The governor didn’t talk about other ideas lawmakers have raised, including a proposal by some Democrats to ban what they describe as assault weapons, including some semi-automatic rifles and pistols, and some shotguns. People who currently own those types of guns could keep them.
In an interview with Colorado Matters, Polis first declined to talk about the specifics of the proposal. Pressed, he said assault weapons are already heavily regulated and it’s more important to focus on getting guns out of the hands of people who pose an immediate threat. Gun legislation is just one of many topics senior host Ryan Warner discussed in a one-on-one interview with the governor at the state capitol Tuesday.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Ryan Warner: Governor, thanks for being with us again.
Gov. Jared Polis: Always a pleasure. Ryan.
Warner: You made affordable housing a huge emphasis in your state of the state speech. By rough count, the word housing came up 37 times. At one point you said we should, quoting here, “legalize more housing options now.” Specifically, what housing options should be legalized that aren’t now available?
Polis: This is something that has really touched almost every Coloradan and that’s because the cost of a home in Colorado is a lot more than it used to be. We can look around the corner, and I even brought this up by name. I mean, you see states like California, they have cities with average home prices above a million dollars, 16-lane highways, bumper-to-bumper traffic. We cannot let Colorado become California, and we can really make sure that we have more housing close to where jobs are and along transit corridors. And that means more opportunities for people to live, multi-family apartments on transit corridors near bus and rail, and empowering homeowners to be part of the solution. That includes things like accessory dwelling units.
Warner: Accessory dwelling units would be like allowing someone to build on their property extra room.
Polis: That’s right. It would be kind of a detached unit many homeowners would use it to rent. You could potentially subdivide as well. But what it is, is it’s more housing now. We need more housing in our state. Supply and demand dictates pricing. Demand is high. That’s a great thing. People want to live in Colorado, but supply has not kept up with demand and it’s made homes unaffordable and unattainable for many Coloradans well into their twenties, thirties, forties, and we’ve got to do more to have more low-cost homes for both sale and rent close to where jobs are for convenience and for livability and for sustainability.
Warner: So are you saying now that there are places in this state where accessory dwelling units, for instance, or any of the other housing options you’ve talked about, where that’s outright illegal? And would the states say to a municipality, “You’ve got to make that legal or else?”
Polis: Well, it’s about all of the above, Ryan. I mean, you show me a strategy that’ll lead to more housing along transit corridors and close to where jobs are and we’re for it. What the alternative is, and what’s happening in our state is exurban sprawl. If people have to go further and further out to be able to even put a roof over their head, more traffic on our roads, worse air quality, more time lost in commute, 45 minutes, 50 minutes each way, less livability. So for people, for planet and prosperity, we need housing reform. We need land use reform. The last time the state looked at this was in 1974. We were a very different state in 1974 than we are today and we need to make sure that we prepare Colorado’s next 150 years to be even more amazing than our last 150 years as we near our 150th birthday.
Warner: You singled out communities you think are doing well when it comes to affordable housing, among them Breckenridge and Greeley. Get specific with me about what kind of stick you have, I guess, versus carrot, if there’s a municipality that is resistant to this kind of development.
Polis: So the reason we highlighted the work between Breckenridge and Summit County is they were able to get a project done, modular housing, lower cost, less than six months of planning. What happens in many parts of our state is needed-housing is mired in red tape and costly delays for years. Sometimes it never even happens. Sometimes the investors move on. Sometimes the market changes.
Warner: And so one of the examples you’ve cited there in a way, pushes fast forward on this. How soon do you think you can start to make a dent in supply if you change these kinds of rules?
Polis: Very soon? I mean, it’s amazing. We talked about Fading West, which makes manufactured housing. They are now able to complete a home in their factory in 12 days. This would take nine months, a year, if it was onsite construction. It’d be even more difficult if it was in, you know, Eagle or Summit or Grand County where it can be, you know, negative five degrees and you have to halt construction for a week in winter. So the promise of innovation, the promise of new technology, pairing this with land use, sustainability and water policy is going to be a key part of making sure Colorado continues to thrive and that we continue to remain Colorado.
Warner: In the State of the State speech, you mentioned using state lands for housing. Is that a role the government should take on or does it ultimately interfere with the private market?
Polis: We own some land. The state of Colorado certainly owns some, the federal government owns even more in our state. But we want to aggressively look at where we have land that can be better used for housing rather than sitting empty or a parking lot. And not just the state; I’ve very specifically called on school districts, RTD, cities, counties, to all look through their land inventory and if they have the ability to contribute and be part of reducing housing costs and being the solution, they should.
And again, we’re putting our money where our mouth is as a state and we’re saying this is what we’re doing. We highlighted the Dow Junction property in Eagle County, where we were moving forward with 80 units for affordable workforce housing, close to where needed jobs are with a workforce that’s under great duress. And we’re able to utilize this property from the state landlord at Colorado Department of Transportation.
Warner: So if there’s someone who wants to build, like an accessory dwelling unit, I think a lot of us might know this as a mother-in-law suite, and their town says, “Nope, you can’t do that. Our local zoning laws don’t allow for it.” Do we then picture Governor Polis stepping in and saying, “You’ve got to do this.”
Polis: It’s not about the state or local government telling you what you can and can’t do. It’s about what your rights as a property owner are. And property owners have rights. And of course, those rights should be extended if they want to be part of the housing solution and provide additional housing for rent or subject to subdivision for sale on their single family lot.
