Despite A Heated Legislative Session, Polis Walks Away With A Number Of Policy Wins

Listen Now
Photo: Jared Polis 05-06-2019 AS 1
Gov. Jared Polis in his office at the state Capitol on Monday, May 6, 2019.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis got a lot of what he set out to accomplish done in his first legislative session.

Lawmakers approved a bill to pay for statewide full-day kindergarten, as well as a package of measures to cut health care costs.

But the session had its bitter moments, as Republicans argued that Polis and the Democratic majorities in both houses rammed through their agenda without enough time for the public, or the Republicans, to respond.

Polis talked to Colorado Matters about those legislative wins, vaccine policies and the criticism he’s faced.

Interview Highlights

On the success of his top priority going into the legislative session — a bill to fund full-day kindergarten statewide:

“Most districts offer full-day kindergarten today, it’s just that parents have to pay for it. Some districts already have free, and they’ve been paying for it by diverting funds from other resources. But for many other districts … parents have to pay several hundred dollars. That will end this fall.”

On how to raise Colorado’s vaccination rate after a bill to reduce non-medical exemptions failed. Polis opposed the measure:

“We have a lot of tools with parents and with kids … One that we would love to be able to deploy is requiring the consent of both parents to opt out rather than a single parent, empowering students at a younger age as we do when they seek, for instance, HIV counseling or treatment, there’s a special exemption in the law allowing them to immunize themselves at a younger age.”

Responding to Republican Sen. John Cooke, who compared the Democrats' control during the session to Sherman’s March to the Sea:

“...on all the big priorities that we focused on, there was strong bipartisan successes, like talking about free full-day kindergarten, the health care bills, reinsurance led by Republicans and Democrats, hospital pricing transparency.”

On a recent event to the Eastern Plains town of Fort Morgan, where some members of the crowd booed his answers:

“The crowd was very friendly. It’s just wherever I have a public event now you’re going to have 20 or 30 people that don’t like me that also show up … What I’ll say, to their credit, is they were polite and no one interrupted anything we said. They asked their questions and they got heard. You know at times there were boos and cheers, but not so much that it interrupted the discussion we were having with the residents of Fort Morgan.”

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: Bills are piling up for Gov. Jared Polis' signature after a busy legislative session. In fact there's an extra table set up in his office specifically for signing ceremonies. This was the first session since Polis' election and since Democrats took total control of state government. Polis sat down with me Monday at the State Capitol for our regular discussion. We touched on health care costs, vaccinations and climate change.

Governor, thanks for being with us again.

Gov. Jared Polis: Ryan always a pleasure.

RW: I want to ask you about a new UN report, it finds around a million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades. To quote one contributor, "We are eroding the very foundations of our economy's food security, health and quality of life." It cites climate change as one culprit. Colorado's legislature passed a bill this session with goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly. What precisely will change because of that?

JP: Of course we all know that climate change affects species diversity, it affects our ecosystems and in Colorado it affects jobs because we have two very important climate dependent industries, agriculture and the ski industry. We're also very vulnerable to both fires and floods. So we're doing our part, we're very excited to be moving on our pathway to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, which is what I ran on. At the same time trying to reduce emissions from vehicles through improving access to electric vehicles and low emission vehicles. Then finally, reducing emissions around the oil and gas industry, especially with regard to methane.

RW: I mean it's interesting you talk about jobs because the argument against many of the measures that you've cited there is a jobs argument specifically as it relates to traditional energy. I'll just note that not a single Republican voted for the climate change measure I mentioned. Is there a way to engage more Coloradans, ones across the aisle for instance in your climate agenda?

JP: Yeah this is a real problem in America that the Republican Party today has a difficult time talking about climate change. Unlike conservative parties in England, United Kingdom or France or other industrialized nations, there is a strong anti-science contingent in today's Republican Party. But I think it's important that pro-science conservatives and Republicans really speak out and are willing to work with Democrats on market-oriented solutions to climate change because we're all paying the price for the changing climate.

RW: Do you know those folks? Do you enlist those folks?

