Dem governors

(Left to right) Govs. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jared Polis of Colorado and Kate Brown of Oregon keep it light while discussing their states’ policy achievements and challenges. 

There was a bit of friendly competition and mutual respect among the three panelist governors that spoke Friday afternoon at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium.

The Democratic Governors Panel — comprised of Govs. Jared Polis of Colorado, Kate Brown of Oregon and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico — was part of the Hurst Lecture Series, which “enables the Institute to take advantage of opportunities to present renowned and inspiring leaders for public audiences in Aspen,” according to its website.

“That’s a hard act to follow,” was a regular transition from one speaker to the next when answering moderator Kitty Boone, also the vice president of public programs and executive director of the Aspen Ideas Festival, on questions focused primarily on education, health care and their states’ economies.

The conversation started with Polis discussing a recent policy win: statewide full-day kindergarten.

“Where Colorado was before is, kids were able to go to kindergarten for half-day; you had to pick them around 11:30 or noon — unless their parents could pay $300 or $400 or $500 a month for full-day kindergarten,” he said. “So you had a learning gap and an achievement gap based on economic lines, and too often racial lines, before you even entered first grade. Kindergarten is every bit as important as first grade, second grade and third grade, and we’re going to treat it like that in Colorado.”

Polis made the argument that funding full-day kindergarten is an issue, not just of societal equity, but also economic sensibility.

“Families that were able to scrape together the $300 or $400 a month certainly appreciate getting that back to shop at local stores, invest in their community, save for retirement or save for their kids’ college,” he said, adding that full-day kindergarten gives second or single parents the opportunity to more fully reenter the workforce.

Boone then shifted her education question to one of funding: How much of the state budget is allocated to education? And what ever happened to the promised marijuana tax revenue?

Polis had the numbers at the ready.

“We’re about $31 billion for our state budget. Education is the biggest, most important thing we do — it’s just under half of our state budget,” he said.

The Colorado 2020 fiscal-year budget slates $185 million for full-day kindergarten, $77 million to local school districts and $121 million of discretionary spending to universities and colleges. That last item line means that tuition rates will remain constant at Colorado public higher education entities, with the exception of Metropolitan State University in Denver.

As for the marijuana question, Polis asked all to “keep perspective” on the roughly $300 million a year that the state garners from tax receipts, but didn’t downplay its importance.

“We just celebrated $1 billion in tax receipts from marijuana; that took five years. We have a $31 billion budget, so this is less than 1 percent of the budget,” he stated.

Still, that money was a key factor in accomplishing Polis’ full-day kindergarten initiative.

“We were able to tap those funds for capital for the adjustment to full-day kindergarten … to help them with capital improvements: desks, chairs, new dividers, changing half-day classrooms to full-day classrooms,” he said. “That’s why over 99 percent of our schools in our state are offering full-day kindergarten in their first year it’s funded. That number would have been lower if it weren’t for marijuana funds.”

It wasn’t the only time marijuana came up on the panel, especially in the governors’ shared emphasis on the importance of cultivating a diversified economy.

“We plan to be the country’s largest hemp growers and producers,” Lujan Grisham said when describing her strategy, focusing on 10 economic sectors.

“Not if we can help it!” Polis interjected, to laughter.

“Try to catch up!” Lujan Grisham quipped back.

In more serious dialogue, both Lujan Grisham and Polis discussed the volatility of a commodity-based economy: mainly, oil and gas and agriculture.

“When those commodities drop, it’s boom or bust,” Lujan Grisham said, adding that “you’ve got to meet the needs of a varying economic structure that allow us to weather the valleys and the highs of a … volatile environment. Now, New Mexico — who was 50th in economic growth in the country — is now one of the fastest-growing economies. We’ve been in the top 10 since May and intend to stay there.”

In that regard, Polis feels Colorado is in a similarly strong place.

“You have no idea if your oil industry or a big part of your ag industry will disappear. There’s good times; there’s bad times,” he echoed. “We are working on that — we have that on the energy front alone: 9 percent job growth in solar and wind. We have a strong tech sector. We did a major tax cut for 144,000 small businesses, essentially every retailer with sales under $12 million a year got a tax cut.”

Both Colorado and Oregon boast thriving outdoor and recreation economies, and Brown didn’t hesitate to jump in on what makes her proud of her state while poking some fun.

“Our outdoor recreation and retail sector is absolutely booming; our technology sector is thriving; our manufacturing sector is doing quite well. I think our cannabis beats Colorado’s cannabis, hands down. I know I can’t beat you on microbrews, but our pinot noir is the finest in the world,” she said to laughter and applause.

Tourism as an economic driver is obviously particularly close to home in Pitkin County, where accommodation and food services are the largest sector of the workforce, according to Data USA. And while the employment rate is up — about a 4.2 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 — the median household income in the same timeframe was down by almost 3 percent, from $69,789 to $67,775.

Even when presented with these numbers after the panel concluded, Polis stuck to his talking points for solutions.

“This has to do with people having to work multiple jobs just to afford to get by,” he said. “It really speaks to our agenda of saving people money on health care, saving people money on early childhood. Someone who had to work a job and a half to pay for kindergarten wouldn’t have to anymore. [With] insurance rates coming down 30 percent, some people who didn’t get benefits at work were paying a second job just to pay for health care. Reducing people’s expenses is a key part of that.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.