As the Colorado General Assembly prepares to gavel into session this week, the leader of the House Democrats predicts that lawmakers will be able to tackle a range of thorny problems facing the state, despite any lingering anger among Republicans — who hold a one-vote majority in the chamber — over a Democratic-driven legislative reapportionment decision GOP leaders have called “vindictive.” In part because so many legislators won’t be returning next year, says House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the bitter partisan atmosphere could still yield a productive session as lawmakers consider their legacies.
The Denver Democrat made history when he took over as House minority leader about a month ago, becoming the first openly gay man to hold one of the Legislature’s top leadership positions. (In 2003, former House Minority Leader Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, won the distinction as the first openly gay woman to hold a top post in the Colorado statehouse.) But, even though he was one of the prime sponsors of a civil unions bill killed by a single Republican vote in a House committee last year, Ferrandino says he’s hoping to find a GOP House member to introduce the bill this year.
After moving to Colorado early in the last decade, Ferrandino was first appointed to his seat by a vacancy committee in 2007 and then made his way out of a crowded primary to win election the next year. Before winning office, he worked as a budget analyst for the Colorado Department of Health Care and Financing and served on the powerful Joint Budget Committee before taking the leadership position, bringing a numbers-crunching wonkiness to the table.
Democrats, who hold a more comfortable majority in the Senate, have already started to unveil an ambitious slate of proposals to address high unemployment in the state, as Republicans are countering with their own set of solutions. And even as recent economic forecasts look brighter, the budget battle lines have been drawn between rapidly expanding Medicaid costs that Republicans say have gotten out of control and a $100 million property tax break available to some senior homeowners — suspended by both parties as a budget-balancing measure over the years — that Ferrandino says needs a revamp.
Ferrandino will be steering a House caucus that includes two congressional candidates — his predecessor as minority leader, state Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, stepped down a few months ago to devote more time to a run against U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, while state Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, is mounting a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora — during an election year that promises to focus unprecedented national attention on Colorado’s contests.
Ferrandino joined Colorado Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for an hour-long interview at the Colorado Statesman offices on Jan. 4. The Statesman regularly conducts in-depth interviews prominent political figures. Read transcripts of more than a dozen other conversations with Colorado politicos archived online at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.
Below is the transcript of The Statesman’s conversation with Ferrandino. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): What are your thoughts going into the session?
Mark Ferrandino (MF): I think we have the opportunity to have a pretty productive session. There’s lots of big issues we need to address, and some small issues. I’ve been talking to several people, and I think there’s a lot of things we can do — not trying to change the world but actually just practical things we can get done, bipartisan. I think the press is saying it’s going to be a very partisan session because of both the redistricting and reapportionment, and the election coming up. And I think we control that ourselves. We have 120 days in the session, we can either make it really partisan, or we can say, “We’re going to put that aside during the 120 days and actually work together.” My hope is we’ll work together because I think there’s actually practical things we can do.
In terms of the House agenda, I think Democrats are looking, number one, at jobs and the economy. We’ve already outlined one bill, Senate Bill 1 — the HIRE Colorado Act, which actually, the Republicans, the speaker [House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch] has already said, “Well it’s just a union-payback bill,” but it actually — if you look at the math, we’ll bring more money back into the state because we’re spending state dollars in Colorado to hire Coloradans. Over the next couple of days and weeks we’ll outline some more of our jobs bills, and that’s the number one focus of most of our caucus because that’s what they’re hearing when they’re out with their constituents.
It’s that people are worried about — even people who have jobs don’t have the job that they used to have. It’s not the same level of employment that they used to have. It’s, “How do we get the economy going back so that people who want jobs can find jobs, and people who want to get better jobs can find those better jobs?” One of the other things we’re hearing is workforce-development issues, and we’re going to work a lot on jobs as tied to workforce-development and how do you match up skills? Because the economy’s changed — the type of jobs that are out there are changing than what was before the Great Recession. So how do you make sure the universities, the higher education system is targeting the right skillset for businesses? We’re going to be rolling out, hopefully, something in the next week, actually this weekend, looking at trying to foster that collaboration.