JP: I've worked with many nationally, of course, there's a group called R Street which does great work in this area. A conservative organization focusing on conservative solutions for climate change. Former Secretary of State, George Shultz has talked extensively about this. It's yet to be manifested in sort of the elected state legislative Republicans here but I would highlight the efforts of many Republican local elected officials. Certainly Mayor Wade Troxell in Fort Collins has been a leader. He's a registered Republican in helping their municipal utility and the city of Fort Collins move towards renewable energy. As well as city council and mayors in other areas of the state.

RW: The legislature addressed your top priorities this past session. Paying for full day kindergarten, passing measures aimed at lowering the cost of health care. I want to know what the next big thing is then for the Polis administration with those priorities seemingly addressed.

JP: Well first of all, we have a lot of work to do to implement these changes. So we passed a number of measures that will give us the ability to save Coloradans significant money on their health care bills. One of them is reinsurance, it will bring down rates in the individual market by at least 10 percent in the Denver metro area, upwards of 25 percent in western Colorado, the highest priced areas. But every Coloradan will save money in the individual market if you don't have employer backed coverage. We looked at hospital pricing transparency, we passed it. Reigning in surprise out of network billing. So there's a lot of implementation work as well as setting up a program to safely import prescription drugs from Canada.

For the kindergarten is largely implemented at the school district level. Most districts offer for their kindergarten today, it's just that parents have to pay for it. So some districts already have free and they've been paying for it by diverting funds from other resources. But for many districts like JeffCo, most of the Adams districts, Denver, parents have to pay several hundred dollars a month for kindergarten. That will end this fall. I heard from a mother in Douglas County who had already made a $600 deposit. Of course, she got the deposit back and that'll form the basis of a college savings account for her kindergartner.

RW: You mentioned some of the health care measures, so for instance, importation of drugs from Canada, reinsurance, and I'll mention a third, which is a study of a public option in Colorado whether that's viable here. What's fascinating is that all three of those have to have federal approval. Essentially as things stand now, the Trump administration would have to say, Gov. Polis, we grant you the ability to do any of these. What's the long term strategy there? Do you hope the Trump administration signs off on these? Do you hope that a new administration comes in, a democratic administration that green lights some of this?

JP: So with regards to reinsurance which will drive down rates in the individual market by preventing the highest cost cases from driving up rates for the rest of us, more than nine states already have the waiver granted and we were in constant conversations with CMS and the Trump administration-

RW: CMS is the Center for Medicaid?

JP: Yes and they are the ones that also would have to grant that waiver request as they have in nine other states.

RW: Okay, so with reinsurance they seem to be on board?

JP: Well we certainly hope so. There's a number of other states that have done it. Unlike for instance, prescription drug importation where us and Florida are really the first states to proceed all the way through to a waiver request. Now Gov. DeSantis of Florida, who I got to know as a colleague of mine in Congress, had a conversation with President Trump in which President Trump assured him that the waiver would be granted to save people money on prescription drugs.

RW: Now the idea of a public option though is likely to be met less favorably by the Trump administration, wouldn't you say?

JP: A co-op Republic option would be for the year after next because the bill is more than a study. It gives the authority to set it up but you have to plan it over the next year and a half. So this process will lead to either a co-op, a non-profit, a public. Part of what the study will do is look at the governance and make sense as well as making sure that financially it makes sense for our state to really improve access to choices for consumers across Colorado and who they get their health care from.

RW: Do you think it depends on having a Democrat in the White House?

JP: When we're ready with our public option, we're happy to take it to any administration, Republican or Democratic to ask for the waiver we need to give Colorado consumers more choice on where they get their health insurance.

RW: Governor, we received a question about full day kindergarten through our Colorado Wonders Project. Folks ask us questions that they want answered about their state. Olivia Seng who lives near Fort Collins wants to know if it will result in a tax increase to pay for it in future years?

JP: No, of course not. The way that the state budget works is the only people that can ever increase taxes are the voters. This is funded out of the current budget. We made it a priority to say that the state should treat kindergarten just like First grade, just like Second grade, which Oklahoma does, Nebraska does most of our neighboring states do. It's really about time that we save families in the case of the questioner in Poudre school district but in many other school districts across the state, the $300 or $400 dollars a month it costs for kindergarten.

