DENVER – Last year was one of the most challenging years of people’s lives in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis acknowledged in his State of the State speech Wednesday, but he praised the resilience of its people and said he hoped 2021 would be a year of “bold, transformational change” if the state government can “seize the opportunity.”
Polis began his 2021 State of the State speech by discussing the casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic – not only the people lost to the disease, but also those thousands of Coloradans who have lost their jobs over the past year, and who faced housing and food struggles. But 2020 brought many more battles, the governor said.
“As if the pandemic and resulting global recession was not enough, we have weathered record-breaking wildfires that destroyed homes and claimed lives. We’ve witnessed brutality inflicted on Black Americans and grappled with how to address systemic discrimination against communities of color. And we watched in shock and horror as the foundation of our democracy itself came under attack by a violent mob intent on overturning the results of a free and fair election,” Polis said.
Polis said he expected to face crises while he was in office, but not to the extent of what 2020 brought.
“We’ve faced the unimaginable this year. And the state of our state, above all, is a reflection of our strength and our resilience,” he said.
Among the guests at this year’s speech, which was far more restricted because of the pandemic, were nurses, doctors and other frontline health care workers – all of whom the governor praised as “heroes” for their work. Reps. Joe Neguse and Jason Crow, who were both Democratic impeachment managers in former President Donald Trump’s two separate trials, both received rounds of applause when they were acknowledged inside of the House chambers.
And he acknowledged the other pandemic heroes – frontline grocery, agriculture and supply chain workers, those who work in restaurants and retail, the Colorado National Guard and U.S. Census workers – who have borne the brunt of risk and infection from the novel coronavirus.
He held a moment of silence for the more than 5,600 Coloradans who have died of the virus thus far: “May their memory be a blessing.”
The state’s immediate goals will be to continue to work to eliminate COVID-19 through ongoing vaccinations and public health efforts, Polis said, and reiterated one of the analogies he has often used over the past 11 months.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still some months away from reaching it,” Polis said. “We have to keep doing everything we can to save lives, to preserve our health care capacity, and to sustain and grow the economy.”
And while Polis acknowledged the loss and pain felt over the past year, he also focused on what the state could do to “build a future,” as he said repeatedly, and work to rebuild an economy and society that has forever been changed by what has occurred over the past year.
Polis reiterated some of his priorities for this year’s budget and some of the “shovel-ready” initiatives at the legislature that he hopes Democrats and Republicans can come together on this session, as they did during December’s special session.
Among the initiatives Polis said he hoped lawmakers could pass this year include a reduction in vehicle registration fees, rural broadband expansion, eliminating the business personal property tax for small businesses, doubling the Earned Income Tax Credit and a halt to taxing people’s Social Security benefits. But he was scant on specifics for many of the initiatives he talked about.
He also acknowledged the struggles parents – especially women – have faced in trying to help educate their children from home while also working themselves and said it would be key to support economic opportunities for women who have overwhelmingly lost more jobs than men during the pandemic.
The governor said that the legislature would again focus on criminal justice inequities this year after passing Senate Bill 217 last year with a bill to hire more school counselors, among others. He also said he hoped to sign a bill to give veterans benefits to veterans who were dismissed from the military and another one that has been proposed to protect the personal data of undocumented immigrants in Colorado.
Health care costs will also be another priority of the governor’s and lawmakers this year, Polis said, as the state works to try to continue to lower costs, considers a public option bill and works to bolster telehealth and rural health care operations.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, who was in attendance, drew praise from the governor for his work on last year’s historic wildfires, as did Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Gibbs, who also worked as a wildland firefighter on the Grizzly Creek and Cameron Peak fires.
But he said that wildfires and climate change will continue to be a top concern this year and in those ahead, and said that addressing the latter would be “an essential part of protecting Colorado’s iconic public lands,” as well as the health and economy of the state.
Polis ended his speech much in the way he began – by refocusing on the pressure the state now faces after a difficult year.
“No more Band-Aids over gaping wounds. We in this chamber have the power to make bold, transformational change that ensure our state lives up to its highest potential,” he said.
“This past year, we’ve been bruised, battered and shaken to our core, but nevertheless, the state of Colorado remains strong,” Polis added. “This terrible virus isn’t done with us yet, but we are working hard to end this pandemic. Coming out of this traumatic year, we are poised for bold, transformational change. If we seize the opportunity here in this chamber, we can finally live up to our fullest potential to truly create a Colorado for all.”
The speech itself was relatively short; the address only lasted around 45 minutes — about 10 minutes shorter than last year’s and 13 minutes shorter than 2019’s speech.
Afterward, the governor sat down with Denver7 for a one-on-one interview and talked about his priorities for the year.
He spoke about a one time $1 billion infusion of money he would like to see invested in roads and other projects that could stimulate the economy. That money is coming from better than expected tax revenue from the state.
“There’s so many really great opportunities to really put our mark on making the quality of life even better in Colorado and creating jobs with a shovel ready infrastructure projects today so good jobs today benefit for generations to come, and I think that that is the unique opportunity we have in coming months,” Polis said.
The exact economic projection isn’t expected until March, however, Polis said he’d like to see the money used to help with one-time projects that don’t require ongoing financial commitments.
“We have to be much more careful around those ongoing commitments, and, frankly, the state can’t afford to make more of those at a time that we know we’re headed for tough budgets in future years,” Polis said.
While Republicans in the House and Senate say they support the governor’s calls for cuts to social security and the business personal property tax, they have different ideas for how they would like to see the additional budget money used.
“I am reluctant to allocate those state tax dollars to new spending. We think we should restore the cuts that we had to affect last spring,” Sen. Chris Holbert said.
He’s pushing for the state to be cautious about committing itself to funding different projects until lawmakers know exactly how the budget is doing and how much money will be coming from the federal government in a new round of stimulus spending.
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, meanwhile, criticized the speech for not painting a clear enough picture of how the state can recover.
“I think the lack of specific shows that his focus has been COVID,” McKean said. “I think what it really says is there’s a much larger conversation to have about what Colorado recovery looks like.”
He also doubts that everything the governor laid out can realistically get done this year, and he worried about new fees Democrats are proposing to pay for some of their priorities.
Democrats, meanwhile, applauded the speech, saying it highlighted the fact that the governor’s priorities this session line up with the House and Senate leadership’s. There have been times over the past two sessions where that was not necessarily the case.
“I think it puts a little more pressure on us — that’s a good thing. These are the big priorities that we need to get done,” Speaker of the House Alec Garnett said.
Still, Garnett said the legislature will be taking things one day at a time, and things may have to pivot based on the economic forecast.
He agreed with the governor that while Colorado is experiencing hardship, he believes the state is on the road to recovery.
“I do think that because of the strength of the people, the State of the State is strong, and we can get there," Garnett said. "But obviously, this has been a very, very tough year."