and bring those more in line with what others are paying in other countries.

RW: The roadmap, this first 100 days in terms of healthcare, doesn’t mention what has been a hallmark campaign proposal for you, which is a version of universal healthcare that you have dubbed Medicare for All. Does that remain on your agenda and if so, what might happen in that direction in the first 100 days?

JP: I’ve always supported Medicare for All nationally. I’ve even sponsored the bill. I think that we have a great program, Medicare. Where would our country be without Medicare for our seniors? That already covers the highest risk, highest cost population. I think that we should have – and we can reduce costs by having a basic level of care for everybody. It’s really in stark contrast to Walker Stapleton’s plan to throw hundreds of thousands of Coloradans off their healthcare by ending the Medicaid expansion. That would also raise costs for the rest of us because when you have a larger uninsured population, guess who’s paying for them? It’s you and I who are paying for our insurance. So first of all, we want to protect what we have -

RW: Well – so he believes that more innovation and perhaps more choice, more flexible plans might paint a different reality, but to this idea -

JP: Well I’m certainly for that, too, but specifically, I was referring to his commitment to end the Medicaid expansion. Obviously, we – I certainly support innovative bundled payments and other mechanisms to bring down rates and use our Medicaid dollars more wisely.

RW: All right. Let’s pause once again…. Polis’ Republican opponent HAS said, quote, “it is not a question of if -- but when -- we have to get rid of the healthcare exchange.” Walker Stapleton told US -- during the primary -- he doesn’t think it’s working as it should. He does NOT specifically call for its demise in his recent healthcare proposal. As for “ending the Medicaid expansion,” Stapleton says that’s a scare tactic. But he does say, “while it’s necessary to defend the social safety, we must rein in costs.” OK. Let’s roll tape again with Jared Polis and HIS thoughts on healthcare…

JP: Our North Star is I support any reform from the right, the left or the center on healthcare that saves people money, expands coverage and maintains or improves the quality of care. So we put pen to paper and we put a number of things that we can achieve towards all three of those goals within the first hundred days. Obviously, I won’t give up until we’ve achieved a way to save people money and provide a universal basic level of care, but I don’t think it’s realistic to get that done in a hundred days.

RW: I want to go back to the idea of the cooperation that will be necessary to implement your vision for the state and the cooperation specifically between Colorado and Washington. There are any – a number of issues in play between Colorado and the feds right now – immigration, marijuana, environmental regulation, even down to the nitty-gritty of whether Grand Junction will become the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management. Last year, you voted for a resolution to begin impeachment proceedings against the president. It only got fifty-eight votes. The leaders of your own party opposed the move. As governor of Colorado, how would you build a relationship with the Trump Administration that you have hinted – and maybe even stronger than that – shouldn’t be in office?

JP: Well, no secret that I didn’t support that candidate. First of all, I’m willing to take on the party leadership on either side. With regard to being able to work with people: look, I can work with anybody, even this president, on issues that improve the quality of life in Colorado. If President Trump is sincere about investing in infrastructure, I look forward to working with him to make a real plan that works for Colorado, but at the same time, I think it’s very important that Colorado doesn’t have a Donald Trump yes-man as governor.

RW: You have released seven years of your tax returns. That was in 2008 when you first ran for Congress and you’ve declined to release any more since, including in this campaign. I wonder if you’re driving down a road President Trump paved. I mean, the man who holds the highest office in the country didn’t release his taxes prior to the 2016 election and still hasn’t.

JP: Well thank goodness I released seven years because we were able to refute these ridiculous charges against me that somehow, I didn’t pay taxes. That’s completely false and my opponent, Walker Stapleton, hasn’t released a single year. So we would love him to match what I’ve released. If he’s willing to go above and beyond that, we would too, but I don’t think anybody should doubt – when we see how these tax returns are weaponized by special interests and the political lead in a false way, it’s no wonder that more people aren’t as forthcoming as I’ve been.

RW: So I hear you saying that, “We’ll do it if Walker Stapleton does it,” but then I hear you saying, “One reason I haven’t released them is because they can be misused, misinterpreted, misconstrued?”

JP: Well again, I have released seven years’ worth. Again, I would hope that Walker Stapleton would’ve released at least seven years and I would hope that both candidates would.

RW: You are personally very wealthy and at this point, you’ve donated more than eighteen million dollars to your campaign. I want to say there’s an initiative on the ballot that takes aim at this. If it a candidate like yourself puts more than a million dollars in personal money into a campaign – as I believe also Walker Stapleton has done, though far less than you – others in the race would get a break. They’d be able to accept donations five times higher than what’s allowed under current law. So it’s a bit of a playing field evening. Do you support that proposal on the ballot?

JP: I’ll be voting for it. On the margins, I think it improves things, but I would be clear it doesn’t really change the fact that it puts too much influence in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. My answer would not be other wealthy people. It would be, “Let’s let small donors with some five to one match or something like that.”

RW: A kind of public financing to match those donations?

JP: That’s what I’ve supported. Again, I – this is fine. There’s no harm in this initiative other than that it doesn’t really address the core problem in campaign finance, which is that the special interests are still favored.

RW: If Colorado had that system this year where individual donations were matched by a pool of public financing, would you forego your own money and use it?

JP: Well, there – that’s a very hypothetical question. That’s -

RW: Well it’s – but it’s pretty straightforward, actually.

JP: Well we would love a system that, of course, enabled us to fund a winning campaign, which is the priority of any candidate who believes in things and wants to do great things for our state, and we are trying to do that, I would add, by the way. We limited donations to $100. I’m not accepting any PAC or special interest money, and I’m proud that we have over 4,000 donors to my campaign.

RW: I want to note that if you’re elected, you’ll be Colorado’s first gay governor and its first Jewish governor, and I think there’s been a lot of focus on the former and maybe not the latter. I wonder how Judaism shapes your worldview.

JP: Well, Happy – a belated Happy New Year to our Jewish listeners. Yom Kippur was a rare day off the campaign trail for me where my family and I attended Temple as we do. I would say we are a state of people of many faiths and also people of no faith, and I value an inclusive vision that appreciates everybody’s contribution to the state. So I think that certainly, my values are such that I will stand up for any group and certainly, I would protect Coloradans of all faiths and of no faith from any politician who tries to scapegoat them or attack them.

RW: Thank you for being with us.

JP: Thank you.

Ryan Warner: Jared Polis, Democratic candidate for governor. We're scheduled to air our conversation with Republican Walker Stapleton Monday.  You can learn more about both men's biographies in CPR's political podcast, Purplish.

We want to note that our interview with Polis was recorded before a 1999 police report surfaced on a conservative website. Polis was accused of pushing a former female employee as she tried to steal sensitive business information. Ultimately, she was the one who was charged and sentenced. You can read the context around that report, at CPR-dot-org.

This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.