This legislative session was successful in cutting taxes in two key areas. One is we reduced the residential assessment rate. Now again, with people's home values have gone up and there's also a local tax but at least the state assessment rate has declined. The other one is a bigger one and that is a tax cut to 144,000 small businesses and retailers. It's called the vendor fee and what effectively it does it allows retail to retain four percent of the sales tax they collect rather than three point three percent.

RW: That's part of the picture. We should talk about the proposal the legislature sent to voters which deals with the Constitutional Amendment that has shaped the state's financial standing for decades. That's TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. TABOR requires voters to approve every tax increase and it caps state spending, sometimes refunding the excess money back to the people. In November, voters will be asked to lift that cap permanently so the state could keep any refunds and spend the money for education and transportation. I wonder if you'll campaign for that measure. Will that have your vocal support?

JP: Well, there's a very strong bipartisan coalition, myself included, that believe this is, it's simple good governance to when the state has a good year, to allow the state to invest without raising taxes that money, in keeping up with growth. It's not likely we're going to have much if any of a TABOR surplus this year, so it doesn't necessarily affect the budget. But when the economic times are good, there's more demand on our roads. One of the biggest issues I hear from voters is, we haven't kept up with the growth, meaning housing costs have gone up, the roads have gotten more clogged.

If you look at some of the root causes of that, it's been our inability to pass things, like for instance, 109 or 110, two different mechanisms that would have funded roads and infrastructures. Both failed. I was very proud of our state Legislature for stepping up and funding transportation to the tune of $300 million, even more than the $200 million that John Hickenlooper proposed. But to really make a dent, we will need to go to the voters with a plan that ends decades of underinvestment in our roads and infrastructure and really plans for not just where our state is today, but where we are in ten years, where we are in twenty years.

RW: And yet you said that that wouldn't necessarily go very far. Are you talking about a more fundamental re-engagement with TABOR?

JP: Well, again, I think when people want to invest in something, they want to know exactly where the money's going. That's why I think on the Internet sports gaming proposal, the money is going to be going to water projects around the state. And if there is any money around the TABOR cap piece, it would go to higher ed, to roads, and a K-12.

RW: This Legislative session by many accounts went off the rails. Lawmakers pulled all-nighters, worked weekends. Hearings were scheduled at the last minute, in one case touching off a protest from people who wanted to testify and didn't get to. The parties blame each other. Democrats say Republicans were obstructionists. Republicans say Democrats who controlled both chambers rammed controversial bills through just because they had the power to. This is Republican Senator John Cooke of Weld County, Assistant Minority Leader in the State Senate.

Senator John Cooke [TAPE]: I've described it several times as Sherman's March to the Sea. They got control, and they just destroyed everything in their path, and it's, we've got control now, who knows how long. We might lose it in another year, so let's get everything done this year.

RW: Did Democrats overreach?

JP: Well, what I think was really remarkable is in the aggregate, probably tens of thousands, if not thousands, of everyday Coloradans came and testified on bills and got heard, right?

RW: When they got the proper notice.

JP: Well, I mean, the fact that tens of thousands, people flocked here, and many of these committees were going till three or four in the morning listening to people. I know that many of the folks that came to testify had to wait, and they did so because they were passionate. And, I mean, there was ample citizen involvement. But on all the big priorities that we focused on, there was strong bipartisan successes, like talking about free full-day kindergarten, the health care bills, reinsurance led by Republicans and Democrats, hospital pricing transparency.

RW: And yet several of the big bills from this session are now under siege. The Rocky Mountain gun owners have sued to block the gun control measure known as The Red Flag Bill. Several lawmakers face possible recalls over that gun law and another new law that increases local control of oil and gas development. The recall effort that seems most advanced is against Representative Rochelle Galindo of Greeley. If that qualifies, will you campaign on her behalf?

