Eyes turn to Hickenlooper midway through legislative session

DENVER — It was the largest civil action held at the Capitol so far this year. Eighty immigrant rights protestors rallied Wednesday against a Republican move to freeze funds for a popular non-citizen driver’s licenses program. They silently paced the halls under the dome, fists raised, and demanded an audience with Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The fate of the license program rests with a powerful six-member budget committee, where three Republican and three Democratic members are wrestling and sighing and steaming over a larger budget bill that holds the license program money. The bill is stuck, so the activists have turned to Hickenlooper to shake it loose.

They crowded into his office. They explained that they tried to make appointments online and got no response. So where is the governor? they asked staffer Tyler Mounsey. He is away right now, Mounsey said. Well then, we want to make an appointment, they said. Sorry, he said, appointments are handled by a scheduler, who is also away from the office for now. The activists then pushed for a commitment that Hickenlooper would at least make a public statement in favor of the driver’s license program and that he would urge budget committee Republicans to see the good in the program and green-light the budget. Mounsey was equivocal. He wasn’t in a position to… he couldn’t commit to… et cetera, but he would of course inform the governor of their request.

It’s hard not to see the action on Wednesday at the governor’s office as a preview of coming attractions.

The Senate is controlled by Republicans and the House is controlled by Democrats, so lawmakers can’t hope to successfully land their favorite partisan bills on Hickenlooper’s desk. The only bills likely to make it there have to be moderate, sensible bills that a majority of members on both sides of the aisle in both chambers see benefit in embracing. The general impression at the midway point in the five-month session is that not a lot of bill-passing is happening. In fact, a lot of high-profile bills have bit the dust — bills on abortion, teen pregnancy, clean energy, civil rights and anti-gay “religious freedom,” for example.

Not so fast, says legislative counsel; it’s too early to measure lawmaker productivity this year. Indeed, staff told the Independent that, so far, this session is on pace to land within the typical range of laws made in Colorado every year. They said that at least 45 bills have made it to the governor’s desk, which is a fairly common number at mid-session and that, with a spate of signings on Wednesday, the governor has put 26 laws on the books.

The majority of those bills are the low-profile day-to-day keep-the-lights-on kind of bills that can’t hope to draw anything like the headlines made in bushels this year by so-called walking dead measures — partisan wish-list bills that have flared and burned out early in committees or that have been passed by one chamber with no hope of passing in the other.

A legislative calendar that has been mostly cleared of controversial partisan bills is real Hickenlooper territory, a “Lucky John” field of dreams. The governor is a western-style politically moderate Democrat. His political persona is conciliatory, even apologetic. He looks to play down conflict and he plays up compromise. Most famously, he worked for months last summer to get parties who were battling over oil-and-gas drilling and who were prepared to launch a war of ballot initiatives against each other, to the negotiating table, and once there, Hickenlooper got them to agree to give a special task force time to propose compromise solutions.

“He put the state’s interests ahead of politics,” said Tisha Schuller, spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association lobby shop, at the time. “He has a cleared a path for conversation and understanding, rather than fighting through talking points.”

But working with this year’s divided legislature for the next two-and-a-half months will be no cakewalk. In fact, because no one party can push through bills, it will mean the governor may have to take the helm and stick his neck out repeatedly. The immigration community has already turned to him. In coming weeks, his office may fill on a regular schedule with impatient lawmakers and lobbyists.

How did he respond to the immigrant rights activists?

“Police chiefs, the sheriffs, all agree that [it’s not a good thing] to have people driving without what I think of as a ‘drivers privilege card’ — it doesn’t have all the same benefits as a driver’s license,” Hickenlooper told reporters after the protest, during his first General Assembly press availability of the year. “Utah, Nevada, they’ve all passed similar versions of this law. It creates a safer community. It doesn’t give anyone the right to work illegally. It doesn’t give anybody permanent status or anything. There’s no pathway to citizenship. But it does make our communities safer,” he said, and he wasn’t done talking.

“We are trying to negotiate with both sides to figure this out. This is not taking a penny out of the General Fund. We’re not talking about taking taxpayer’s money. The [applicants] pay a fee to get the driver’s privilege card. They pay almost four times what a normal citizen would pay for a driver’s license. It does take more time and effort, but those fees, that money is not coming out of the General Fund. That’s a common misperception. ‘Why are these undocumented individuals getting special treatment?’ Well, they’re not. They’re paying a premium to get a driver’s privilege card.”

So now Colorado knows where Hickenlooper stands on the driver’s license impasse/driver’s privilege card disagreement. Will it make a difference?

There’s another school of thought about how this year’s divided legislature should go, one that doesn’t hold productivity as a priority.

“I think there’s a large group of folks who say, ‘If they don’t really get anything done other than pass a budget, we might be just fine,” House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso told the Independent.

Hickenlooper, who is often hard to pin down, may be a member of that group. Just before speaking about the driver’s privilege cards, he was asked to comment on legislative productivity.

“It does look like there might be a lot fewer laws this session, which is probably a good thing,” he said.

[Video by Tessa Cheek.]