By Marianne Goodland
State Capitol Correspondent
Gov. Jared Polis, in a 70-minute State of the State address January 17, outlined his priorities for the upcoming legislative session and what he wants Colorado to look like when he finishes his second term in 2026.
The item that got the governor’s longest remarks: affordable housing. While the legislature invested hundreds of millions of dollars in housing loans and grants in 2022, money that came from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act; and voters approved a ballot measure last November that will add $300 million to housing initiatives, the governor and Democratic lawmakers have been exploring regulatory changes to make those housing options available sooner.
Polis alluded to those changes, noting he wants to see the legislature address government barriers, expand private property rights, and reduce regulations to actually construct more housing options at a lower cost.
“…we need more flexible zoning to allow more housing, streamlined regulations
that cut through red tape, expedited approval processes for projects like modular housing,
sustainable development, and more building in transit-oriented communities,” Polis said.
The governor also asked the General Assembly to come up with long-term property tax relief, with those taxes expected to soar in 2023. Lawmakers pledged $700 million for short-term relief in 2023 and 2024, and Polis has asked for another $200 million. But more is needed, he said: the state needs a “long-term mechanism to protect homeowners from being priced out of their homes, while protecting school funding.”
He also called for reductions in the state income tax, a non-starter with most Democrats in the legislature.
Polis next turned to water, and his only mention of agriculture in the speech. “Farmers and ranchers across the state fear that Colorado won’t have the water resources to sustain the next generation of agricultural jobs.” The state must continue to invest in water projects, although storage was not mentioned. He pledged to continue fighting for Colorado water rights, stating “We are gearing up, and bringing in the expertise we need to defend what is ours.”
Climate change, a Polis priority during his first term, will continue as a priority into his second. He said the “only long-term solution is to continue pursuing low-cost, reliable, renewable energy. We simply must end our reliance on costly fossil fuels, improve energy security, and save people money,” touting electric vehicle and e-bike tax credits, and increasing access to electric vehicles and transit options.
Polis took aim at healthcare costs, which have also been a major part of his agenda in the first term, during the speech. “We have worked with the healthcare industry in good faith to lower costs, but not all of them have held up their end of the bargain,” he claimed.
Health insurers continue to profit while administrative costs, unrelated to patient care, continue soaring, and he claimed large hospital systems are making record profits, paying zero taxes, and sitting on enormous reserves while overcharging customers. Meanwhile, they are consolidating providers, which drives up costs and leaves fewer options for Coloradans.
“It’s time that we hold them accountable.”
That earned a speedy retort from the state hospital association, which said that more than half of Colorado hospitals operated at unsustainable margins in 2022. The attacks on non-profit hospitals, which don’t pay taxes, ignore the investments those hospitals have made in their communities, such as behavioral and maternal health and other priorities, which totaled $1.6 billion in 2020 alone, CHA added.
Polis pointed out that January 17 marked the first day parents could start enrolling their preschool-aged children in the state’s preschool program, funded by a 2020 ballot measure that would cover up to 15 hours of preschool per week.
Finally, the governor addressed the rising crime problem, pledging to put more resources into hiring and retaining law enforcement officers and crime prevention strategies. Included in that is also an expected bill to strengthen the state’s red flag law, allowing district attorneys and counselors to seek those protection orders when local law enforcement or families can’t or won’t seek to remove guns from those who are a danger to themselves or to others.
There was plenty left out of the speech: the governor didn’t address a bill expected to surface this session that would ban assault weapons. Polis is believed to be opposed to that measure.
But what stuck in the craw of rural lawmakers was his speech’s lack of attention to agriculture.
“Not all Coloradans were adequately represented in the governor’s speech,” said a statement from four members of the Colorado House, all Republicans and which included Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron.
The governor “noticeably and curiously glossed over the second-largest economic industry in the state,” one that feeds millions of Coloradans and others across the country, provides employment and generates $47 billion in revenue annually, the statement said.
A statement from Colorado’s two Eastern Plains senators, Byron Pelton of Sterling and Rod Pelton of Cheyenne Wells, echoed those concerns. The two senators, who are cousins, said they were dismayed by the governor’s lack of attention to agriculture. Given that the speech is planned and reviewed by many members of the governor’s staff, “we can only assume this was no accident, but a direct insult made at the rural communities of Colorado.”
Rural communities are left behind in areas such as healthcare and broadband, while being targeted with higher diesel fees and regulations on produce like eggs and energy, the two said.
“Coloradans show near unanimous support for agriculture, according to a recent poll from the state Department of Agriculture, so it was disappointing that the governor ignored the ag sector and its contributions in his comments.
It’s not the first time Polis has left ag out of his state of the state address. In fact, he’s only mentioned agriculture in relation to water in the last two annual addresses to the General Assembly.
In 2020, Polis talked about investments in rural economic development, rural hospitals, rural broadband and support for the next generation of farmers and ranchers. In his first speech, in 2019, he gave his lengthiest comments about agriculture, called for “doubling down on
supporting Colorado’s rich farming and ranching tradition” and making sure farmers and ranchers have the tools to succeed. That included support for young farmers just getting into the business and growing wages for farmworkers.
On Thursday, January 26, the Senate Business Labor & Technology Committee will review Senate Bill 26, which would create the rural opportunity office in the office of economic development and international trade. The office already exists but is being codified in statute. Its goals are to act as a central coordinator of rural economic development matters and determine whether rural communities are getting their fair share of funding for those efforts.
Finally, on Friday, January 20, the Junior Livestock Auction at the National Western Stock Show helped 14 Colorado kids with their future, whether for college scholarships or business.
The Grand Champion steer, exhibited by 18-year-old Justin Pfannebecker of LaSalle, marked the first time since 1997 that a grand champion steer came from Colorado. The auction price of $200,000 set a record.
So did the auction price for the reserve champion hog, shown by 16-year-old Karsyn Fetzer of Kersey.
State lawmakers also bid on livestock shown by Colorado teens. Holtorf, representing the Yuma County Cattle Feeders, bid $35,000 for a steer shown by Nash Richardson of Yuma.
The lawmakers’ group bid $35,000 for a hog shown by Landon Charles of Flagler, a collaboration with Future Farmers of America. But they waited until the 95th and last animal of the auction – a steer shown by Jack King of Cope – to take their second animal. The bid of $38,000 brought together the lawmakers, FFA and Occidental Petroleum.