Gov. Jared Polis will give his third State of the State speech today, remarks intended to bolster efforts on pandemic relief, reduce health care costs, provide a way forward on transportation funding, and begin to set the scene for 2022, when he will run for his second term.
The 11 a.m. speech before a joint session of the Colorado General Assembly will also include a handful of guests intended to signify some of his priorities for the 2021 session and beyond.
Polis’ first two speeches focused on his top priority: reducing the cost of healthcare, which resulted in a federally-approved reinsurance program, allowing the importation of prescription drugs from Canada and adding a host of services to the mandated list for healthcare insurance providers.
Changes to education — the biggest being his support for taxpayer-paid full-day kindergarten — has also been on the governor’s wish list, as have proposals on climate change, backed by the Boulder-based leadership of the House and Senate.
Polis also advocated in his first two addresses for a reduction in the state sales tax, though he did not support Republican legislative proposals to do so. Outside groups took up that fight, putting a ballot measure into last November’s general election that resulted in a reduction from 4.63% to 4.5%.
Polis has managed to move most of his agenda along thanks to Democratic control of the House and Senate that grew slightly after the 2020 election. And for the most part, Democratic lawmakers have marched in near lock-step on those priorities — but not always.
There have been only a few points of disagreement between the first floor (the governor’s office) and the second floor (the General Assembly chambers): Front Range passenger rail (a non-starter in the legislature); paid family leave (he wanted a public-private partnership and lawmakers wanted a state-run program); the controversial public option plan; alternative treatment for opioid addiction, a bill he vetoed last year; and unnecessary occupational therapy licensing.
But 2021 is already a different environment.
In his speech Wednesday, Polis is expected to continue the focus on education, especially seeking support to restore at least some of the $600 million cut from K-12 education in the 2020-21 budget. He’s also expected to talk about continued efforts to reduce health care costs, although how he views the latest work on the public option proposal, to be sponsored by Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail and Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, is a question mark.
In the last 12 months, the power dynamics appear to have shifted rather dramatically as Colorado and its elected officials have had to deal with a once-in-a-century pandemic that has sickened more than 400,000 Coloradans and killed 5,500.
The pandemic also resulted in a three-week lockdown of all but essential businesses, restrictions on capacity for small businesses that have seen many shutter their doors.
Because the General Assembly is limited to 120 days out of each year, and COVID-19 has been a 24/7, 365-day event, Polis has taken action on his own, without legislative oversight, to push testing, administer vaccines, promote business recovery, find personal protective equipment and spend of billions of CARES Act federal dollars designed to deal with the pandemic.
Since his first executive order on COVID-19 on March 11, 2020, Polis has issued more than 350 executive orders, averaging nearly one a day for a year, and most dealing with the state’s response to the pandemic.
Those orders started with the disaster emergency declaration on March 11, ordering Coloradans to mask up in public, putting capacity restrictions on small businesses, directing the spending of state emergency funds, and loosening certain regulations for state and local governments.
Lawmakers have pushed back on Polis’ use of executive orders with Republicans seeking legislation both during the special session in November and in the session that resumed Tuesday to limit their use. Democrats, including those on the Joint Budget Committee, have raised questions about the spending of CARES Act funds.
Polis has spoken little about his use of executive orders or the pushback from lawmakers. In an interview last month with Aspen Public Radio/KUNC, he said that "it’s a good, thoughtful discussion in a democracy,” a response to attempts from Republicans to limit his power. “I mean, if you’re going to go that route, you need to have a full-time legislature. There’s no question our legislature is a part-time legislature. Many folks don’t know that they have other jobs.”
What you aren't likely to see in Wednesday's address: disruption by protesters. Last year, 38 anti-fracking protesters were arrested for disrupting the governor's address, including unfurling a banner from the House gallery. Charges, including trespassing, were later dismissed.
The gallery, on the third floor of the state Capitol, is off-limits this year to accommodate Senate members who want to watch the address and do so in a socially distanced manner.
On Tuesday, lawmakers returned to the state Capitol after a monthlong break, intended to allow for vaccinations and a hoped-for decline in COVID-19 cases statewide. The first day back featured the opening day's speeches delayed from January, and introduction of about 200 bills.
In his opening day remarks, Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, D-Denver, called for unity and for bipartisan collaboration on COVID-19 relief to Coloradans.
"This may be the most consequential year for this General Assembly in recent memory," Garnett said. "But as I look out onto this body and at each of you here today, I’m confident that we’re the right bunch to get it done."
Minority Leader Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, spoke about trust, but reminded Democrats that Republicans' perspective is important, too.
"What becomes important, especially since we lack many of those shared struggles, is the absolute need to have that other voice in the room," McKean said.
In the Senate, President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, decried the toxic political environment of the past year, stating that it is up to lawmakers to dismantle that system.
“This selfish allegiance to political expediency, though newly inflated, has been around for generations, creating a system that props up the wealthy and penalizes the poor, an economy that siphons hard work by the many to create power for the few,” Garcia said. He outlined as priorities healthcare, protecting the environment and social justice.
Minority Leader Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, asked his colleagues to be patient on stimulus spending, asking that they wait until Congress finalizes its next coronavirus relief package before allocating funds.
“I've heard the phrase, ‘Don't count your chickens until they're hatched,’” Holbert said. “Let's make sure we even have eggs.”
The General Assembly has 116 days left out of its 120-day calendar.