After more than a week of speculation, Gov. John Hickenlooper today put to an end the idea that he might call lawmakers back for a special session.
Following discussions with various groups both in and out of the state Capitol, Hickenlooper said he decided a special session wouldn’t be worth the effort. The political landscape hasn’t shifted since the legislature adjourned nine days ago, he added.
On May 11, the day after lawmakers called it quits for the 2017 General Assembly, Hickenlooper raised the possibility that he could ask lawmakers to come back to iron out agreements on transportation funding, rural broadband, the Colorado Energy Office and healthcare transparency issues.
Transportation was clearly at the top of the governor’s priority list.
In January, Hickenlooper pleaded with the General Assembly to come up with a bipartisan transportation plan that would cover about $3.5 billion in road and bridge repairs, as well as transit and mobility issues. He got that solution, with a bill sponsored by the Democratic Speaker of the House, Crisanta Duran of Denver, and the Republican Senate President, Kevin Grantham of Cañon City.
The measure would have asked voters to approve a hike in the state’s sales tax from 29 cents on a $10 purchase to 34 cents. But it never gained traction with the more conservative Republicans in the state Senate, and a committee controlled by those conservatives killed the bill in April.
The governor did get something of a downpayment for transportation funding through passage of the bill that would save rural hospitals. That measure puts $1.1 billion into the transportation list developed by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Over the years, the most successful special sessions have been those in which the deals were in place before the session even started, and then those sessions need only the minimum three days to move through the House and Senate for passage.
Whether a deal on transportation was ever close to a handshake is unknown, but on Thursday Grantham put out a humorous video showing he was still waiting for a call from the governor.
— Kevin J. Grantham (@SenatorGrantham) May 18, 2017
Hickenlooper joked that while the video was good, “it needed a better ending.” Grantham told The Colorado Independent that he had expected Hickenlooper to provide the ending.
There is no closure on the three other lesser issues that Hickenlooper had on his wish list.
While the Legislature put $9.5 million into the state’s rural broadband fund, Hickenlooper told reporters last week it wasn’t enough to make progress on his goal of moving the state from 70 percent high-speed Internet service to 85 percent by the end of his term, some 19 months from now. An effort to put another $33 million or so into that fund failed on the session’s last day.
Also unresolved is how to fund the Colorado Energy Office, which works toward economic development tied to energy and encourages clean energy solutions, including renewables. Among its biggest successes is aiding low-income Coloradans with the costs of weatherization, a program that has helped 14,000 households in the office’s five-year history.
A bill to reauthorize funding for the office also died on the session’s last day. Hickenlooper said last week that as of July 1, the energy office staff would have to be pared down from its current 24 employees to about 10, but added that no state employees would lose their jobs, and that he had other options for finding the $3.1 million needed to keep the office at its current staffing levels. One option is that Hickenlooper could veto spending in the 2017-18 budget, and he said last week this is possible.
The last unresolved issue is healthcare transparency. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne had backed several unsuccessful bills in that area, including one that would have required freestanding emergency rooms to disclose their costs. Another would have required hospitals to “open their books” so that the public could see how the state spends its Medicaid dollars.
With the possibility of special session nixed, focus among some policy makers now turns to eight ballot initiatives filed by two separate groups that aim to find money for transportation, albeit in very different ways. Those measures could appear on the ballot this fall or in 2018.
The libertarian Independence Institute is pushing two of those measures, and would fund transportation using existing state resources. Voter approval is needed to authorize the state to seek bonds that would finance those projects.
The Colorado Contractors Association is sponsoring the other six, and all seek voter approval for a sales tax increase to pay for that $3.5 billion wishlist.
Both groups are expected to eventually choose one each to take to registered voters for petition signatures, although the contractors association has not committed to pushing a ballot measure for the November ballot.
Fix Colorado Roads, a statewide organization of business groups, backed the prospect of a special session. The group’s executive director, Sandra Hagen Solin, said its members were disappointed by the governor’s decision against it.
The group will keep working on a solution and highlighting the need to get something done, she said.
Hickenlooper has called one special session during his seven years as governor, in 2012.
File photo of Gov. John Hickenlooper by Corey Hutchins