Republican Candidate Walker Stapleton On What He’d Do As Governor

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Photo: Walker Stapleton
Republican candidate for governor Walker Stapleton at the CPR studios Monday, May 21, 2018.

Republican governor candidate Walker Stapleton said Colorado needs a dedicated source of revenue for improving the state's transportation infrastructure. He suggests a possible solution, one that he said wouldn't mean leaving other areas of need in a lurch.

And it's as close as the nearest professional sporting event.

"One of the things that I've talked about that is going to happen, and it's going to happen in the next legislative session is that ... sports gambling is coming to Colorado," Stapleton told Colorado Matters. "The Supreme Court has said that this is okay across the country. There are big companies like Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters that want to have sports gambling."

"And I think we can effectively, the ways it's worked in other states is a tag on a 10 percent or 15 percent tax on the revenues of sports gambling, and dedicate it to infrastructure improvements. I am advocating for that," he added.

Stapleton, who is running against Democrat Jared Polis, weighed in on a number of topics in a wide-ranging interview. That included his being endorsed by former U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo. At an event last month, Tancredo, considered by some to be a far-right figure, told attendees that Stapleton would do for Colorado what President Donald Trump is doing for the nation.

Stapleton demurred when asked if Tancredo's statement was correct.

"I have no idea, but I've said many times that just because an individual makes a decision to endorse me does not under any circumstances mean that I endorse all their views or opinions on things," he said. "I would say that that's Tom's opinion and I'm going to let Tom have Tom's opinion and I'm focused on running to be governor against Jared Polis."

Stapleton said that he would support the president and the federal government when its policies were beneficial to Colorado—adding the new federal tax plan was an example of that.

The two-term state treasurer said he opposes a ballot amendment to provide more money for schools because it's a tax increase that doesn't guarantee help will be provided to those who need it the most—teachers and students.

"Money that doesn't get earmarked when it hits the school district level, may end up not in the classroom where it belongs," Stapleton said, expressing concern that administrative bloat could eat into the revenue.

During his time as treasurer, Stapleton worked to address the $32 million deficit in PERA, the state's public pension fund. However, during an interview with Colorado Matters before the Republican primary, he admitted he wasn't present in May when the Legislature voted on a deal to address the shortfall.

"I think I was asleep by the time they finally passed the deal, which was 30 minutes prior to midnight," he said at the time.

The comment was heavily criticized by Democrats. In the latest interview, however, Stapleton said the statement "was my poor attempt at humor."

"I've made a lot of jokes about if it's raining and our transportation problems, it makes sense to stay in bed. I've had poor attempts at humor that my wife has reminded me many times," he said. "I was an announced candidate for governor and I found it hard to deal with this issue as the Treasurer of Colorado when I haven't been an announced candidate for anything."

"And the truth of the matter is, from a practical standpoint, when you're an announced candidate for governor, you're going to politicize a process and this process was too important to politicize," Stapleton said.

Read and listen to the Colorado Matters interview with Stapleton's Democratic opponent, Rep. Jared Polis, here.

Full Transcript

Ryan Walker:  Walker Stapleton, welcome back to the program

Walker Stapleton:  Thank you for having me Ryan.

RW:  I want to note there's been only one Republican governor elected in the last 45 years in this state, you're running in a state that supported Hilary Clinton in 2016. At a recent event, former Congressman Tom Tancredo introduced you as a candidate who will do for Colorado what Trump has done for the United States. Is Tom Tancredo right?

WS:  I have no idea, but I've said many times that just because an individual makes a decision to endorse me does not under any circumstances mean that I endorse all their views or opinions on things, and I'm trying to have as big a tent approach in this race for governor as I've had in two prior statewide races for treasurer. I'm proud of the fact that over two terms as treasurer, I have consistently worked and collaborated with Democrats on some big economic policy legislation for Colorado like debt consolidation, which totally changed the way we issue debt amongst all of our state agencies except higher ed and the department of transportation. And my record of forming the first ever Land Trust Investment Board with Senator Mike Johnston, who I consider a friend. So I think I have a demonstrated track record of working on consequential economic policies for Coloradans with Democrats the entire time I've been in office.

