Two of the biggest state issues that weren’t settled in the 2017 legislative session may get one more shot this year.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said today that he may call lawmakers back to the state Capitol for a special session to deal with transportation funding and money for rural broadband Internet access. In fact, it was the first thing the governor mentioned at post-session news conference – an indication that makes a special session more likely than not.
The governor listed both issues as top priorities in his State of the State address in January.
“Over the next decade, Colorado has $9 billion dollars of unmet transportation needs, and that need will only grow. 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 in his January 12 speech to a joint session of the General Assembly.
Though Hickenlooper applauded the progress made on transportation funding through this year’s omnibus bill on rural Colorado, he said it’s not enough to finish major I-25 corridor projects or work needed along I-70.
The omnibus bill, known as “Sustainability of Rural Colorado,” puts $1.88 billion into transportation, of which $1.1 billion will go toward the state’s $9 billion backlog of road and bridge fixes as identified by the Colorado Department of Transportation. About $450 million of that $1.88 billion will goes to rural communities for their transportation projects, which Hickenlooper pointed out is not included in the master list compiled by the Department of Transportation. The rest of the money, about $250 million, will go to transit projects, such as bus service.
The major legislation that would have put about $3.5 billion in transportation died in a Senate Finance Committee in April despite bipartisan sponsorship from Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver and Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City. The measure drew strong opposition from Republicans for its attempt to seek a November ballot measure to fund those projects by asking voters to approve an increase in the state’s sales tax from its current 29 cents on a $10 purchase to 34 cents.
Hickenlooper said today he would have a decision by Monday on whether to call lawmakers back. “Don’t take vacations in May,” the governor said he informed lawmakers.
The second issue on the governor’s mind is rural broadband. He noted today that 30 percent of rural Colorado doesn’t have adequate high-speed Internet access.
In January, Hickenlooper announced the creation of a broadband office that would push the state from 70 percent coverage to 85 percent by the end of his term 19 months from now and 100 percent by 2020. But that relies on funding, and there wasn’t enough from the 2017 session, Hickenlooper said today.
Lawmakers, led by Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, pushed an amendment into the 2017-18 state budget that would put $9.5 million into rural broadband. But that money was later stripped out because the governor’s budget director, Henry Sobanet, pointed out that the transfer wasn’t legal under state law.
That transfer became the subject of a bill, sponsored by the members of the Joint Budget Committee, that flew through the General Assembly in the session’s final days, only to run into a roadblock in the state House. That’s where Becker and Democratic House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder (no relation) attempted to change the bill to make it easier to transfer all current and future monies from a telecommunications fund known as the High Cost Support Mechanism (HCSM) into a broadband fund.
That move drew strong opposition from two telecom giants – AT&T, whose customers pay the fees that fund the High Cost Support Mechanism, and CenturyLink, which receives the lion’s share of the HCSM’s annual funding. In 2016, that was about $31 million out of the total $33 million in the fund.
The HCSM dollars have been tied up in a lawsuit since 2014, after lawmakers passed a bill to move more money into the broadband fund. CenturyLink and Viaero, a wireless provider that serves mostly Eastern Colorado, sued the Public Utilities Commission over the definition of “effective competition,” which was included in the 2014 legislation but not defined by lawmakers, leaving that up to the PUC to handle. CenturyLink has since settled its part of the lawsuit. Jon Becker is government relations director for Viaero, which receives the second largest portion of the HCSM pot, at about $1 million. The rest is spread out among rural telecom providers around the state.
Tensions ran high at the state Capitol on Wednesday over the broadband bill. At one point, KC Becker stormed out of a conference committee that failed to come up with a compromise, telling lobbyists for CenturyLink and the AFL-CIO, which lobbied against the House version, that any bills they would bring in the future would be dead on arrival in the House, and including a few choice f-bombs. In order to preserve the $9.5 million, the House backed off from its position and allowed the Senate version to head to the governor.
Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg told The Colorado Independent he backed the House version and lamented that, with two Senate lawmakers serving 45 percent of Colorado geographically, rural voices do not get enough play on the issue in the General Assembly. (The other lawmaker is Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa).
A third issue that could be taken up in a special session is what to do about the governor’s energy office. That topic turned out to be the last action taken by the General Assembly in its 2017 session, which ended yesterday. The House and Senate both stuck to their own versions of a bill to renew the funding for the energy office, letting the bill die.
The Colorado Energy Office, established by Hickenlooper in 2012-13, promotes Colorado energy, works toward economic development tied to energy, and encourages clean energy solutions, including renewables. Among its biggest successes is helping low-income Coloradans with the costs of weatherization, a program that has assisted 14,000 households in the office’s five-year history.
But, according to its executive director, the office has also been in charge of programs that have failed to gain much interest, including several dealing with renewables.
The bill to reauthorize funding for the office, which employs 24 workers, went broader than just its budget. Its sponsor, Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction, also wanted it to change the office’s focus from renewables to fossil fuels, hydroelectric and nuclear energy. The bill, which had a broad title of “Concerning Energy Statutes,” also would allow investor-owned utilities to invest in natural gas reserves.
House Democrats stripped the bill bare when it moved into the House on Tuesday to come up with a “clean” bill that reauthorized funding, including dollars for the renewable programs that even the office said were obsolete. That’s what led to the stalemate that ended Wednesday with the bill’s demise.
Hickenlooper was asked today if he intended to veto any spending in the 2017-18 budget to find the approximately $3.1 million needed to keep the office’s current employees, and said that was also a possibility.
Should Hickenlooper call lawmakers back, a special session would last at least three days – the minimum amount of time that a bill can move all the way through the General Assembly. However, with such a short session, a deal on the issues would have to be close to completion, and lawmakers today indicated that is not the case.
The last special session was in 2012, after House Republicans, who were then in the majority, filibustered a bill to allow civil unions in Colorado. That filibuster, on the second to last day of the 2012 session, not only killed the civil unions bill but at least a dozen others, including some that were necessary to allow state government to function. The Republican action was also cited as one factor when that party lost majority control of the House in the November elections later that year.
Were a special session to be successful in resolving the transportation funding issue, it would likely forestall the need for eight statewide ballot measures filed with the Secretary of State – six by the Colorado Contractors’ Association and two by the Independence Institute. The backers would have to choose one measure to put forward to voters, which if successful in the state’s new petition process would appear on the November ballot. The contractors’ measures all focus on raising sales tax to fund transportation, but at slightly different levels. The Independence Institute’s measures both focus on using existing state resources.
Today, a coalition of business groups called Fix Colorado Roads and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce issued statements of support for a special session on transportation. Fix Colorado Roads did not back the transportation bill that failed in the regular session, believing voters would not approve a 5 cent sales tax increase on a $10 purchase. The Chamber did support the bill.
Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads told The Independent today that “a special session would afford us the opportunity to not only finish the conversation but to start anew with different approaches.” It wouldn’t make sense to just revisit any of the transportation bills that failed in the 2017 regular session, she said, adding that any solution would have to strike a better balance between using existing state dollars and a sales tax increase. The coalition’s polling showed voters wouldn’t go for a 5 cent increase, but the amount they might support could be closer to 3 cents.
Photo of Gov. John Hickenlooper by Marianne Goodland