The second issue that’s big is the budget. Me being on the budget committee, that’s where I spend most of my time. With a new forecast, we’re seeing hopeful signs. We have more leeway. I think the governor did the right thing to say that we’re not going to cut K-12 anymore, especially given the Lobato lawsuit and that decision. [Ed. note: Last month, a Denver judge ruled the state has failed to meet constitutional obligations to provide the “thorough and uniform” education required by the state Constitution, a decision the state is appealing to the Colorado Supreme Court.]
While it’s being appealed, it’s still, “We shouldn’t dig our hole deeper,” depending on what happens with Lobato. The Republicans keep going after Medicaid. We have one of the leanest Medicaid programs in the country — we’ve been doing things to control costs. We’ll continue to find solutions but there’s no — they want a waiver, but there’s no magic waiver that’s going to solve the problem. If they want waivers, let’s talk about what those waivers would do. There’s only a limited amount of waivers that we could actually get… They talk a big game, but we still haven’t seen real, concrete solutions about how do you solve the Medicaid problem? It’s actually been Democrats — through the Accountable Care collaboratives, some of the cost-containment issues — that we’ve been able to actually look at controlling costs.
The Senior Property Tax Exemption will be a big debate during the session. I think the governor, in terms of putting — now it’s about $18 million in the Fuel and Rent Rebate program, is really targeting the most needy seniors. I think one of the issues we need to understand with Senior Property Tax Exemption is, one, it’s not means-tested, so someone who has a million-dollar home in the mountains, versus someone who is on fixed income, gets the same amount. And someone who’s on a fixed income who doesn’t even own their home doesn’t get the benefit of it. And you have to live in your home for 10 years, which, if someone wants to downsize their property, they’d lose their property-tax exemption. So there are fundamental problems within the property tax exemption itself that, if we really want to target the most needy, and allow seniors to move smarter through life in terms of if they want to downsize — not losing those benefits and making bad decisions because of economic incentives that we’re doing in the wrong way — we need to look at changes to that program. Regardless of the budgetary impact, I think that program needs to be revisited. With the aging population, there’s issues there that we need to make sure we’re hitting the right people and not putting in a program that’s just another entitlement program that’s going to grow out of control.
CS: Do you think it’s time to look at reformulating the Senior Property Tax Exemption?
MF: Yeah, I think it needs to be changed.
CS: Not just because times are bad?
MF: When times are bad you have conversations you otherwise wouldn’t. So, if we’re going to have the conversation about the Senior Property Tax Exemption, let’s have a conversation about if and when we’re going to restore it. If we’re restoring it, let’s restore it in a way that actually makes sense, that it’s really going to the most needy seniors and not just blowing a hole in the budget.
CS: Do you not get the distinct impression that, for the Republicans, this is a big issue for them to fight?
MF: It’s funny that, when you look at ’02 and ’03 during the last downturns, when Republicans controlled the House, they voted to suspend the Senior Property Tax Exemption. It’s only been in place, I believe, three years since it actually was passed. So three of the 12 years it’s actually been in place, or three of the 11, something like that. So now it’s this sacrosanct thing, even though Republicans in the past have voted to suspend it. So, I think they’re playing some politics here, versus actually what the right solutions are for the state. The question to them is: The governor proposed a balanced budget. Now, if you don’t want to do what the governor did, what are your offsets to that? So if you want to fully restore the Senior Property Tax Exemption, which is about $100 million, you take away the $18 million the governor’s put in towards the Fuel Rebate Program, if you want to do that, I actually think that’s a good policy to itself. If you do that, you’re looking at $88 million — $82 million! Geez, I should be good with numbers — $82 million. The question is, where do you get that? Do you get it from schools, do you get it from higher education? They want to get it from Medicaid — there’s not much there. I don’t know if you were at the [pre-session briefing sponsored by the Colorado] Press Association —
CS: Yes, we were.