RW:  Now, you say you have no idea when I asked the question is Tom Tancredo right about whether you're a candidate who will do for Colorado what Trump has done for the United States.

WS:  Well I would say that that's Tom's opinion and I'm going to let Tom have Tom's opinion and I'm focused on running to be governor against Jared Polis.

RW:  Do you like what Trump has done with the country and do you want to bring that to Colorado?

WS:  I've said many times during the course of this long adventurous campaign that I will support the federal government and the president when I think his policies are beneficial to Colorado such as tax policies that more than 70% of Coloradans have benefited from. If you make $60,000, your federal tax bill has gone from $1700 to $100, I think that's consequential. I will stand up against policies that I think are misguided and make life harder for Coloradans. I think that's what ultimately Coloradans want is to elect a leader that will agree with the federal government and work on policies that benefit Colorado and stand up against policies that don't. It's why back in the primary I said I was concerned about the administration's J1 visa program for South American students, many of whom come to work in our ski resorts and work the lifts and why I've been concerned for some time about the tariff policies ever before the policies were announced, or the subsidies.

RW:  What are you seeing as the effects of these tariffs on Colorado right now?

WS:  You're seeing huge fluctuations in the prices of wheat and corn. We export more than a billion dollars of meat. I think an escalating trade war with China over meat exports, about, we have about $650 million of meat exports that go directly to China is something that really hurts our agriculture community and I think we need to have an end game and end strategy in place when we engage in these trade negotiations. Otherwise, it just brings economic harm, and I think farmers are willing to have short term pain for long term gain, but if you don't have an end strategy, I think it's misguided.

RW:  So it sounds like you're not seeing an end strategy at this point.

WS:  No.

RW:  CPR reporters have traveled this state for the last couple of months talking to people about what's on their minds as we head into the election. One of the folks we ran into is Rusha Lev of Golden, she's worried about growth.

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 the lowest joblessness rate.

RW:  Walker Stapleton, is Colorado growing too fast?

WS:  No, I think that one of the great things about Colorado that has been the case has been people love moving here, and a lot of people have moved here from the coast, from New York and the east coast to California and the west coast because we have abundant natural resources and incredible quality of life. I want people to continue to feel like they want to move and be psyched to live in the state of Colorado. The only way that we do that-

RW:  So you would like to see more folks here?

WS:  Yeah, the only way we do that, the caveat on that, Ryan, is that we need to manage our growth better and the only way we manage our growth better is by finding a long term solution to our crumbling infrastructure and finding attainable housing. I use the term attainable versus affordable because what may be affordable for somebody in the metro area on a certain salary may not be attainable for somebody in Western Colorado or down in Pueblo, and those are the two priorities that I will first address as governor, fixing our crumbling infrastructure over the long term and making housing more attainable for young people that are moving here.

RW:  Let's unpack that to roads. You oppose the sales tax measure on the ballot this year, backed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. You support a bonding proposal called Fix Our Damn Roads. Is there something above and beyond that ballot measure you think is the right way to address what you call crumbling infrastructure.

WS:  Yes, absolutely. And the reason I don't support the sales tax measure that the Chamber of Commerce is pushing is that only 40 cents on the dollar will actually be spent on roads and bridges. And this is, you've touched on something that is a difference between myself and Congressman Polis. Congressman Polis talks a lot about multimodal transportation, public transit and mountain biking and road biking lanes. And I think that our infrastructure problems -

RW:  Road, biking ...

WS:  -are so acute that the precious money that we have to dedicate to this should be dedicated entirely to roads and bridges until we solve our problems.

RW:  Let's pause here. It's true that Stapleton's Democratic opponent supports alternative forms of transportation. But Jared Polis is not a fan of the sales tax we just talked about. He told us he doesn't personally support it, but would implement it if it passes. Polis says he doesn't think it's the right way to raise money for infrastructure.  Okay, back to Walker Stapleton.

WS:  But yes, absolutely we need to do more than fix our dang roads. I think we need dedicated sources of revenue in the general fund that can and should go to infrastructure improvements over the long term. 

RW:  What gets cut, what suffers as a result of that?

