Broadband, coal and health care: Q&A with Gov. Polis during his visit to Steamboat
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Gov. Jared Polis made a visit to downtown Steamboat Springs on Friday to speak with business owners ahead of a friend’s wedding.
Rep. Dylan Roberts joined Polis as he toured Steamboat Flyfisher, dressed simply in a brown polo and his quintessential, blue sneakers. While there, Polis answered a few questions from the Steamboat Pilot & Today about his work as governor and how he expects recently passed legislation to affect Routt County. Roberts also weighed in on some of the takeaways from the 2019 Legislative Session, which ended in April.
Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Steamboat Pilot & Today: What brings you to Steamboat Springs?
POLIS: A wedding that I’m going to today. It’s my first time here as governor so it’s great to visit. I’m also learning more abut the local economy. We are strong supporters of the outdoor tourism and recreation industry. We are opening more of our state land for recreation and then working with legislators on a number of great bills around the outdoor recreation opportunities fund.
P&T: I want to ask you about some of the issues you’ve been focusing on as governor. The first is broadband — it’s a big deal here. We have a lot of residents in places like North Routt that still suffer from slow Internet. It’s your goal to expand broadband access to 92% of Coloradoans in the next three years through increased funding. How do you expect those changes to impact Routt County?
POLIS: Most of the changes are about using the funds we currently have more efficiently through our broadband office, which is a big focus. Then working with the legislature on meeting that last mile challenge we have in many communities. That includes leveraging our existing high-speed internet infrastructure, whether it’s through the Department of Transportation or our school districts. And enabling more families to be part of the high-speed internet superhighway, which is so important for jobs and for education and even for health care.
ROBERTS: One of the bills the governor signed was one of mine, Senate Bill 107. It allows broadband providers to tap into electrical easements that already exist so we can start building that broadband without building new infrastructure.
That will help for areas like Hahns Peak Village and Clark. Over the past few years in the legislature we’ve put a lot of funding out there that can use that funding along with this new bill that allows them to tap into existing infrastructure.
P&T: Affordable housing is also on a lot of people’s minds in Steamboat. Voters recently approved annexing an area west of town to provide more housing opportunities. Such an initiative also has been a major focus of yours. The state is investing $230 million for the next five years towards expanding the affordability housing. What will those changes look like?
POLIS: Communities are strongest when people that work in communities are able to live in communities. Making sure we have opportunities for people to live close to where they work is so important across Colorado. We are working with local governments, cities and counties on meeting those needs.
P&T: How might people in Steamboat see some impacts from these affordable housing bills in the coming years?
POLIS: The local government will decide what gets built where, but the state will play an important role in helping to empower those decisions. We have some state land in different areas that we plan to turn into affordable housing sites, but the ultimate decision makers are always the local government.
P&T: Are any of those state lands you’re considering to turn into affordable housing sites within Routt County?
POLIS: We don’t have the particular parcels identified yet, but we are going through our state land trusts and holdings of the Department of Transportation, holdings of our university system and finding out where we can use that and work with local governments to increase affordable housing opportunities.
P&T: Now for energy. You made a goal of getting Colorado to use 100% renewable by 2040. A lot of people in this area work in or are somehow tied to the nonrenewable energy sector, especially coal. How do you plan to meet that goal?
POLIS: Existing coal power, like in Craig, not too far down the road, simply costs 20-30% more than renewable energy. It’s just a question of when and how the more expensive energy assets will be retired and what we will do for people who work in coal. Craig is probably the most prominent example in our state of how we can make sure there is a vibrant economy in Craig in 10 years, in 20 years. As some of those jobs change to other kind of jobs, we will look at how we can leverage the rail infrastructure in Craig, the skilled workers to make sure it’s a strong economy going forward.
P&T: Local coal mines are also some of the biggest taxpayers in the area. What about the affect on funding to municipalities that depend on that money, like Steamboat?
POLIS: As long as there is a market for coal, people will continue to mine it. That comes and goes. When prices are good, there will be good jobs here. When prices aren’t good, some of those jobs deteriorate. We tend to focus on the things that are within our control and the price of coal is not really one of those.
The just transition efforts are really about how we can make sure that people who work in fossil fuels can also be winners in the future. When you fail to adapt to those kinds of economic changes, you leave people and families behind. It’s really important to get ahead of it and not just let change happen to Colorado, particularly western Colorado, but to get ahead of that change and makes sure that it works for all of our families here in western Colorado.
P&T: Finally, health care. Can you two talk about what changes came from this most recent legislative session?
ROBERTS: Health care was a huge focus of the session— the No. 1 thing I hear as the representative for Routt County and Eagle County is health care costs. I think we had one of the most historic sessions for health care, especially for western Colorado.
POLIS: The biggest short-term change is the reinsurance program. They are the same policies, but cost to the individuals will go down 20-30% in the indivual market for Western Coroado If you work for a bg company, you won’t see much change. This is for people who buy their own insurance in the individual market.
P&T: What are you doing for the rest of your time in Steamboat?
POLIS: I will be walking downtown and hearing from local businesses about what we need to do to improve the business climate, create jobs and protect our quality of life.
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