Colorado’s two major-party candidates for governor sparred over health care, transportation funding and energy policy, among other topics, in a televised debate Saturday night in Colorado Springs.
As in previous debates, Republican Walker Stapleton, the two-term state treasurer, sought to portray Democrat Jared Polis, a five-term congressman, as a creature of Washington who wants to impose expensive programs on the state, while Polis dismissed Stapleton’s attacks as criticism of policies Polis hasn’t proposed.
“You are, sir, the all-star captain of debt,” Stapleton said. “You were as a congressman; you would be as governor.”
“It’s noun, verb, Jared Polis,” Polis responded. “He talks more about what my plans aren’t than what his plans are.”
The debate, sponsored by Colorado Politics, The Gazette, KOAA News5 and the El Pomar Foundation, was the fifth of eight debates the candidates have scheduled this month and took place just days before voters start to receive mail ballots ahead of the Nov. 6 election.
KOAA News5 anchor Rob Quirk moderated the debate, and Elizabeth Watts, a KOAA News5 anchor, and Joey Bunch, the senior political reporter for Colorado Politics, posed questions, including some submitted by the public.
Before the gubernatorial candidates faced off, the major-party candidates for attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer debated in front of an audience of roughly 250 at the Penrose House near The Broadmoor.
The candidates traded quips early in the debate over recent endorsements they’ve received — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to rally voters for Polis, and President Donald Trump tweeted his endorsement of Stapleton — with both candidates maintaining they were prepared to take on the White House, whoever occupies it.
“The federal government isn’t going to set Colorado’s course, but a strong governor will,” Stapleton said. He cheered Trump’s economic policies and the windfall the state budget was enjoying in the wake of federal tax reform but added that he was opposed to tariffs, particularly ones affecting Colorado’s farmers and ranchers.
Noting that he has worked with congressional Republicans on numerous issues, Polis said, “We need to make sure we have a governor who isn’t beholden to any president, Democratic or Republican. I’ll stand up to any president who comes after our Colorado way of life.”
On health care, Polis said his proposals to move the state toward universal health care coverage include what he termed “good ideas from the left, the right and the center” but must satisfy several criteria before he would adopt them, including reducing cost and expanding coverage.
Among policies he has said he wants to consider are bundling Medicaid payments as Arkansas has done — yielding a savings of around 20 percent — and requiring more transparency in health care pricing to spur competition.
Stapleton claimed Polis plans to duplicate a single-payer program Vermont instituted and then abandoned.
“He would double your income taxes, he would double your business tax. No one would be able to afford to live in Colorado anymore,” Stapleton said.
He added that he intends to keep Colorado’s Medicaid program “sustainable for all” by demanding different agencies involved in implementing the program increase efficiencies.
The candidates split on where to find money to fund billions in transportation funding, with Polis saying he plans to bring together various interested parties to come up with a dedicated source of funding.
Stapleton says he plans to find the money by taxing sports betting — something he predicts will be a billion-dollar industry in Colorado once it’s established — and by making the Colorado Department of Transportation operate as efficiently as the transportation agencies in neighboring mountain states.
They also disagreed whether the money should fund just “roads and bridges, bridges and roads,” as Stapleton insists, or if state spending should also build rapid transit, bike lanes and potentially high-speed rail system, as Polis proposes.
Polis’ campaign pledge to move the state toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 drew skeptical questions from the panel and jeers from Stapleton, who charged it would cost $45 billion to achieve the goal and “crush” the state’s economy.
“That is not the Colorado I want, with skyrocketing utility bills and Big Brother telling me how to heat my home and turn on my lights,” Stapleton said. “The people who will pay that the most are the hard-working Coloradans who will see their utility bills go through the freaking roof.”
Polis accused Stapleton of “attacking a straw man” and compared setting a goal for all-renewable energy with President John Kennedy’s announcement that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
“Kennedy didn’t say we’re going to get 75 percent, 80 percent of the way to the moon, he said we could get there,” Polis said. “We deserve cleaner air, and we need to act on climate for our farmers and our ski energy.”
Publicly available and internal polling has shown Polis with a lead outside the margin of error. A survey released this past week by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation gave Polis an 11-point lead among registered voters, with 15 percent of voters undecided. An earlier survey, conducted by Keating Research and Magellan Strategies, found Polis with a 7 percentage point lead among likely voters with 11 percent undecided.
The next gubernatorial debate, sponsored by KUSA-9News and The Coloradoan newspaper of Fort Collins, is set for Oct. 17 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. There’s an Oct. 19 debate scheduled in Greeley, and the final debate is set for Oct. 23 at the University of Denver.