WS:  Nothing. New sources of revenue. One of the things that I've talked about that is going to happen, and it's going to happen in the next legislative session is that, whether Ryan Warner or Walker Stapleton want it, sports gambling is coming to Colorado. The Supreme Court has said that this is okay across the country. There are big companies like Buffalo Wild Wings and Hooters that want to have sports gambling. And I think we can effectively, the ways it's worked in other states is a tag on a 10% or 15% tax on the revenues of sports gambling, and dedicate it to infrastructure improvements. I am advocating for that.

RW:  Could you do that with the legislature's help, simply say that money will go here?

WS:  Absolutely.

RW:  All right.

WS:  And there'll be legal challenges like there always are about whether it's a tax or a fee. But that is an example of a dedicated source of revenue.

RW:  And whether they would have to then be a vote under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Okay then to the idea of attainable housing, what role can a governor play in that?

WS:  A couple different roles. I think state government can be a valuable catalyst for creating more housing. We have a supply and demand problem. As somebody who has a background in economics, it's a simple supply and demand problem. But we haven't done a good job of fixing it. First of all, I think we need meaningful construction defects reform that we have not had, and that includes the right to cure for a builder over a 90 or 120 day period.

RW:  If what they build is not satisfactory to their people living in there.

WS:  So that they don't have to [crosstalk]. That's right. And if you're building, Ryan, a 300 unit condo development, chances are you're going to find a wire that's misplaced in a bathroom. The developer should be able to cure that over a 90 or 120 day period without the threat of litigation. And that has stifled the development. If you look at what's happening in Denver, for instance, last year we had about half the residential condo permits pulled than we had 10 years ago, even though the population has gone up by more than a million people. That's number one. Number two is, I think a governor can work with CHAFA on a tax credit process, which is antiquated.

RW:  It's the Colorado Housing and Finance Association.

WS:  Yes, sorry. Colorado Housing and Finance on the tax credit program, which is somewhat antiquated, which is very badly backlogged. So if the developers willing to put a portion of his or her development towards affordable housing, they can have as fast and effective an approval process as possible.

RW:  Very briefly, what evidence do you have that construction defects reform will actually unleash the condo market?

WS:  The evidence that I have is that if we have meaningfully fixed it, I think that we would have more supply on market.

RW:  But that's not evidence. That's what you think.

WS:  I think that that is anecdotal evidence of a problem not being fixed. I think that a lot of condo developers are not developing because of the threat and fear of lawsuits, and a lot of the legislation has unfortunately been watered down by different interests. Home builders versus condo builders. And I think it's absolutely the case that we would have more condos being built if we remove the threat of litigation.

RW:  On the subject of growth, Denver's a finalist for Amazon's second headquarters, which would bring an estimated 50,000 workers to the area. Do you want Amazon here? Yes or no?

WS:  I'd like to have them here.

RW:  You would?

WS:  Yes.

RW:  Okay. What concerns would you have about their coming?

WS:  The concerns are do we have the infrastructure capabilities, and workforce housing, that would make us competitive? I think that there's deep and large questions around whether I can answer yes to that question. But in a perfect world, would I like them here? Absolutely. They're high paying jobs. They stimulate our economic growth. They're a catalyst to economic growth. I'm not for us giving Amazon handouts, but I'm for them getting the exact same tax credits that businesses that are of a smaller or medium size nature would receive.

RW:  Let's talk about healthcare, and another issue that came up on our road trip, Walker Stapleton. This is from Gail Knapp, whose family farms cantaloupe in Rocky Ford. She was at the family farm stand when we met 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 laid out a plan for healthcare. What in it would be the most help to Gail Knapp?

WS:  This is one of the reasons why I was an early supporter of the president's tax plan, because it repealed the individual mandate for health insurance last year in Colorado.

RW:  That's the requirement to have a plan.

