There has been so much tragedy in Colorado lately that Gov. Jared Polis opened his 2022 State of the State address with a moment of silence for victims of three separate circumstances: COVID-19, violence and natural disaster.
“While this pandemic has made even the most mundane activities more risky, we haven’t endured the virus alone,” the Democrat told lawmakers and guests inside the House chamber of the State Capitol. “Evil acts against innocent people in the places we once ran errands or recreated have also made us feel less safe. We’ve feared the ever-changing nature of the virus, wondering if what protected us yesterday will protect us today. We learned unfortunately that the words ‘fire season’ don’t apply when the most destructive fire in Colorado history happens on December 30th.”
But he tried to look optimistically to the future, highlighting stories of local heroes and largely steering clear of controversy or partisan cheerleading.
He thanked Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle for leadership through and after the Marshall Fire that ravaged Superior and Louisville. He thanked police officers in Lakewood and Boulder who responded to mass shooters. He thanked health care workers and said, “Politicians talk about improving lives. You actually save lives.”
And, facing re-election in November, Polis made a point — as usual — to highlight his friendliness to Republicans. He thanked many GOP lawmakers out by name and even thanked his 2018 election opponent Walker Stapleton, whom Polis recently appointed to the state Economic Development Commission.”
“This isn’t my Colorado or your Colorado. This is our Colorado,” Polis said.
He generally avoided sounding especially liberal in the speech, which did not include, for example, the words “gun,” “abortion,” “union,” or “voting.”
“I think he correctly understands that the national mood is against the party in power, to which he belongs, and that his safe bet is to talk about the things that we all agree on, at least in principle,” said state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, following the speech.
Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver said he was glad to see Polis focus on things that matter to a broad swath of the public, like affordability and educational attainment.
“It’s not a surprise that he didn’t touch on everything,” Garnett said. He added that “of course” Democrats will pursue legislation on things Polis didn’t talk about.
Polis said that Coloradans “desperate for relief” need both sides to help out now. And he detailed several proposals along those lines.
He wants to reduce unemployment premiums and paid family leave premiums for businesses, and proposes waiving fees to open a new small business. He wants to reduce the cost of renewing a driver’s license. He’s excited that Coloradans are slated to receive tax refunds in this and the next several years because the state economy is in such relatively good health. Overall, Polis seeks about $100 million in fee relief in next year’s budget — a plan that will need the legislature’s sign-off when the 2022-23 budget is finalized in the spring.
“My administration will work with both parties to continue cutting taxes and fees wherever we can, but never at the expense of teachers and law enforcement.”
Republicans in the House chamber applauded this sentiment but did not stand when Polis mentioned new laws he signed in 2021 to cut some tax breaks for wealthy people and corporations. They did, however, applaud for cutting business filing fees and others.
The entire chamber stood when Polis shouted out a young boy who had been in a mental health crisis.
“We want to partner with local governments and school districts to multiply the impact of historic funding to create a responsible, effective approach to addressing behavioral health needs from the mountains to the plains,” Polis said. “Getting there means offering more integrated physical and mental health services, bolstering our often overworked behavioral health workforce, and most importantly, getting Colorado children the support they need to be happy – to just be kids.”
He identified violent crime as a crisis, too, and emphasized the need to prevent crime before it occurs, rather than simply punish it.
Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, said Polis’ priorities for 2022 match up with what he’s hearing from his constituents and the efforts he plans to pursue this year related to public safety.
“I think we can take a really smart approach at both preventing crime and reacting to crime that’s happening out there,” Roberts said. “We know fentanyl and dangerous drugs are our problem in our state and that’s something that this legislature absolutely needs to take a look at.”
Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who championed much of the criminal justice legislation last year, said every community deserves to feel safe and the key will be prevention, well-trained police and mental health responders.
But Republican House Minority Leader Hugh McKean referred to some of Polis’ speech as bordering “on farce” and filled with “empty promises” because Democrats have been in charge of the state for years and have not implemented these kinds of policies.
McKean said Republicans have been pushing for a reduction in fees and taxes for years, but they want to support measures to make those cuts permanent.
“We’ve got to be able to do a better job. … we can save families and businesses, hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, but we can’t just do it for this little tiny point in time,” he said.
As Polis spoke, advocates for climate change rallied outside the Capitol, and they could be heard from inside the House. The environmental community has criticized Polis often — not for denying climate change, but for moving with insufficient urgency to address it. He tends to favor incentives over mandates to shift the energy economy and reduce emissions.
“We will continue making targeted investments to improve air quality monitoring and enforcement, increase the availability of clean transportation options like electric school buses, accelerate our transition to a cleaner economy, and apply real accountability as we seek and secure environmental justice for those who are most impacted,” Polis vowed.
Outside the building, advocates called for the governor to end “backroom deals” that come at the expense of the state’s environment. They called for public officials and private citizens to do what they can to protect the state’s air and water as well as to protect lower-income communities from emissions, water contamination and more.
“Polis: I trusted you with our Colorado. Now it’s on fire and dripping oil,” one rallygoer’s sign read.
On this and other topics, Polis says he’s not worried about the future.
He said as he concluded his roughly 40-minute speech, “The state of our state, just like the people of Colorado, is strong, it is steadfast, and in spite of everything, we are boldly moving forward.”
Reporter Conrad Swanson contributed to this report.
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