GREELEY – Water, transportation, energy and Colorado’s public-employee pension system were among the topics discussed by candidates for four statewide races during a Friday forum.
The forum was hosted by Pro15, an advocacy group (formerly known as Progressive 15), on public policy and other issues for 15 northeastern Colorado counties. It was one of the final debates of the 2018 election season for the candidates for governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.
There were only light fireworks between the two candidates for governor, Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton of Denver. Stapleton, the Colorado state treasurer, hit first with attacks on Polis over his renewable energy policy, and on whether Polis supports a major water project in northern Colorado and how he would pay for some of his ideas.
Polis, Boulder’s congressman, avoided attacking back, instead focusing on issues such as how broadband will help rural communities diversify economically, as well as how his renewable energy plan will benefit farmers and ranchers and provide jobs for their children and grandchildren. It will “complement the cyclical nature” of oil and gas pricing, he said.
Stapleton criticized Polis for not supporting more water storage, such as through the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which seeks to build two new reservoirs in northern Colorado.
Stapleton also pledged to pay for the $100 million needed by the state water plan through the estimated budget surplus that could come from the federal tax plan passed by Congress last December. “We will be able to fund the water plan for many years to come” from that surplus, he said.
Polis replied that he fully supports the water plan, which includes a call for more storage, and that he has worked to bring people “around the table” to work on NISP.
The candidates differed on one of the two transportation measures on the November ballot. Proposition 109 would pay for $3 billion in bonding for road and bridge projects through existing state revenues.
Stapleton supports the measure, billed as “Fix Our Damn Roads,” because it would sidestep new taxes. He said there are several different potential revenue sources for transportation and other infrastructure projects, including money from the federal tax plan, revenue from taxing sports gambling if Colorado legalizes it, and changes to how the state handles medical marijuana, which he called a broken regulatory system.
The Republican also said the state Department of Transportation lacks accountability and transparency, and that the agency’s spending should be subject to the same approval process as other state agencies.
Polis said he opposes 109, arguing it would put the state $3 billion in debt and make it harder to fund the state water plan. It also, he said, would put the state in debt that will be harder to repay when the next economic downturn happens, which he called “fiscally irresponsible.”
Neither candidate supports Proposition 110, also known as “Let’s Go, Colorado,” which seeks a sales tax hike that would pay for $6 billion in transportation projects, although Polis has said he favors the concept of a dedicated revenue source for transportation.
Stapleton also told the audience that a 100 percent renewable energy mandate that he said was proposed by Polis isn’t possible. “We don’t have the capacity to get from 65 percent to 100 percent,” he said, because the wind doesn’t blow nor does the sun shine all the time. “Hardworking Coloradans will end up paying more for utility bills, to heat homes and that takes away economic opportunity,” he said.
Polis said his renewable energy plan would not create a mandate. The goal, he said, would mean “good green jobs that can never be outsourced” to other countries, energy independence and sustainable low energy rates. He pointed to a recent visit with Xcel Energy, in which he was told that new wind energy production costs 20 percent less than coal.
To the oil and gas and coal industry, Polis said the challenge will be how to find ways to find jobs for those workers.
“I value the skills of oil and gas and coal workers,” Polis said. “As we build out the new energy economy, we need to match good paying jobs with those who have those skills.”
The candidates mostly agreed about the negative impact of trade tariffs imposed by the Trump administration that have hurt Colorado’s agriculture industry, particularly wheat, corn and pork exports.
Stapleton pledged to stand up “to misguided farm policies” without naming Trump by name. “We should be willing to take on a president of any party who engages in trade wars and unilateral imposition of tariffs,” said Polis.
The forum also hosted the candidates for attorney general and state treasurer, and incumbent Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
The treasurer candidates, Democrat Dave Young and Republican Brian Watson, sparred over their approaches to the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA, the state-worker pension plan, as well as management of the Great Colorado Payback program, which has come under fire in recent months for lagging responses to Coloradans who attempt to claim their property.
Watson attacked Young for voting against Senate Bill 200, the PERA reform measure passed on the last day of the 2018 legislative session. Young maintained he didn’t have all the financials he needed to support the measure, but said Friday he now supports the plan. He pointed out that as a member of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, he voted for a $225 million boost to PERA in the 2018-19 budget.
In response to a question on what they’d do in their first 90 days, Watson said he would meet with the PERA board and with the treasurer’s staff. “I know exactly what’s going on,” said Young, given his six years of experience on the JBC that included working with the treasurer’s staff. “I don’t need to sit down on day one to figure that out ... I already know what’s working and what isn’t.”
In the debate between the attorney general candidates Republican George Brauchler and Democrat Phil Weiser, Brauchler rolled out his standard attack on Weiser’s lack of criminal prosecution experience. Weiser, however, responded that only a small sliver of the attorney general’s job is in criminal prosecution. It’s “your responsibility to offer professional legal advice,” Weiser said, adding that’s something the current attorney general has withheld because of her political differences with Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Brauchler said he wants to break the attorney general’s office out of an “1860 model” and set up satellite offices around the state. “Rural jurisdictions deserve better,” he said. Such a model would allow the office to better tackle issues like black market marijuana and the state’s opioid criss, he explained.
Weiser said he would go a step further, by allowing the staff to telecommute or work within partner agencies.
Both candidates also addressed their views on Roe v. Wade as a matter of law. Brauchler said as a federal law it is “the law of the land. It sets up the standard for which all other laws get measured” on a woman’s right to choose, he added.
Weiser pointed out the time will come – likely at the U.S. Supreme Court – when Colorado will be asked if it stands with Roe v. Wade or against it. Colorado will have to weigh in, he said, and the state will need an attorney general who will defend a woman’s right to choose.
Williams had the podium to himself during the candidates’ forum. According to Pro15 executive director Cathy Shull, his opponent, Democrat Jena Griswold, had committed to the event last summer but three weeks ago pulled out, citing a prior commitment.
Williams touted his office’s successes in election security and pointed out that his opponent hasn’t always voted, most recently in the 2014 elections.