JP: You know, Rochelle Galindo has really been a breath of fresh air in the capitol. She's done an amazing job. She's one of the original co-sponsors of full-day kindergarten, and much of her district, Greeley 6, had full-day kindergarten, so what that meant was they were taking money out of other grade levels to do that. There was a great article in The Greeley Tribune last month that showed that if full-day kindergarten passed, at that point it hadn't yet passed, it would mean a raise for all teachers in the district. So, I mean, Rochelle Galindo has a lot of those solid accomplishments to go back to her voters and say, "Look, teachers, you're underpaid, you work hard, we finally got you a raise by passing full-day kindergarten. People have a say and communities have a say over where and how oil and gas developments affect our quality of life and know that we're looking at putting people's health and safety first." So I think there's been a lot of great bipartisan work this session.

RW: It sounds like you're campaigning on her behalf now, actually, Gov. Polis.

JP: Well, you probably have some listeners in Greeley that are hearing about the great work of Rochelle Galindo protecting their health-

RW: Or hearing about the recall.

JP: Obviously people can challenge bills in court, so, I mean, that's a cherished part of our system, and they're entitled to do that. We also have part of our system where people can petition items to the ballot. And so, again, if there's sufficient interest, for instance, in holding an election around the electoral vote, and enough people sign it, it'll be on November's ballot. If there's not enough interest in doing that, then it won't be. So I support that system. I support the right of people to petition. I support the ability to challenge laws in courts. Those are all great things that really help make Colorado and America a nation of laws.

RW: But they don't tell you anything about what just happened under the dome here in the last session.

JP: Well, I think it's, I mean, many laws get challenged, Ryan, and again, I think what matters is how the courts rule. I mean, the Affordable Care Act got challenged, it withstood it, which included the expansion of Medicaid which brought the uninsured rate in Colorado from about 12 percent to about 6 percent so of course we fully expect that part of that process is that when laws are passed that do things, that they will be challenged by those who don't support them and they deserve their day in court like anybody else.

RW: And that some of those candidates deserve their day on the ballot in the sense of a recall.

JP: Well if enough people gather signatures. I mean it's very easy to file the paperwork to say that I want to recall so-and-so. What really matters at the end of the day is whether enough people sign that and then of course what happens as a result of the special election that ensues.

RW: One of the most contentious bills of the session split you from members of your own party. It aimed to increase the vaccination rate by making it harder to get non-medical exemptions. According to the latest report from the CDC, measles cases in the U.S. have hit a 25 year high, more than 700 cases reported and more than 500 of those were people who were not vaccinated. By the end of April there had been one measles case reported this year in Colorado. If there were multiple cases or a real outbreak, what would you tell people who argue that the answer is stricter exemptions?

JP: You know first of all this is just so ridiculous that in this day and age measles should be extinct. It should not be a public health issue but the failure of parents to inoculate their children has led to a resurgence in measles and other diseases that are completely addressable through immunization. So we, when I was first elected in January, we set it as one of our top three priorities of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to increase the immunization rate in Colorado.

RW: I suppose there are some who would say well it's ridiculous that Colorado has such easy exemptions, that's what ridiculous. What do you say to those folks?

JP: Well you have to win people's minds and hearts. Parents want to do what's in the best interest of their children and if they're getting bad information then we need to take it upon ourselves to make sure that parents have the very best information to make the decision that will protect the health of their kids. We're going to be focusing on some of the areas of our state, in western Colorado and other parts of the state that have some of the lower immunization rates to make sure that they have the information they need to make the right decision to immunize their children.

RW: Okay, so there'll be a regional component to this. But I have to say there are a number of people who don't vaccinate or don't fully vaccinate and who say I've got the information. That's why I made the choice I made. What do you do if education doesn't change minds?

JP: Well we have a lot of tools with parents and with kids to be able to do that.

RW: Give me an example of another.

JP: Well again, one that we would love to be able to deploy is requiring the consent of both parents to opt out rather than a single parent of an immunization process. Empowering students at a younger age as we do for when they seek for instance, HIV counseling or treatment. There's a special exemption law. Allow them to choose to immunize themselves at a younger age rather than have to wait until the age of majority. A lot of it is access, it's not all willful decision making. So some of it is mobile vaccination clinics that are able to go to some of the areas with the lowest immunization rates and make sure that the kids have access.