MF: — and they talked about the billion dollars in optional services that we can… This was (Senate Minority Leader Bill) Cadman’s great idea, that we have a billion dollars in optional services, but as I said there, you have to actually look at what those optional services are. Just because they’re optional doesn’t mean they’re enhancements. Other states have enhancements, what they give more. What our optional services are are prescription drugs — which is optional, we can get rid of it, but your hospital costs will skyrocket because people aren’t managing their diseases — and home- and community-based services, which means, if you don’t provide — to get eligible home and community based services, you have to be eligible for a nursing home. So if you aren’t going to be in a home- and community-based services, you’re going to get full, 24/7 care in a nursing home, which is much more expensive. So, it sounds great, let’s go to our billion dollars in optional services, but that billion dollars we get rid of will cost us more. And those two, the nursing home and community based services and PACE — which is the Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, which is a kind of home and community services — and the prescription drugs take up about half a billion dollars of that billion dollars. And there’s a lot of other things too. But that’s half of it — if you get rid of that, you’re going to spend much more than billion dollars in the costs that are associated with that because you just can’t — you have to provide the services.
CS: Do you have to? Are those truly optional services? Under the Affordable Care Act, as it’s going into effect, some of what you can do is changing. Are those?
MF: Those are optional.
CS: And they’ll continue to be?
MF: My understanding is, they’ll continue to be optional — but at the same point, they’re not. They’re optional because you can pay for the same care different ways. You’re going to pay for it. The question is, what’s the best outcome for them? The best example, I think, is someone with diabetes. You can pay for their insulin which is a prescription drug, or you can pay for their hospital visitation and then, after they decompress so much, (you can pay for) their dialysis, which is much more expensive. To put one person on dialysis probably costs you more than — and I’m totally pulling this out of nowhere, so don’t quote me — but insulin for someone’s (entire lifetime) will probably not cost more than a year of dialysis for a person. So does this make — it doesn’t make sense
CS: You ran the numbers when some of these optional services were put into effect, (comparing) some of the spending on other long-term care with spending for nursing home care? Did those costs actually drop?
MF: Yeah — actually, a lot of the requirements for the optional services, when you get the waivers, you have to be budget neutral or show a budget savings. So when you’re requesting from the Feds the optional programs, you have to show that it’s actually going to reduce costs, or at least be the same costs. So all of these, I think have done that. Now, do they cost more today than they did 20 years ago? Of course, because there’s more people on things, inflation and all those issues. But it has, I think, and you could probably prove it. And if you look at other states, states are moving towards what Colorado is doing to really emphasize home- and community-based services versus nursing homes, so we’ve actually been a leader in some of the Medicaid innovations. People look to us and South Carolina, probably, and North Carolina, as three states that really are kind of looking at, how do you do Medicaid differently? So the budget — I do think we have some wiggle room on that with the new forecast, but I do think it’ll be a big debate, as always. I mean it’s the only thing, constitutionally, we have to do.
The last piece of the things that we’re going to be working on is around tax expenditures, both transparency and accountability around those tax expenditures. Last year we did some reporting around those, and so that’s going to start to give us information next year. But we’ve seen reports that show that, for example, the Enterprise Zone tax credit — last year alone we spent, The [Denver] Post calculated it at about a hundred some-odd thousand dollars per job that was created, while House Bill 10-1001 that was carried by [former state Rep. Joe] Rice (D-Littleton), and supported by the Democrats, I think they showed that it was costing us $9,000 per job that we were creating. So, should we look at the Enterprise Zone, maybe reform it? We have several bills to reform it, one to cap the rate that enterprise zones could get, so it’d be capped. I have a bill to say that you have to review every enterprise zone every five years because an enterprise zone is trying to create economic development in this spot, so eventually, hopefully —
CS: It’s going to get up there.
MF: Hopefully, so eventually you can get rid of (enterprise zone designations).
CS: There’s not a sunset for the present designations?
MF: No. And 80 percent of the state is an enterprise zone. It’s a little ridiculous, and so I think it doesn’t pass the smell test. And so we’re going to look at those. Just because something we did 30 years ago made sense now doesn’t mean it makes sense now. And there probably are better use of tax dollars, either through different types of incentives, like House Bill 1001, other kind of innovative ideas of how do you start startups and entrepreneurial things that other states are doing that are working. Why don’t we use the money there, instead of in things that were passed 30 years ago? Just because they were done then doesn’t mean that they’re actually working today. We need to evaluate those, just like we evaluate all the spending issues.
