Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his annual State of the State speech last were. Here’s what he said that will impact rural Coloradans.
DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper used his annual State of the State speech last Thursday to chide lawmakers for failing to compromise last session on the state’s most pressing issues: the state’s budget, which he believes will have to be cut in 2016-17, changes to a hospital provider fee that could free up $1 billion over five years for transportation and education, and reforms to a state construction defects law that developers say prevents them from building affordable condominiums.
Last year’s partisan gridlock was due largely to split control of the General Assembly. It’s the same for this year – Republicans have a one-vote majority in the state Senate, and Democrats hold a three-vote advantage in the state House.
While democracy “wasn’t designed to be argument-free,” it also “isn’t designed to be combative to its own detriment,” Hickenlooper said. “Our conflicts aren’t serving us,” either at the state Capitol or in Washington, D.C. “We used to take pride in compromise…but in today’s politics we revel in getting our way without giving an inch, and stopping the other guy from getting anything done.”
Coloradans excel at working together after a tragedy, but that shouldn’t be the only reason lawmakers compromise on the state’s biggest challenges, Hickenlooper said.
The budget will be the focus of this year’s session. While the state’s economy is among the strongest in the nation, lawmakers anticipate issuing refunds to taxpayers as part of the 2016-17 budget. Those refunds, according to legislative economists, could range from $25 to $125 for individual taxpayers, depending on income levels.
At the same time, however, the state is nearly $900 million short of meeting constitutional requirements for funding K-12 education, and more than $3 billion is needed for critical roads and infrastructure repairs. In addition, Hickenlooper’s budget proposes increasing the K-12 funding shortfall by another $50 million, erasing the progress made last year in reducing the shortage.
Those dollars won’t come out of nowhere.
Hickenlooper’s solution: changing the state’s hospital provider fee, a per-bed surcharge paid by the state’s public and private hospitals, matched with federal dollars and then re-distributed to hospitals that provide medical care to the indigent. Hickenlooper and Democrats want to see the fee reclassified as an enterprise, akin to a state-run business, a provision allowed under TABOR, the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Were the provider fee reclassified, it would free up about $1 billion in revenue over the next five years that Democrats say could go to K-12 education and transportation. Hickenlooper pleaded with lawmakers to address the issue.
While Democrats, business groups and the governor believe TABOR allows the change, Republicans, including Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs and Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, oppose it, calling it a maneuver to get around TABOR.
There was much to like in Hickenlooper’s speech, Becker said, but the remarks about the hospital provider fee were “polarizing.” The governor is “trying to buck the Constitution to find money to pay for things that they’ve refused to pay for in the past, like education and transportation,” he said. The governor would be off cutting small programs that don’t help rural Colorado, Becker said.
“It was a nice speech, an accommodating speech, but it lacked bipartisan solutions,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.
The state doesn’t have an income problem, Sonnenberg said. It has a spending problem, and the solution to budget issues is not in finding more money but in managing what’s already coming in. Sonnenberg said any solution to the budget problems needs to include reductions in entitlement programs, such as Medicaid, which he indicated has grown out of control.
Sonnenberg also has a problem with the governor’s budget, especially the $50 million hike in the K-12 shortfall. Sonnenberg said such a budget shows that education is not a priority.
Hickenlooper spoke about rural Colorado concerns throughout the speech.
He highlighted the state’s Rural Economic Development Initiative program, which last year helped bring 100 jobs to Costilla County. Hickenlooper also discussed the effort to expand broadband services to “every corner and corral” in Colorado, by leveraging federal dollars, state assets and with the help of telecommunications reform laws passed in 2014.
Becker praised Hickenlooper’s frequent references to rural Colorado. “It’s rural Colorado that is suffering,” Becker said, adding that growth that has boosted the Front Range economy hasn’t made its way to the Eastern Plains.
On broadband, however, Becker said the state should use an existing telecommunications fund to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas, which he said will help make broadband costs affordable for area residents. Becker also pointed out that Hickenlooper has yet to reach out to lawmakers who deal with the broadband issue on a daily basis.
Hickenlooper also brought up the state water plan, which was finalized in November, stating that the time has come to put it to work. He didn’t identify any specific ideas to implement it, although he promised there would be legislation to give the Colorado Water Conservation Board, the plan’s author, “greater flexibility in funding our most important water projects.”
Becker said Hickenlooper should have endorsed the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would add two new reservoirs along the Poudre River in Larimer County. Will the governor support “the biggest privately-funded water storage plan in the state?” Becker asked.
Sonnenberg was “thrilled” with the governor’s remarks on water. The two have begun discussing the plan, water storage and related issues. “I’m pleased we’re moving forward with some aspects of the water plan,” Sonnenberg added.
Democratic Rep. Daniel Kagan called Hickenlooper’s State of the State one of his best. The governor “made his case for going forward. If we in the General Assembly can just get our act together, we can do great things.”
Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, said that compromise is a necessary part of democracy and that she hoped the spirit the governor presented in his remarks “will permeate the session. It’s the only way to get things done.”
Kagan, who represents Denver suburbs Englewood and Cherry Hills Village, said he doesn’t share the pessimism expressed by many, both inside and outside the Capitol, that lawmakers will be hampered by partisan gridlock that keeps major problems from being solved. “I think the session will go a lot better than a lot of people expect. I sense willingness for big, constructive solutions.”
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons, Flickr.