Gov. Jared Polis vowed at the beginning of the year to “use every single tool” at the state’s disposal to lift the economic burden on Coloradans amidst record-breaking inflation.
Viewed through the lens of his office and from the perspective of his allies, he delivered.
The governor’s critics, however, insist he fell short, pushing half measures that fail to match the enormity of the challenges Colorado faces. Some accuse Polis and Democrats of cynically dangling money to residents to buy their votes, arguing any fiscal relief they offer is temporary and primed to deploy just as the campaign season goes underway.
“We’ve worked successfully in partnership with Republicans and Democrats in the legislature so that hardworking Coloradans can hold on to more of their hard-earned money,” the governor declared in a statement that surveyed the work of the General Assembly this year. “We are saving Coloradans money on everyday items, providing free universal preschool, delivering major property tax relief for homeowners and businesses, making it free to start a business, sending immediate relief to people through more than $400 in tax rebates, reducing the cost of prescription drugs and increasing affordable housing opportunities.”
Polis had identified two broad goals when he delivered his State of the State speech in January – to save Coloradans money and keep them safe – and, aided with revenue from a rebounding economy and flush with federal cash, he and Democratic lawmakers, who control the legislature, earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars toward the two objectives.
Indeed, the overarching goals, while meant to confront pressing challenges, gave the governor his first real opportunity to push an ambitious agenda following the COVID-19 pandemic that put the state in a survival mode for the last two years.
With Polis’s assent, the Democratic majority adopted a $36.4 billion spending plan – the biggest so far in Colorado’s history – that funds (their version of the) state’s priorities in the upcoming fiscal year and includes major increases in several areas, notably health care and public safety. They passed a slew of measures that send hundreds of millions of dollars to residents. For example, Coloradans will get at least $400 – likely more – in Taxpayer Bill of Rights refund checks this summer, just months before they go to the polls. Property owners, a reliable voting bloc, will get $274 in average property tax refund based on a home value of $500,000, with more for higher-valued properties.
In addition, statehouse Democrats successfully pushed for a public safety package that offers millions in law enforcement grants and crime prevention. Notably, Polis is expected to sign a proposal that toughens the penalty for peddling fentanyl and offers significant spending for treatment programs. To allies, that Democrats managed to get the measure to the finish line, despite serious disagreements within their own caucus, proves that his party can govern.
“Any time a governor stands up during the State of the State and says, ‘This is what we’re going to do’ and then in May can say, ‘We did it,’ that means the session was a success,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jim Carpenter, who served as chief of staff to two governors and managed three successful U.S. Senate campaigns. “I think it’s especially important because for too much of his first term, he’s been playing defense because of COVID.”
In contrast, Polis went on the offense this year, said Carpenter, who noted that Polis succeeded in getting priority legislation through in the areas of childhood education, property tax relief, rebates, public safety, affordable housing, and air quality.
Craig Hughes, also a another leading Democratic consultant, noted that his party advanced several key promises made on the campaign trail, notably universal preschool.
“Early childhood education – that was one of his early campaign promises,” Hughes said, adding, “The governor had a very successful legislative session.”
Michael Fields, a veteran Republican strategist and president of the conservative-leaning Advance Colorado Institute, disputed the view that Polis delivered on his priorities to save Coloradans money and keep them safe.
“They failed at both,” Fields said, noting the state budget for the next fiscal year increased by at least $2 billion. “That’s money taken out of taxpayers’ pockets and put into the state government’s coffers. In regards to public safety, we are No. 1 in auto thefts and bank robberies and No. 2 in the rate of increase in fentanyl overdoses. We are at a 25-year high in violent crime and we have the 4th worst in recidivism rate in the country. Gov. Polis and the legislature didn’t do anything to reverse these troubling trends.”
He added: “What they did was pass half-measures for problems that needed full solutions.”
Echoing the call of the law enforcement community, Fields said Polis should have refused to sign the 2019 measure that made it a misdemeanor to possess up to 4 grams of any illicit substance in the first place, and the governor should have insisted on a bill that makes simple possession of any amount of fentanyl a felony. The battle over the contours of the state’s response to fentanyl became the biggest fight of the session.
“He signed a bill to temporarily slow the growth of property taxes by $700 million but neglected to mention that our property taxes are still going to go up over $2.3 billion over the next two years. He should have pushed for a permanent cap on the increase of property taxes,” Fields said. “And he signed a bill to delay the gas tax increase until after the election. He should have supported a permanent repeal of that increase.”
Fields speculated that, if reelected in November, Polis and Democrats plan to “go right back to their taxing and spending ways. …Polis certainly knows how to read polling, but one-party control and several years of bad policies are catching up with our state.”
Carpenter took the opposite view, describing the actions of the governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature as “thoughtful and balanced.”
“Relief measures have to be temporary because of TABOR restrictions,” he said. “It’s a good thing to do when there’s revenue available and a responsible thing to protect the revenue source long term.”
“We need those dollars for transportation, and the legislature was right to add those fees, and it’s fine to provide some immediate relief. All of that can be true. Many Republicans simply don’t want to fund anything, putting them way out of step with most Coloradans, which is partly why they are in the shape they are in politically,” Carpenter added, referring to, among others, postponing the gas fee increases to put more money in people’s pockets as gas prices soar.
Hughes said that Polis and the Democrats offered concrete fiscal relief to Coloradans at a time when they need it most.
“Those are real things that matter,” he said. “The reality is, people will feel the relief.”
As for the argument that Polis and legislative Democrats embraced half measures in confronting the fentanyl crisis, Hughes disagreed, maintaining that legislators passed legislation that accomplishes a lot, both by offering tools to law enforcement and in helping Coloradans struggling with addiction.
“If you are a Democrat running for election, you can say you took on the problem, passed tougher penalties and did harm reduction,” Hughes said.