Pro-business in a dismal economy helps, but Hickenlooper faces budget-slashing nightmare

For somebody often awkward in his public speeches, prone to stutter-stepping his way through sentences, Governor-elect John Hickenlooper has superb skills as a salesman.

Maybe it goes back to his days as a barkeep in Denver’s LoDo, bantering for a moment before moving onto the next table. Now he’ll be using those same skills as a street-savvy, business-friendly Democrat who will also become the most public face as state government faces the need to quickly cut $1.1 billion from the state budget.

Those cuts will force hard decisions – and soon. Some people have even suggested trimming the state’s commitment to community colleges, a sure cause for heartburn in affected towns, as legislators are forced to confront anemic revenues and a constitutional mandate to balance the budget.

Richard Lamm, a three-term governor, sees Hickenlooper being a capable individual for moderating this discussion.

“You don’t shrink the budget without lots of controversy, but I think that Hickenlooper is good at managing controversy,” says Lamm, pointing to several examples during Hickenlooper’s terms as Denver mayor.

Lamm ran for governor in 1974 on a platform of limiting growth. Gov. Bill Ritter ran on a platform of a new energy economy. In contrast, Hickenlooper conveyed no strong agenda items in his campaign – to the boredom of Lamm, who moderated one of the election debates.

“Hickenlooper didn’t say a thing. He really didn’t say a thing. He was just so programmed to avoid any type of controversy,” says Lamm, who is co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver.

Now, controversy will be inevitable. Even in June a high government official, Don Marostica, director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, predicted that whoever got elected would likely be a one-term governor.

“You’re not going to make anybody happy,” said Marostica, a former Republican legislator from Loveland, told a group in Montrose.

While certainly not the first choice, funding for schools and universities will come under the microscope. It has to. K-12 education alone comprises 42 percent of the state’s budget. Higher education costs more yet.

“That makes for a difficult set of decisions moving forward, because there are very few places we can pull money from,” says Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat from Longmont who is the Senate president.

Ritter was largely able to spare the universities from budget cuts, but they’ll inevitably take hits in the next round. Tuition will probably rise. Programs may be consolidated. Observers wonder if it’s time to talk about ending state funding for some institutions.

“There well could be analysis of, ‘Do we need three institutions of higher education in the Arkansas Valley?” says Lamm. He wonders whether Fort Lewis College, located in Durango, despite strong purposes, including very important Native American contact – might better be funded by a local taxing district, similar to the way a district in Weld and Larimer counties pays for Aimes Community College.

But Colorado, says Lamm, must work hard to maintain the strength of its core institutions.

That same point is made by former Senate minority leader Mike Feeley, a Democrat who now represents Colorado State University, among others. Because the research institutions are “huge economic drivers” they must be protected from radical surgery, he says.

But Feeley agrees that the “hard conversations” about higher education must be had – despite knowing that closing a school in Alamosa, Lamar, or Rangely, would be akin to a death sentence to the local communities.

A House divided

In all this surgery, Hickenlooper will be working with a divided Legislature. Democrats have retained control of the Senate, but Republicans now own the House. That, according to several observers, actually works to the benefit of Hickenlooper, a Democrat.

“It’s the best thing that could happen to him,” says Feeley. “It will keep the extreme stuff off his desk – from his party, and obviously from the other side as well,” he adds.

That includes an Arizona-style immigration bill. “It’ll never hit his desk,” Feeley said. “He’ll never have to think about it.”

What a divided Legislature actually does is provide incentive to legislators to collaborate. And, when they don’t, it leaves the governor in the cat bird’s seat, says Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League. “The happiest governors I know are those who watch fights break out at the end of a session,” he says. It makes him the broker on issues, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

The new oil-and-gas regulations adopted two years ago may well get revised, as Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, often suggested on the campaign trail. But they are unlikely to be overhauled – despite the perception from politically powerful gas drillers that the process was too rapid, and perhaps predetermined.

“Gov. Ritter never claimed that those rules were perfect, and there are probably some areas that need to be tweaked,” says Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, the Grand Junction-based advocacy group for the Western Slope.

One area of potential contention, says Brown, is the authority of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, with too much subjectivity and not enough objective standards.

Transportation may be another area where Hickenlooper will leave his mark – although not immediately. The state’s funding formula continues to lose ground. What Hickenlooper might do remains a mystery, perhaps to himself. But Breckenridge Mayor John Warner says Hickenlooper, in a lunch meeting last summer, stressed that he sees the need to frame I-70 and I-25 together.