Warner: And so you think that idea of what I do with my property, especially if I’m contributing to affordable housing, that should speak louder in a way than some local zoning rules?
Polis: I think that property owners need more rights and more ability to be part of the housing solution and that very well means, you know, duplexes, triplexes. It means the ability to say, look, “I live in a single family zone. I value that. We want to protect the character of our community, and I want to be part of the solution on housing rather than part of the problem on housing.” And that should be something that’s up to homeowners. And I know that many homeowners across our state will really rise to the task where they’re currently prevented from being part of the solution and will become part of the solution.
Warner: I want to talk about the state’s free universal preschool program. Enrollment begins this week, and a key question is staffing those preschools with childcare professionals. You’ve made recruitment a top priority. You’re offering incentives to open new childcare centers. There’s training for workers, even tax credits for those who hire on. But, as you noted in a Yoda voice in your State of the State speech, it’s a tight labor market. Child care jobs are relatively low-paid. So is the answer to this long-term commitment to universal preschool, is the answer one-time incentives or is it a more sustainable raising of salaries across the board? Where does the money come from?
Polis: First, everybody who is the parent or guardian of a three-year-old, who will be flour next year, can go to upk.colorado.gov to sign up your kid for preschool and it’s free.
Warner: I tried this this morning and I entered my zip code and it came up with options near me.
Polis: Yes, exactly, and the parent can choose between many options, and it can even be one that’s near your work as opposed to near where you live. Maybe you want to drop off your kid close to work. So all those options are available. School districts, community providers, and it’s basically a half-day program for preschool academically appropriate.
Many parents want a full day; that still costs them out-of-pocket money, although there are some full-day availability for low-income, but half day free for everybody, preparing kids for academic success. We included in our workforce, we’re building on our success in improving the health care workforce. Remember, so many people in health care burned out during the pandemic and had to work triple shifts and retired early, etc. We made it free to become a nurse assistant, a phlebotomist, an EMT. It increased enrollment and it increased the number of folks pursuing those programs. We’re expanding that to fields like construction, law enforcement, but notable here, early childhood.
So a professional, early childhood certificate will be free if our proposal passes in Colorado to help with the workforce. And I would also add that the preschool funding, which voters passed overwhelmingly in Prop EE which we supported, will also help compensate early childhood and preschool teachers better, to be able to successfully recruit and retain the very best people to prepare our kids for success.
Warner: And that was tobacco tax money, if I recall. Speaking of paying for things, I spoke right after your speech with Republican House Minority leader Mike Lynch, who represents Northern Colorado. And he’s concerned that spending is getting out of control. That you want to raise per pupil funding for K through 12 schools for instance. You announced a $120 million clean energy tax credit package.
State Rep. Mike Lynch: “We’re moving down some green initiatives and we’re using transportation dollars for that before we fix the roads in this state. Until we’ve made some sort of transition where people actually want to be dependent on public transit, our roads are a mess. And I’m really worried the money will be diverted away from good roads for those people that can’t afford the electric cars, or the bus just doesn’t work for them.”
Speak to the concerns that roads may suffer, particularly in rural Colorado, and his general concern that there will be too much spending.
Polis: So our clean energy tax credit program, including support to reduce the cost of electric vehicles, to reduce the cost of e-bikes, to position Colorado for success for geothermal and hydrogen and carbon sequestration, doesn’t take one dime from the road funding. It’s a tax credit program. Thanks to the work of the legislature with House Bill 260 two years ago, we really updated the way we fund roads and bridges in Colorado, leading to $5 billion of additional investment over the next 10 years, paired with the American Infrastructure Act, which is sending billions of dollars to our state under the same period.
So fundamentally, road projects are happening and we’re moving forward with improving the quality of our roads and bridges and access to various parts of our state with the funding we have from state and federal sources. And we’re not in any way, shape or form playing any of the renewable energy tax credits against any of the important work to improve our roads.
Warner: And the notion that there are a lot of commitments you’re making fiscally at a time of uncertainty?
Polis: Well, you know, every year the governor’s charged with delivering a balanced budget. We not only delivered a balanced budget, but we did so with record reserve levels to prepare for a rainy day.
Warner: It is clear that guns will be a big issue this session. Let’s talk about a couple of proposals you didn’t mention in your State of the State, but that lawmakers have said they plan to introduce. One group of Democrats is working on a bill to ban firearms that fall under the umbrella of assault weapons. That would include some types of semi-automatic rifles and some types of 50 caliber rifles, semi-automatic pistols, some shotguns. People who already own these guns could keep them under the proposal. Would you support such a bill?
Polis: You know, Ryan, this is the one speech and the one week where I get to lay out my agenda. There are a hundred legislators and absolutely they each have their own agendas and there’s going to be 500 bills, and I haven’t seen any bills on the topic you’re talking about, but obviously we’ll look forward to looking at hundreds of bills as they come through the process. But this week what I laid out are the two most substantial, important steps that I feel we can take on gun safety to help make Colorado one of the 10 safest states.
Number one, we joined the call of Mayor Suthers, Mayor Coffin and Mayor Hancock, bipartisan mayors representing our three largest cities, to take action on ghost guns. These are unregistered, no serial number. They can be acquired by felons, sort of snap together in your garage with mail order parts. We have no current system to make them harder to attain in Colorado, nor any way of preventing criminals from acquiring them.
Number two, we talked about the Extreme Risk Protection Order, also called the Red Flag law. This is a way when somebody’s having a mental health crisis, that you can temporarily remove custody of their firearms. They could be returned to them after their mental health crisis has ended.