RW: All three of these are fronts you're moving on?

JP: We're moving on many fronts. Again, it's one of the top goals when I was first elected I said we want to increase the immunization rate in Colorado because it truly is a public health issue in our state.

RW: Does your health department have a plan to contain an outbreak of measles for instance, if it happens here?

JP: Well, we have various contingency plans for various diseases. So I did a dry run with our health department around Ebola. It could have been another communicable disease but the model that we used was Ebola. So we've looked at the protocol of the patient arriving at the airport, the chain of isolation all the way to the part of Denver Health which had volunteer doctors and nurses that had special outfits along with a containment ward that's set up for that specific purpose. So we do drills like that all the time. But I personally joined and observed a drill to kind of first of all thank the men and women who participated in it but also to elevate the importance of these kinds of public health drills in our state. Because it's not a matter of if, it's just a matter of when. I mean it could be, it might not be Ebola, it might not be measles. In fact, the fact that we're talking about those two means it could be something else.

I'll give you an example, we have an outbreak of Hepatitis A in El Paso County right now. So we're already taking steps predominantly among the homeless and the recently incarcerated population to try to deliver increased vaccinations and treatment in El Paso County.

RW: How much time and space do you make in your day to hear viewpoints that are different from your own? And I wonder where you turn for that.

JP: Well, during the legislative session, I met with nearly every member of the state legislature, Republican and Democrat. So we've had one on one meetings and really asking Republican and Democratic legislators, "What are your priorities?" We got through most of those members to hear about that. And of course, we worked on many of the big bipartisan bills with their members. I also visited over 40 cities across the state, just in my 115, 120 days in office, I'll be in Grand Junction again later this week. I was in Fort Morgan and Wiggins and Colorado Springs and Pueblo all in the last week.

So really getting out and making sure we hear what's on people's minds across the state is really an important part of doing this job well.

RW: That trip to Fort Morgan drew some headlines because the crowd was not necessarily friendly to you when you walked in the door. And I wonder how you deal with crowds that are less than welcoming.

JP: Well, I wouldn't say the crowd was very friendly. It's just wherever I have a public event now you're going to have 20 or 30 people that don't like me, that also show up in addition to the regular folks who live in the area. So probably what, I don't know, maybe 80 people there and there're probably about 20 from the group that doesn't like me.

RW: Are using they are interlopers?

JP: Well, no they're residents of Colorado, too. But what I would say to their credit is they were polite, and no one interrupted anything we said, and they asked their questions, and they got heard. At times there were boos and cheers, but not so much that it interrupted the discussion that we were having with the residents of Fort Morgan.

RW: I wonder if we might leave Colorado for a minute and talk about presidential politics. There are now 21 Democratic candidates, including two from Colorado. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, of course and more recently, Michael Bennett, the US Senator entering the race. Do you have a favorite yet among the 21? Are there a few that you're watching particularly closely?

JP: Well, at this point Ryan, there's some that I just know better than others, because I've worked with them. They tend to be those who served in Congress. I certainly know John Delaney, Beto O'Rourke, Tulsi Gabbard just because I worked with them. And of course, John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennett very well, and others I know in passing. What I wanted to make sure is that Colorado, got to have our voices heard in the nominating process and I was very proud to just have recently announce that we're scheduling our primary for Super Tuesday, March 3rd, so people will get their ballots two or three weeks before that. We'll be among those early states that matter. Under the existing statute, we could have gone a week or two later, but I wanted to make sure that the candidates are spending time here. If nothing else, they'll be taking out hotel rooms and buying food with their entourages and hopefully creating good jobs for Coloradans. But if one of them goes on to be president, we want to make sure they know about our concerns here in Colorado.

RW: It does not sound like you have narrowed your list or you're unwilling to say if you have.

JP: Well look I've been as you know, focused on saving people money on health care and free full day kindergarten and moving our economy forward in Colorado. I think it's terrific that there's so many candidates because it's really an audition for a very important job, President of the United States. And I think that the more that we get our candidates out there listening to people, talking about their ideas, sharing their vision for our future, the better our nation will be.

RW: Thank you for being with us.

JP: Thank you.