One of the other issues that will come up in session — actually in the beginning of the session — and it hopefully will be something we can do very bipartisan, I’ve had good conversations with the speaker, is around oversight of departments and the SMART Bill that I and [Senate] President [Brandon] Shaffer (D-Longmont) passed now two years ago, the State Measurement — State — oh gosh, now I have to remember what SMART stands for. State Measures — no, State Measurements — State Measurements for Accountable, Responsive and Transparent Government, that’s what it stands for — (laughs) it took me a second. We had the acronym, we filled in words after (laughs).
It’s already started with the (Joint Budget Committee) this year, and it’s going to start even more with the Committees of Reference. One of the emphases of that bill was to move Committees of Reference from just bill committees to oversight committees as well, and hopefully we’ll start to see that culture in the Legislature change, with leadership really pushing members to take that oversight responsibility, actually as a key of their job — not just passing bills, but actually doing the oversight as part of their real job. So hopefully that will be an interesting, bipartisan thing that we can start session off well together.
CS: You mentioned bipartisanship. We heard Speaker McNulty talk about the fact that he was going to be bipartisan and there was not going to be politics involved if he could help it. How much do you take that with a grain of salt?
MF: I take him at his word, but we’ll see — actions speak louder than words. We’ll see what happens during the session. I think, from conversations I’ve been having with him, there are going to be things we disagree on. There’s reasons there’s two different parties and people associate with different parties. We’re not going to agree 100 percent. It wouldn’t be good if we agreed 100 percent. We’re going to have our fights and our arguments. One is, how do you do those arguments — how do you do them in a respectful way where everyone has dialogue and everyone can have their voice and the outcome is where it is? And then, do we find places where we can work together and actually pass things and get things done?
Right now I’m pretty hopeful that we can have a session that — we’re going to have Civil Unions, we’re going to have — the Republicans probably will bring up collective bargaining issues — the things you see every year that come up and we have huge fights over them are not going to change. Those are going to be there, that’s why we’re in different parties. But I think there’s a lot of things we can do together, and hopefully we look for those opportunities to do those together.
CS: So even given that this year is politically charged, maybe in a way that last year wasn’t, with the elections, some lingering anger over reapportionment — that’s an ambitious agenda that you’re talking about there. Last year we heard from some legislative and party leaders at around this same time, and they talked much the same about jobs bills. At the end of the session it didn’t look like a whole lot had been done and everyone had just kind of gotten through and was worn out by passing the budget.
MF: Yeah, the budget did take a lot out of people.
CS: What’s different about this year? Are we going to be looking at the end of this session and saying, “Well, what happened to all the jobs bills?” Last year, there was the Agricultural Tax repeal —
MF: Right. I don’t know if I’d say that was a — well, I’m not going to…
CS: The Republicans say that’s an economic incentive and has helped spur job creation, to an extent. But other than that, there’s not a lot to point to other than just getting through the session.
MF: Yeah. I think there were a lot of jobs bills out there that didn’t end up going anywhere. Hopefully, one thing is I think we’re going to see some of the similar bills but hopefully we learned from the errors and mistakes and where there were… You know, sometimes bills die because there’s legitimate concerns with them, and people can spend the interim meeting and working on actually how to deal with those. So hopefully we’ve learned some of that.
The other thing I would say is, while it is coming up to an election season, the other thing that will be interesting to see is you have a lot of legislators who are both term limited or who have decided not to run for re-election. And if you’ve spent time in the building, people change when it’s their last session, because they don’t have to go out to the voters and they want, in that last session, they want to — they start to think about legacy, what did I do in my time here, what am I going to get done? And there is a lot — you see members much more willing to cross the aisle and cooperate on bills during their last session because they really want to get something that they’ve been working on done.
If you think about (state Rep.) Judy Solano, who’s been working on trying to reform the CSAP tests. She’s going to bring that back — it’ll be the last time she can bring that back — and, hopefully, people will work with her to try and see if we can get that done. (State Rep.) Tom Massey on film incentives — that’s a bill he’s been working on for years. This is his last session, the governor’s supportive of it, and maybe we’ll see something done.
