DENVER (AP) — Gov. Jared Polis sought to rally a state besieged by a year of natural disasters, a mass shooting, and the coronavirus pandemic Thursday, declaring in his annual state of the state address that Colorado will meet those challenges and others compounded by the increasing cost of living and spreading concerns about crime.
The Democratic governor told lawmakers his administration is seeking to make record investments in K-12 education — a longtime Polis priority — tackle climate change, curb the costs of doing business and bolster the health care system to address mental health challenges and the strain on health care workers and systems posed by the pandemic.
On crime, Polis advocated investment in police recruitment and retention and hailed police and other first responders after a year that saw a Boulder supermarket mass shooting, the killing of an Arvada police officer trying to avoid another mass incident, and a recent rampage by a gunman who killed several people in Denver and Lakewood.
Polis pledged to make it free to start a small business in Colorado, expedite health and long-term care professional licensing, and continue longstanding efforts to limit the costs of and increase access to health care. He also pledged a record investment in the state’s chronically underfunded public schools.
“If it isn’t clear, saving Coloradans money and keeping our state affordable is my top priority during this legislative session,” he said. “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.”
While Republicans gave Polis a standing ovation for promising not to cut fees “at the expense” of law enforcement, House Minority leader Hugh McKean said he had moments of disconnect during the speech because of Democrats’ shifting policy on crime and policing.
“If you want me to trust that we’re actually gonna do something to increase public safety in the state, I need to see a consistency of that message and we haven’t seen that,” McKean said. “The last few years we’ve seen the evisceration of policing in the state.”
Polis began his address by calling for a moment of silence for those who lost their lives to the coronavirus, to violence such as the supermarket shooting, and to disasters such as the December Boulder County wildfire.
“While this pandemic has made even the most mundane activities risky, we have not endured the virus alone,” the governor said. “Evil acts against innocent people in the places we once ran errands or recreated have also made us feel less safe. … We learned unfortunately that the words ‘fire season’ don’t apply when the most destructive fire in Colorado history happens at the end of December.”
Polis outlined earlier this week an agenda designed to ease the pain inflicted on residents by inflation that has reached 6.5% in the state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. He also called for investment in community policing, police officer recruitment and retention, affordable housing, and mental health to address root causes of crime.
Majority Democrats in Colorado’s Legislature have introduced bills to address those issues. Republicans have seized on two issues key to the upcoming midterm elections — inflation and crime — and introduced legislation to eliminate sales taxes on food, lower the income tax rate, recruit and retain law enforcement officers and limit opportunities for repeat criminal offenders to be released on bond.
Republicans have criticized Polis’ decision to delay a gas tax from a transportation funding bill he signed just months ago as a political ploy during an election year. In a news conference after his speech, Polis doubled down on his decision and added that the transportation bill still saves money by reducing vehicle registration fees.
“Yes, the fee we pay on gas over time needs to keep up with inflation. But what we’re saying here today is simply now is not the time when families are struggling with $3.80 a gallon costs, rents gone up, groceries cost more,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod said she agreed with Polis’ increased focus on better training police officers and praised efforts to invest in mental health resources to assist law enforcement.
Herod is the daughter of a police officer and was the sponsor of sweeping law enforcement accountability legislation signed into law in 2020 that allows for officers to be sued for misconduct, outlaws chokehold, and establishes requirements for police body cameras.
“If the 90′s have taught us anything, it is that overincarceration, the exploding prison population, those didn’t help anyone,” she said. “But we have solutions that will.”
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.