Mike Johnston, Democratic candidate for governor, addressed several issues ‒ including education funding, school safety, affordable housing, affordable health care and responsible growth ‒ while speaking to local residents Saturday, May 26, at Seasons Café in Salida.
Throughout his talk, Johnston emphasized his ability to bridge political divides and find common ground in a polarized political environment.
He also said he believes he has the best chance among Democratic candidates to defeat the Republican nominee, citing a unanimous preference among Republican candidates for Jared Polis as the Democratic nominee and Cary Kennedy’s loss to Republican front-runner Walker Stapleton in a previous election.
Johnston said he started his career teaching English in the Mississippi Delta in one of the poorest school districts in the country before returning to Colorado to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by becoming a principal.
Serving as principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Adams County, Johnston and his staff transformed the school, turning a 50-percent dropout rate into a 100-percent graduation rate with all graduates being admitted to four-year colleges. (During his tenure at MESA, Johnston was chosen to be a senior adviser to candidate Barack Obama.)
Johnston said the satisfaction from helping to transform MESA was cut short when one of his students told him that he couldn’t afford to attend college because he was undocumented. He soon learned that half of his students were undocumented and could not go to college because Colorado law required them to pay out-of-state tuition.
“That injustice inspired me to take what I learned in the schoolhouse to the state house and become a state senator to make in-state tuition for DREAMERs a reality,” Johnston said.
Despite the fact that the bill had failed more than a dozen times without support from a single Republican, Johnston was finally able to get it passed by building bipartisan support for the bill.
Johnston said he brought this same bipartisan approach to legislation expanding early childhood education, increasing education funding and supporting teachers, especially in rural areas, ultimately passing more than 120 pieces of legislation while serving as a state senator.
Johnston said repealing the worst parts of TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, would allow the state to properly fund education in Colorado, which ranks 48th in per capita education funding, compared to 34th in 1992 when TABOR was enacted.
Under TABOR, state and local governments cannot raise tax rates without voter approval and cannot spend revenues collected under existing tax rates without voter approval if revenues grow faster than the rate of inflation and population growth.
Johnston said he supports removing the TABOR restrictions that cap the amount of tax revenue the state can keep, noting that no other state in the country has enacted this type of legislation since Colorado passed TABOR 26 years ago.
Johnston said removing this TABOR restriction would allow an additional $400 million per year to go to education without increasing taxes. He proposed using this revenue to provide free full-day kindergarten to all Colorado school children and to increase teacher pay.
Johnston said he also supports loan forgiveness and home ownership support, especially for teachers who agree to work in rural and inner city school districts where the need is greatest.
Johnston also emphasized the need for school safety, noting, “More school kids have been killed this year than soldiers in combat.” He acknowledged that he is a gun owner but that he fails to see any legitimate need for high-capacity magazines or bump stocks.
To support affordable housing, Johnston acknowledged that the state can’t afford to fund affordable housing and suggested offering long-term leases of state land to encourage affordable housing development.
He also proposed establishing a public option for Medicaid to provide a more affordable health-care choice for Coloradans, especially rural residents, many of whom currently have only one health insurance option.
Following his talk, Johnston answered questions from attendees. During the Q&A session, Johnston said he supports:
• Increasing the setbacks from schools and residences for oil and gas development along with capping all abandoned wells and increasing inspections for leakage.
• Transitioning Colorado’s power grid to 100-percent renewable energy by 2040, including investments in energy storage technology.
• Efforts to import lower-cost prescription drugs.
• Keeping marijuana legal.