I do think that kind of having people not running or people term-limited will allow some of that collaboration to actually happen. Even while everyone thinks it’s partisan, it does change members — especially with a 33/32 (partisan split) in the House, you have enough members on both sides who want to just come to the middle and say, “We want to get things done,” that those majority and minority lines will blur a lot more, I think you’ll see this year, than in the past. At least that’s my hope.
CS: If you were term-limited this year, what would be your bill that you’d say, “It’s time to get it done and I’m going to …”
MF: Oh, that’s … I mean, if I had … You know, payday lending’s been my big issue for a long time. We finally passed that two years ago. So that’s done. In terms on a personal level, civil unions is important. I want to be in the Legislature the day we pass that bill. I won’t be carrying it this year —
CS: As you’ve said, you won’t be sponsoring it this year.
MF: Yes, as I said I want to be in the Legislature when it passes. I said that purposely. Because it’s not important that I carry it, I want to just see it happen.
CS: Are you encouraged that the new group of Republicans that is forming — is that a good sign in terms of how it might spill over into Republican votes so that there’ll actually be a vote in the House?
MF: It can’t hurt. I do think that, when you look at polling data, I think there’s been several polls that somewhere around 75 to 80 percent of Coloradans support some type of recognition for same-sex couples, and 60 percent of self-identified conservatives support civil unions or some recognition. So this is just a manifestation of those attitudes in the public. We hear a lot that the Legislature sometimes takes a little time to catch up to the views of the public that they represent, and I think this is a good example of where the public is out front leading their representatives on it.
And there are members of the Republican caucus who are, I think, afraid of primaries and afraid of backlash from those, even though they might be even kind of on the fence or even supportive, they worry about the political ramifications. And so you have a small group of people who are on the far right who are controlling what happens in the Legislature, which is not what’s supported by the vast majority.
So hopefully, as you see more and more Republicans who say, “Well, no, this is a Republican value too — this is not a partisan value, this is a value that we all share” — and it should be. Equal rights should not be a Democratic issue, it should not be a Republican issue, it should be just a human issue. We should all support equal rights. I mean it’s just basic founding of our country. We’ve moved more as a country towards — you look at our founding documents, we’ve moved closer and closer to the ideals of our founding documents as we look at moving towards equality. And this is the step in that progress.
CS: Are you optimistic?
MF: I’m opt— I’ll say this: I’m more optimistic this year than I was last year. So, I think we can do it. I think especially with some of the members not running, I think that might — the question is, where do they want to be when history’s written? Where does their name want to be written on, which side? And so hopefully that will help people not have to think about the political ramifications, but what they think is right.
And what I would say about the people who worry about the political ramifications, I think that is over — I think the political ramifications are worse on the opposite side. Voting against it, you have a much bigger population who is going to be unhappy with you than if you vote for it. Because the vote for it is a much — 76 percent of Coloradans — I mean, I’m sorry, there’s not many things you can find that 76 percent of people in this state agree on.
CS: Right, but if you’re from El Paso County, you’re perhaps —
MF: It still is supported and still is… I don’t remember the number but it was either in the high 50s or low 60s (percent) of El Paso County support it. You have to remember that there’s a small group of people who are the religious conservatives, but there’s a lot of people, and Colorado is known historically when you look at the Republican Party, very libertarian.
MF: Libertarians tend to be in support of this type of thing, because it’s government out of your life. So, it’s where libertarians and Democrats on social issues tend to come together and agree on things. So I think that’s what you’re seeing, and hopefully we’ll see it pass this year.
CS: Let me ask you, if the support is so high, and it’s consistently high over the last year, year and a half in polling, and only going upwards…
MF: Why not go to the ballot?
CS: Why not go to the ballot and repeal the Marriage Amendment? I mean, there’s a lot of arguments for that, to help spur turnout in a year where people might be less than enthused about voting for things they voted for four years ago. Why was that decision made?
MF: So, one, there’s a difference between civil unions and marriage. And, I don’t know, when you look at the polling data, you look at the public, I don’t know if the public’s there on marriage. I think they’re on recognition, not on marriage. So I don’t think going to repeal the marriage issue, I don’t… I think it’s changed a lot in the six years — we’re going to six years since the Marriage Amendment passed, and I think that trend’s going to continue, but I don’t think we’re there yet, as a state.
