By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
GLENDALE — Two former Colorado governors quizzed the candidates who want their old job on Monday at a forum sponsored by southeast metro business groups.
Former Gov. Dick Lamm — a Democrat who served three terms from 1975-1987 — set the tone for the set of interviews: “Electing a new governor is sort of like eating mushrooms out of your backyard,” he said. “You don’t really know what you’ve done until you’ve done it.”
Joining Lamm, “essentially doing a job interview tonight for a very important job,” was former two-term Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who led the state from 1999-2007. The two spent about 20 minutes grilling each of the three major gubernatorial candidates: Republican Dan Maes, Democrat John Hickenlooper and American Constitution Party nominee Tom Tancredo, who was a Republican congressman before bolting his party this summer. The Elevate Colorado forum at Infinity Park Event Center was organized by numerous area chambers of commerce and trade groups, along with prominent businesses.
The former governors pressed Maes on his qualifications for running the state. Saying the state needs a “turnaround expert,” Maes said that’s what he brings to the table, contrary to what he termed “the Denver Post having a lot of sport with me over the last few months.”
He admitted his civic involvement has been limited in recent years, attributing that to being in “entrepreneurial start-up mode, (when) you tend to be focused on business, which means there isn’t a lot of time to do heavy lifting in civic duties.” He said he volunteered for a local Republican candidate in 1996 and has been involved in his church, his homeowners association and coached his daughter’s softball team, as well as holding an office with his local Rotary Club.
The former governors asked Hickenlooper how he would handle an order issued by Gov. Bill Ritter allowing state workers to form unions — a move Owens and Lamm said they both opposed. Noting that, “everything we’ve been able to see is the impact of that executive order has been minimal,” the Democrat said he plans to evaluate it once he’s in office.
Still, he said — especially in a tough economy when state employees are going to have to do more with less — he was leery of establishing “tense, adversarial relationships” with state workers out of the gate. “If I would go back and rescind it immediately, I can guarantee various organized groups would be outraged,” he said.
The former governors asked Tancredo how he squares his Republican past with his switch to a third party, and how he plans to work across the aisle to establish a governing coalition.
Prodding Hickenlooper for what he called “esoteric” management jargon that merely “sounds good,” Tancredo said, “Look, here’s my plan. I’ll bring all the smart people in the room and I will tell them this: Vision all the solutions you want, but by God bring me back a budget that’s 10 percent less.”
All the candidates were asked how they plan to deal with projected state budget shortfalls and who, specifically, they would “have in the room” when they made tough decisions on spending cuts.
Many of the candidates’ answers covered well-trod ground — they’ve met for debates or forums regularly since August — but a handful were less familiar.
Maes reiterated his intentions to slash 2,000 state jobs in order to balance the budget. He also proposed doing away with flashy electronic signs over highways to save money, a suggestion met with dismay from Owens.
“To be honest, that has nothing to do with the structural deficit of the state,” Owens said, pressing Maes on his budget plans.
Hickenlooper told a familiar story about shaving hundreds of thousands of dollars off Denver’s budget based on a suggestion made by a janitor — involving the schedule for emptying trash cans in city offices — and also acknowledged budget shortfalls might have to be met with real pain, not just better practices.
“This might be one of the first times we’ve ever had to pull back and make it more difficult to get on Medicaid,” the Democrat said.
Tancredo repeated his rationale for striking out as a third-party candidate after a lifetime as a Republican, reminding the audience he’s long had a frayed relationship with the GOP. But when Owens asked whether he agreed with everything in the American Constitution Party’s platform, the exchange turned heated.
“Do you agree with every single thing that’s in the Republican Party platform?” Tancredo countered.
“I’ll do the questioning here,” Owens retorted as the crowd erupted in laughter and applause.
After the audience quieted, Tancredo said “for the most part, yes, some of it I don’t,” and went on to say he was “comfortable” with the principles of his new party, though he pointed out the ACP platform is written in broad strokes and doesn’t concern itself with detailed questions the way his former party’s platform does.
Asked by Lamm who the candidates planned to consult when making the tough budget decisions, the three hopefuls gave distinctly different answers.
“Can I call you guys?” Maes quipped. A moment later, he added, “Contrary again to perception, I have some great advisors around me now.” He called state Sens. Kevin Lundberg and Dave Schultheis his “constitutional experts” and said he has the conservative lawmakers on his “speed dial.”
Hickenlooper said that surrounding himself with the right team would be his first step. In addition to his chief of staff and senior cabinet members, he said he would rely on guidance from former elected officials and others whose judgment he trusts.
“I’ve tried to get as many different people, from different backgrounds, with the notion that diversity of perspective gives you a higher probability of solutions,” he said.
Recounting his experience devising 10 percent budget cuts — twice — when he was regional administrator of the Department of Education under President Reagan, Tancredo said he’d take a similar approach as governor. He plans to gather all his department heads and say, “Your task is to go back now and — say in two weeks — what you’re going to do to reduce the costs of your department by 10 percent,” leaving it up to the administrators to “determine what can you reduce, what things can’t be touched.”
Like Maes, Tancredo said public safety expenditures would be sacrosanct.
As for specific cuts, Tancredo said fixing the public employee pension system would save $400 million, though Owens disagreed that PERA has much to do with the state budget, as it’s a separate system. Nonetheless, Tancredo said, if PERA isn’t fixed, the state would bear an increased burden in employer-matching contributions. His proposal: moving the plan from defined benefits to defined contributions for new hires and instituting a seven-year freeze on cost-of-living increases.
Tancredo also proposed “unwinding” planned increases in Medicaid spending and said he would like to change the way the health care dollars are spent by channeling funds into health savings accounts for recipients, a move he said could save the state $158 million.
In addition, Tancredo said college professors at state schools should be required to teach 30 hours a week instead of the 13 hours he said is customary, adding another $50 million in savings.
After the forum, Lamm said he would “hire” Hickenlooper but was also impressed by Tancredo’s “combativeness.”
“I really admire the fact he did lay something on the table,” Lamm said, referring to Tancredo. “He didn’t give us the details — but all of the ideas that he gave us are politically contentious, which is why I admire that he made them. No. 2, in the line of the kind of things we’re going to have to do as the state of Colorado, there are no happy options. No. 3, we’ll have to wait to see how he fills out these ideas. The skeleton is there, we have to look at the body that’s developed.”