WS:  That's the requirement of an individual to have health insurance. Last year in Colorado, more than 130,000 Coloradans were forced to pay a tax because they couldn't afford health insurance. Out of that population of Coloradans, 80% have a household income of $50,000 or less. Phantom tax. Nothing in return. I think the best way that we can fix this system, we have a moral obligation I believe, Ryan, to make sure that Medicaid is extended to all the people that it's been extended to because half of the Medicaid population are kids. As the father of a ten-year old, seven-year old, and four-year old, we have to make sure that we're providing coverage for the most vulnerable among us, which are our children. The only way we do it is working with companies like Optum, who can now do 90% of the services an emergency room can do at 10% of the cost, or InnovAge, which has innovated how we deal with seniors that are on Medicare. What we don't do is make false promises of a government run system like Congressman Polis has done, which would bankrupt Colorado's economy and send thousands upon thousands of jobs fleeing our state. It's why two years ago I was co-chair, as you might know, of the bipartisan effort to defeat a government run healthcare plan with Bill Ritter, the former Democratic governor.

RW:  Stop tape. Democrat Jared Polis has called for a Medicare for all system, but he thinks it would be a boon to business. Quoting from his plan, "by taking the burden of administering employee healthcare off the shoulders of employers, businesses can focus more on their core products and services.” All right, back to Walker Stapleton. You talk about the end of the individual mandate. There are some who would say that in the end is going to make healthcare more expensive because young, healthy people have no incentive to be in the pool to lower costs for everyone. What do you say to that?

WS:  I disagree. I think the way that we add more incentives is to have more insurance companies competing for business. We need to get back to, I've got a number of millennials who work on our campaign and they tell me that their frustration with the healthcare system is they can't find a healthcare plan that matches up with their health needs and they want to get back to a catastrophic health insurance plan with a higher deductible for people that are generally healthy. The only way that that happens is more companies competing in the marketplace. Companies have left the Exchange, our health Exchange in droves since we started the exchange because there's been no incentive for companies to stay in the exchange except bad press with premiums going up. People that join Colorado's health Exchange today get very limited choices of carriers, and the way that you actually increase choices for healthcare consumers is having more companies competing in the marketplace. The way you do that is transparency in billing, whether it be emergency room billing, which my running mate Lang Sias was a sponsor of in the last legislative session. It should be extended all across our healthcare system.

RW:  Then to Medicaid, you said you think those currently on Medicaid ought to be able to stay on Medicaid. Is that what I'm hearing?

WS:  That's correct. That's a scare tactic that's been used against me repeatedly. We have a moral obligation. If you talk to Jena Hausmann, the CEO of Children's Hospital, she will say that she believes, and I agree with her wholeheartedly, we have a moral obligation to make Medicaid work because of the fact that half the Medicaid population are kids.

RW:  You have said though, in your latest healthcare plan, that while it's necessary to defend the social safety net, we must rein in costs.

WS:  Absolutely.

RW:  Let's focus on rein in costs. How do you do that then, without shrinking the Medicaid rolls? Let me just get this clear from you. Is there a person on Medicaid today who you don't think should be?

WS:  I don't know specifically the population. I would take an approach towards reining in costs by I think we need to do a review of HCPF and how HCPF has dealt with Medicaid expansion. There's been some double billing.

RW:  Let me just say what HCPF is. You can't just throw out HCPF and let it stand. HCPF is Health Care Policy and Financing. This is a state agency.

WS:  Right. That is the primary state agency. We have a number of state agencies that are all in a tangled web involved in Medicaid expansion, which equals bureaucratic turf wars, but I would say HCPF is the largest entity that's responsible for the expansion of Medicaid. I think we need to look at how that process is unfolded through audits. Not to blame anybody, but there have been problems with double billing. There have been unequal reimbursement payments. There have been people that have taken advantage of the system in order to enrich their corporate interests because when you know you have the government as the backstop payer, you may not act in the best interest of the patients, so reviewing how HCPF has managed Medicaid expansion in Colorado is incredibly important to reining in costs and transparency in billing is incredibly important.

RW:  One more time, Walker Stapleton, is Medicaid the right size in terms of the number of patients that are on it in Colorado?

WS:  I don't think that that's the right question to ask. The right question to ask is how to we improve access, how do we make it affordable and how do we create a system that doesn't bankrupt the state of Colorado at the same time and not-

RW:  I deem it the right question to ask and I'd like you to answer it.

WS:  Is Medicaid, Medicaid is the system we've got and we have a moral obligation to make it sustainable for Colorado's future. And I will do so as governor.

RW:  To education, you've been quoted as saying that you're adamantly opposed to the tax increase, concentrated mostly on the wealthy, to pay for schools.