We just saw nationwide, for the first time last year, that a majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, which is a milestone, and I think you’re just going to see that support continue to grow. But I think the issue is civil unions and we’re really focused on civil unions right now. Because there’s people out there who have families, who have kids, who need those protections, and that we can’t wait for the public to change its opinion on marriage, because those people need protections now.
CS: Putting it off for the ideal doesn’t help them?
MF: Yeah, exactly. Someone had me do (the) Caplis and Silverman (radio show on KHOW-AM) yesterday, and they were saying, “Why don’t you go to the ballot with civil unions, if it’s so supported?” My argument is, I didn’t like going to the ballot for Ref I [a ballot measure to establish civil unions defeated by voters in 2006] to begin with. I thought they should have gone through the Legislature. But I think it was kind of a strategic idea with the Marriage Amendment on the ballot, they wanted something pro to contrast, so I understand that.
But basic human rights is not something we should vote by the people. Even if the people support it — we have a legislature for a reason, you know? We represent people, we got elected, we should do our job, vote on issues that we have the rights to vote on, and then get held accountable by the constituents. If they don’t like what we did, they have every right to vote us out, but I don’t think — I actually think if we don’t do it, people will see more likely they’ll get voted out than people who actually vote for it. So, yes, try it on other things, but I don’t think it’s the right issue you bring to the ballot to say, “We’re going to vote on basic human, equal rights issues at the ballot.” It’s just not — you don’t let — I mean, our Founders, just the idea of democracy and how we separated powers, and how we dealt with different things is you didn’t want the tyranny of the majority over the minority. And so the majority voting on the minority’s rights is against kind of the principles that we were founded on.
CS: Right, and Colorado’s got a history of some problems with that?
MF: Yes — Amendment 2? (Laughs.) [Ed. note: The amendment, passed by Colorado voters in 1992, barred any government in the state from granting protected status to gay or lesbianresidents, but was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996.]
CS: But the only way to do that is by voting on those rights, since it’s in the (state) Constitution.
MF: Well, marriage — I think the only way you’re going to get marriage, which, shocking news, I support gay marriage — but the only way you’re going to do that is through the ballot box, and so we’re going to have to do that through the ballot box, unfortunately. But this is one of the pieces of history people forget, is when the Marriage Amendment — I think it was Amendment 43 — when it passed, throughout the country there were two options, really. There was the narrow version that was just marriage, and then there was the broad version that said anything like marriage, looks like marriage, sounds like marriage, does anything, gives anyone recognition you can’t do. And the writers of the amendment did the narrow version because they saw from polling data they would have lost the other one. So the voters, by one making that decision and seeing that, they left the door open for the Legislature to do civil unions, because they didn’t do the broad one.
I think the Legislature’s doing what they have the power to do and to do civil unions. As I said, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and I do think it happens either in ’12 or it happens in ’13, and I say that regardless of who’s in the majority of the House. I think you’ll have enough turnover and enough people who have gone through an election who will be OK, feel much more comfortable voting for it. Even if it’s still Speaker McNulty, I think it passes in 2013 — if it doesn’t pass in 2012.
CS: But why wasn’t it done when the Democrats controlled both chambers?
MF: Hindsight’s 20/20. You know, I think it was time to — you see, one of the things was looking at Ref I and giving time for the —
CS: That was still too recent?
MF: It’s still too recent. I think at the end of 2010, maybe we should have looked at it when (Democratic Gov. Bill) Ritter decided not to run again, but I think no one — at the time during session, no one saw the impeding wave at that time coming in. It wasn’t until later.
CS: You just mentioned Gov. Ritter — can we focus a little bit on Gov. (John) Hickenlooper?
CS: There was a recent story, as you know, about Hickenlooper’s style of leadership.
CS: And now that he’s gone through his first session, do you have any different kinds of expectations from him as he goes into this new year?