Lamm can conceive of Hickenlooper going to work with the business community to make the case for a gas tax increase, which would be the first since 1993 – despite vows not to seek increases.

Warner also believes that Hickenlooper will use the bully pulpit to seek reform of the referendum process that has resulted in a flurry of arguably ill-conceived constitutional amendments.

The power of capitalism

Nobody expects Hickenlooper to be as narrowly defined by energy as was Ritter. “I think he’ll have a broader portfolio,” says Feeley.

That’s not to say Hickenlooper will abandon the theme of a new energy economy. In 2005 he helped sponsor a conference in Denver devoted to future limits on oil supplies. Glimpses of his approach were revealed in a March 2009 speech at the Sustainability Opportunities Summit in Denver.

Mentioning his mother, who was born in 1921, he talked about the investments in her lifetime: first during the hardscrabble 1930s and then the Marshall Plan, the American investment in post-World War II Europe.

“That’s one of the images we need to embrace. It’s not the spending that is wrong. What is wrong is waste,” he said. Selling investment requires proving the value, documenting the consequences, he added.

But in that speech, Hickenlooper also argued for harnessing the power of capitalism, of achieving the proper balance for regulation while giving entrepreneurs the power to innovate.

Creating a more sustainable economy will not get broad acceptance and widespread distribution, he said, “unless there are business equations around them.”

Alice Madden, Ritter’s deputy chief of staff and formerly his climate advisor, said she expects Hickenlooper to continue the energy economy push “because there is such great momentum, and it would be a hard to walk away from that.”

But Madden, a former legislator from Boulder, also believes Hickenlooper will push Colorado as a workplace for aerospace and biopharmaceutical sectors. He can be expected to also promote tourism.

Instructively, Hickenlooper has often met with members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns when they held their annual meeting in Denver. “I think here again that Hickenlooper is favorably disposed to tourism development and promotion of tourism,” says Mamet, of the CML.

But the major question that Senator-elect Ellen Roberts has is how Hickenlooper will make the state more business friendly. Because of his background in business, she hopes he will be receptive to streamline regulation and setting the tone for a more receptive bureaucracy.

“If he is truly going to create a business friendly environment, that is where he needs to focus,” says Roberts, a Republican from Durango.

Channeling Roy Romer

In Hickenlooper, many see echoes of Roy Romer, governor from 1987 to 1999.

“He had strong convictions about what public policy should look like, and he spoke from his gut,” says Charlie Brown, head of the Legislative Council for 25 years, ending in 2005. “I get the same sense in all these respects about John Hickenlooper.”

Feeley also sees parallels. “He (Hickenlooper) understands what’s really possible, and he’s willing to push it. But he doesn’t overstep,” he says. “And he’s like Romer in that he really does like to hear opposing views; he really likes to hear smart people hash it out.”

Mamet, from the CML, sees a governor striving for consensus and middle ground.

“He’s easy to be around, and I think the fact that the day after the (November) elections he went to both the Republican caucuses and said hi and shook hands tells you a little bit about his style.”

Added Mamet: “He will be sympathetic to the pleas of business, and there will be certain things he will support. Whether it’s a tax break or reducing regulations in certain areas, I think he will always try to look for the middle ground.”

Looking back on his time as governor, Lamm thinks he was too confrontational with the legislature. He doubts that Hickenlooper will make the same mistake. Instead, he sees Hickenlooper using the governor’s mansion as an extension of his office.

“It’s amazing what a dinner with a few key legislators will do,” says Lamm, who admits to having too few of them.

“I was a trial lawyer before (becoming governor). I made my mark by fighting for things,” he says. Too, he adds, he was a product of the ‘60s. “You just don’t get the impression that Hickenlooper is that passionate about any particular issue. “

“That is somewhat liberating,” adds Lamm, “because I think it will allow him maximum bargaining position.”

Like others, Shaffer sees Hickenlooper as a canny politician with his ear close to the ground.

“He plays that aw-shucks card quite a bit. He likes to say, ‘I’m not a very good politician – and then he proceeds to outmaneuver you strategically on some of the most complicated proposals. He has very good political instincts. He can feel the public sentiment. He doesn’t need a poll to tell him what direction to go, and that explains his emphasis on economic development. It happens to complement his skill set very well. He’s a good businessman, and he will bring that business sense to the capitol and hopefully restore some of the confidence that businesses need.”

But inevitably the new governor will have hits and misses – and Club20’s Brown, a member of the transition team, warns against expecting too much.

“I think some people naively believe that John Hickenlooper is coming to the governor’s mansion with a truck full of money and a secret solution,” he says. “I think the public has to be realistic in its expectations.”