WS:  Right. A tax increase, by the way, that my opponent, even though he's running for governor, won't take a position on, which is very mis-defined to me how Congressman Polis could not take a position on Amendment 73, which is one of the biggest ballot amendments that voters will have a chance to deal with.

RW:  Let's pause again. Stapleton's characterization isn't quite right. Democrat Jared Polis told us that he's uncomfortable with 73 because it's a state constitutional amendment, which Polis thinks limits government's flexibility. As for why Walker Stapleton is plainly against it.

WS:  I oppose it because it is a progressive income tax that won't fix K through 12 education. When I was the leader of the effort to defeat Amendment 66, which was the largest proposed tax increase for K through 12 education ...

RW:  This, too, was a statewide tax increase.

WS:  Yes. Statewide tax increase a couple years ago. I debated my good friend, Mike Johnston.

RW:  He also ran for governor on the democratic side this year.

WS:  Yes. And I love the context you provide. I opposed that because the money wasn't going to get into the classrooms and this money from Amendment 73 reminds me of 66 a couple years ago because the money isn't properly earmarked. The only money that is earmarked goes to children that are special learners with disabilities and that, I am in favor of, but money that doesn't get earmarked when it hits the school district level, may end up not in the classroom where it belongs.

RW:  Why haven't you released your tax returns?

WS:  Well, I've been totally transparent with my taxes. Much more transparent than Congressman Polis has been.

RW:  How can you say that if you haven't released any of your returns?

WS:  Because when I became the Treasurer of Colorado, I set up a blind trust. I was involved in taking a public company private at the time. I put my assets in the blind trust and the whole spirit of a blind trust is to avoid conflicts of interest with other financial institutions that I dealt with as the Treasurer. I actually talked to Governor Hickenlooper.

RW:  What does this have to do with your tax returns?

WS:  Because a blind trust, the tax returns are not subject to being released and so, it violates the whole spirit of a blind trust if the tax returns from a blind trust are released.

RW:  There's nothing in a blind trust that says you can't release your taxes, is there?

WS:  Yeah. Absolutely because if you release the taxes, then the trust doesn't become blind anymore.

RW:  And you say that you've been more transparent than Jared Polis ...

WS:  By far.

RW:  … but he's released seven years of his tax returns. That was when he ran for Congress.

WS:  That's right, but he hasn't released any of his tax returns during the decade that he's been in Congress.

RW:  Throughout this campaign, you have cast yourself as a champion of righting the ship when it comes to PERA, the public pension fund. It was facing a $32 billion deficit, law makers sought to address that gap in the last session with a late-night vote. Here's what you told us during the primary.

WS:  I wanted to try and get the best deal possible and until the last minute possible. I was not physically even at the legislature. I think I was asleep by the time they finally passed the deal, which was 30 minutes prior to midnight. And that was my poor attempt at humor.

RW:  It didn't sound like you were joking.

WS:  I was awake. I was in touch with the people that were involved in the bill, but I didn't want to politicize-

RW:  Why did you tell us you were asleep?

WS:  Because I've made a lot of jokes about if it's raining and our transportation problems, it makes sense to stay in bed. I've had poor attempts at humor that my wife has reminded me many times. And so-

RW:  But, you say, "I was not physically even at the legislature."

WS:  That's absolutely true.

RW:  But, how is the champion of PERA reform not at the legislature?

WS:  Because I was an announced candidate for governor and I found it hard to deal with this issue as the Treasurer of Colorado when I haven't been an announced candidate for anything. And the truth of the matter is, from a practical standpoint, when you're an announced candidate for governor, you're going to politicize a process and this process was too important to politicize.

RW:  During the primary, you spend over a million dollars of your own money on the campaign. Most people would probably think that's a whole lot of money, and yet there are some in the Republican Party, who cast Jared Polis, your Democrat opponent, who has spent $18 million of his own money on his campaign, as the out of touch millionaire. Is that a bit of a disingenuous claim to make?

WS:  Not at all. He's spent 20 times what I have spent on this race, so you're comparing a mountain to a molehill in terms of personal resources. Jared has spent-

RW:  Let me just say this-

WS:  Jared has spent more money-

RW:  Minus Jared Polis, you're not poor, Walker Stapleton.

