Gov. John Hickenlooper played it safe today.
After two years of fighting with majority Republicans in the state Senate and not getting the results he wanted on some of his biggest priorities, the governor today delivered a 38-minute speech that focused on a handful of major issues upon which lawmakers already are trying to hammer out compromises.
The topic that garnered much of Hickenlooper’s State of the State address: transportation and infrastructure, including rural broadband internet service.
This was Hickenlooper’s seventh annual address to a joint session of the Colorado General Assembly. Hickenlooper will be term-limited in 2018, so this group of lawmakers is the last one with which he will work as governor.
He wasn’t about to poke a stick in too many eyes today.
The speech was held in the House chambers, and as usual was jam-packed with the members of the House and Senate, the governor’s cabinet, the Colorado Supreme Court, other elected state and local officials and guests who came from all over the state to help illustrate the governor’s accomplishments from the past year.
Topping his agenda: transportation. “Voters are tired of us kicking the can down the road, because they know it’s going to land in a pothole,” the governor said. The state’s wish list of transportation projects totals $9 billion. A couple of those projects, such as building an express lane between Loveland and Fort Collins, or adding a third lane from Castle Rock to Monument, are already in the planning process. Good first steps, Hickenlooper called them, but far from enough to cover the $2 billion cost to construct a continuous third lane on the interstate from Wyoming to New Mexico.
Hickenlooper explained the state’s general fund, which is made of income tax and sales tax, can cover core government services or transportation projects, but not both. He also addressed those who argue the state can repair and upgrade its infrastructure primarily through budget cuts.
“There are some who believe we can pay for our infrastructure needs through cuts alone. But that can only happen if we demand major sacrifices from Coloradans,” Hickenlooper said. “If that’s what you want, introduce that bill. Make that case. Tell us who loses healthcare or what schools have to close to add a mile of highway.”
Hickenlooper laid out a list of options for transportation funding, including new revenue, “simplifying or replacing old tax streams” or a combination of all of the above. He didn’t elaborate on what that might mean.
One area he still hasn’t given up on: reclassifying the state’s hospital provider fee, basically a bit of bookkeeping that would free up millions of dollars for transportation, K-12 education and financial assistance to rural hospitals.
“Talking about the hospital provider fee on the second floor of the Capitol is about as popular as the Oakland Raiders,” the governor quipped. He said he still sees it as a way to solve some of the state’s funding problems, and asked lawmakers to “take a fresh look” at the provider fee and whether it could be modified to help control healthcare costs and better serve the state’s rural clinics and hospitals. But Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican, already has made it clear that a bill on the provider fee is a non-starter in the Senate, and Democratic leaders, particularly those in control of the House, have conceded they will look elsewhere for transportation funding.
Hickenlooper’s focus on infrastructure wasn’t limited to transportation. He announced today the formation of a broadband office to help improve Coloradans’ access to broadband service.
Currently, about 30 percent of the state, almost all in rural communities, either don’t have wi-fi service or it’s severely limited. Hickenlooper said the broadband office will help move the state’s reach from 70 percent of the state to 85 percent by the time he leaves office, and to 100 percent by 2020. The governor said that effort will draw upon collaboration with the broadband industry as well as local civic leaders in the underserved communities.
The governor said little about the federal transition of power that will take place next week, which was part of the undercurrent running through opening-day remarks by lawmakers on Wednesday. He notably omitted any mention of protection of public lands, which some Congressional Republicans want to turn over to states to manage; or the Environmental Protection Agency and Colorado’s Climate Plan, which addresses state goals to reduce global warming. Those issues formed a major part of his 2016 speech and agenda, but the two major bills tied to those goals failed to gain headway in the Republican-controlled state Senate last year.
Today, his strongest statement on clean air was in pointing out that the state has led the nation on moving to cleaner energy sources, and “we should have cleaner air at little–or no–additional cost to consumers.” The phrase “clean water” never crossed his lips.
The governor’s main nod to the Republican-controlled Congress was in asking that Coloradans continue to have a state-run option on health insurance. Senate Republicans launched the first salvo on the exchange yesterday, introducing a bill to repeal Colorado’s state health insurance exchange. Its sponsor, first-year lawmaker Sen. Jim Smallwood of Parker, told The Colorado Independent his bill would repeal the state exchange and take advantage of the replacement plan that will be proposed by Congress.
The governor pointed out that 94 percent of Coloradans now have basic health insurance, which he called “a right, not a privilege.
“But we all know actions in Washington could threaten the progress we’ve made,” and “the last thing we want is Congress making all of our decisions around healthcare. If changes are inevitable, I will fight for a replacement plan that protects the people who are covered now and doesn’t take us backward.”
The day was not without a little humor. Grantham, in his first time before a joint session of the legislature as Senate president, took his moment in the sun to “help” the governor, stating that if Hickenlooper was suddenly unavailable to give his speech, Grantham would be happy to wing it. Grantham joked after the governor’s remarks that he wouldn’t have put things quite the same way.
Hickenlooper’s remarks were interrupted repeatedly by applause, with Democrats, as expected, the most enthusiastic. Republicans were the most positive on his remarks on broadband and his plan to expand the state’s broadband reach.
Jessica Goad of Conservation Colorado praised the governor for his focus on what she called issues important “to our state, our values and our pocketbooks.” She said the organization will be looking to Hickenlooper to see if he is able to overcome partisan gridlock with the General Assembly.
The majority Republican reaction came from Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, the Senate Majority Leader. He told reporters he would not support a stand-alone tax increase to fund transportation and infrastructure, and that the state’s gas tax, at 22 cents per gallon, is also an ineffective way to solve the problem. Holbert suggested replacing the gas tax with a more “long-term sustainable revenue stream,” although he didn’t elaborate on what that would look like.
Holbert did find some positives in Hickenlooper’s remarks, such as the governor’s indication that voters will have to make some of those tough decisions. Voters are in charge, Holber said, and so need to understand how taxation works and what their taxes support.
He also complimented the governor on his willingness to work with the Senate Republicans and House Democrats, especially lately, on the issue of construction defects. Builders and developers have claimed the state’s construction defects law hinders their ability to build owner-occupied affordable housing.
Yesterday, Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, announced the House and Senate had compromised on a bill, already introduced, to reduce insurance costs related to construction defects for builders, who claim those costs substantially drive up construction costs.
Last year, talks on the state’s construction defect law collapsed just before the close of the session.
Lead photo of Gov. John Hickenlooper as he entered the House chamber to deliver his annual address to lawmakers. Photos by Allen Tian.