WS:  No, I'm-

RW:  I just wonder if it's a disingenuous claim to make.

WS:  I'm successful. I am proud to be a successful businessman and will be after my adventures in elected office and public service, and I don't disparage anybody who's successful. But I think it's important to understand the underlying facts here, and the underlying facts are Jared has spent more personal resources, more than $20 million, than has been spent by Republicans and Democrats combined in the history of prior Colorado Governors' races.

RW:  No. That doesn't mean money isn't pouring into this race from the outside. Recently it was reported that Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers, will be investing in your campaign perhaps to the tune of as much as a million dollars. While it sounds like that money might be welcome when you look at what your opponent is spending, I wonder what kind of influence comes with a sizeable contribution like that.

WS:  Probably the same kind of influence that comes from Good Jobs Colorado which is being backed by checks from George Soros, a wealthy international financier, and Tom Steyer, a billionaire from San Francisco.

RW:  Okay. So, let's talk about it. Have you had conversations with the Koch brothers about what they might want with that money?

WS:  No. None, zero.

RW:  You've not sat down with either of the Kochs on this campaign?

WS:  I have not, I have not. And I don't think they could pick me out of a lineup.

RW:  Really?

WS:  No.

RW:  They're going to spend a million dollars on a campaign, you don't think they recognize the candidate?

WS:  I am not part of their process and I have never sat down, I don't think I've ever had a conversation with either of them.

RW:  These next questions are going to sound a bit like a job interview. Which this is, I suppose, the ultimate form of one. What is your greatest leadership strength and what's your greatest weakness?

WS:  My greatest leadership strengths, I think, is having run a publicly traded real estate company. I never remember asking somebody if they were a Democrat or Republican, only-

RW:  But that would be a weird thing for an employer to do.

WS:  Yeah, that would be, that would be. But the fact of the matter is that's how people make a lot of decisions in public policy and I think it's a bad way to go about things. I'm a data-driven person, I deal a lot with numbers, and I'm proud of the fact that I've dealt with numbers and look forward to dealing with numbers a lot as governor because I think numbers are hard to politicize and they illuminate truth in our system.

RW:  And your ... You did not jump in with your weakness.

WS:  With my weakness, oh and my weakness.

RW:  Yeah.

WS:  Well, I would say that the weakness is that I wish in dealing with the pension system, it had not become as politicized as it has been. We had no ability to do it-

RW:  But this doesn't sound like a weakness.

WS:  I say it's a-

RW:  That's more like a fact, that something got politicized.

WS:  Well, I say it's a weakness because it relates to how I, to my style at the time and how I chose to perhaps go about something in a way that could have been maybe less bombastic and maybe more empathetic to the people that I was talking about, which are our public workers.

RW:  We are making room for the personal in this conversation, not just the political. I understand you have a great love of jazz. You travel to New Orleans, I understand, for the jazz scene there and you've supported groups that help musicians stay sober when they're on the road.

WS:  Yes. I've been really involved and passionate about music. I've gone to see music with both Governor Hickenlooper and Mayor Hancock, in New Orleans in fact, and right here in Denver at Dazzle Jazz, which is by far my favorite jazz club in Denver, a little plug for Dazzle Jazz. And-

RW:  I wonder what the folks at Jazz at Jack's are going to think about that.

WS:  And I was, sorry about that. But I was involved in efforts right after Katrina to help rebuild public school music programs, and have been involved in a lot of non-profits down there. And it's a huge passion of mine. I've been to Jazz Fest nearly 20 times over the years.  And I have my basement, which is where all my artifacts are relegated to now that I'm a married father of three young kids, I have a lot of music memorabilia, including a prized autograph from Joe Henderson, one of the most amazing tenor sax players. I've got all sorts of different stuff. I went to see Miles Davis as a kid, and Dizzy Gillespie with my jazz band. I played a Stradivarius trumpet, that I still have, that's a silver trumpet that's in my luggage closet. So, I love music.

RW:  Why don't we end on a jazz song? What would you pick?

WS:  I would pick Shade of Jade by Joe Henderson.

RW:  Walker Stapleton, thanks for being with us.

WS:  Thank you so much, Ryan. I appreciate you.