MF: I think he’s going to continue to be Hickenlooper with all of his positive and all of his negative. All of us have our positive and our negative. But he is — It’s funny, I’m reading Steve Jobs’ biography, and there’s a whole part in Steve Jobs’ biography about this — he creates a reality distortion field, gets things done because he just, he wills it to happen. And Hickenlooper is in some sense similar to that because he has these ideas and he just, he pushes on them, and he gets things done because he’s determined and he brings people together. He says, “This is what we want to do,” and he listens. He’s different than other governors, I think, because he’s not — he doesn’t have this clear agenda, like, “This is what I want to do.” He really wants to be, I think, the governor who makes government work, who makes it — and I think it fits him perfectly — the effective, efficient and elegant. And that elegance is the key to understanding Hickenlooper.
I think you’re going to see him continue to try and reform government, make it work better, try and update it to a more 21st Century way of working. He’s trying some bigger things. He’s already talked about some of the work he’s trying to do with personnel reform. He’s trying to do some things around Pinnacol, we’ll see what happens with that — I think he was smart to set up that task force to look at it, and we’ll see what comes out of it. To the chagrin of Democrats and Republicans sometimes, he tries to bring everyone together and find the middle ground. And that annoys people on the left, and it annoys people on the right but actually when you look at the state, it probably does actually pretty good stuff for the state.
CS: It’s symbolic of Colorado because it is kind of split in terms of party affiliations and people?
MF: Yeah, Colorado is a practical state. We’re one of the most educated states in the country. People are smart, they want government to work, they don’t want it to be overly partisan and overly one-sided to the left or right, they want it in the middle. And I think he helps to bring it there. The great example is the fracking rules. He and others were able to get a good compromise where we have the toughest disclosure rules in the country, and I don’t think you would have seen that happen without Hickenlooper being involved in that. So while he’s not the show horse, and while he does give a good speech and he does good on the stump, but he’s not the person who is out there saying, “This is my agenda, and I’m going to go and…” — making bold statements. He gets a lot of things done by working behind the scenes and listening to people. And I think he’s going to continue to do that, I don’t see him changing much.
CS: Is it a lot different from his predecessor, Gov. Ritter?
MF: There’s similarities in some places, but they’re very different in their style. Ritter was — he knew what he wanted, he wanted the New Energy Economy, he fought for that and there were times where Ritter was — I think people would say he was not the most decisive at times. You would hear a lot from the second floor, “Well, we just wonder where Ritter stands on things.” I do think Hickenlooper has learned from — when he came in, he talked about how he talked to Ritter, he talked to (former Republican Gov. Bill) Owens and (former Democratic Govs. Roy) Romer and (Dick) Lamm to try and see what worked for them and what didn’t. And I think he’s learned from Ritter about trying to be more clear on where he stands on issues.
I don’t hear that much anymore that we didn’t know where Hickenlooper stood on issues, you know, privately. It’s not like he’s going to go out and say — but you go talk to him and he’ll say, “This is my problem with this bill and if you deal with this we can work and see if there’s an area.” And this is also — he frustrates legislators — is he will not say, “No, I’m not…” He won’t go to you and say, “I’m going to veto your bill.” He’ll go, “Well here’s my concerns with your bill, let’s see if we can find a place where we can actually find common ground.” You know, that’s what his staff does and it actually gets good policy, but it sometimes gets people frustrated (laughs).
CS: But people are frustrated, and there’s another round of this criticism the last couple of weeks, that he doesn’t wade into controversial situations and do the kind of problem-solving you’re saying he’s so good at.
MF: But I think he does do it behind the scenes. I think he does do — tries to work behind the scenes to build those coalitions. If I’m sitting in the governor’s chair and there’s something that’s coming up that’s going to — it’s just the two parties upstairs are fighting each other — which, hopefully, we’re not going to be doing — and it’s just this partisan issue, why would I wade in? Why would I step in when it’s just people taking political shots at each other? I think when there’s practical conversations happening, he steps in to try and make sure that those — that where there’s a difference, he can bridge that difference. But when there are so diverse differences that it’s just partisan, I don’t think he, he doesn’t try to step into things because it doesn’t make sense for him to use his time and resources to try and solve a problem that can’t be solved. I think he’s really smart with his time.
CS: But isn’t that an element of leadership?
MF: Well, but I mean look last year. Civil unions — he came out and supported civil unions. He didn’t have to weigh in on that, he weighed in on that. On personnel reform he’s taking on some key areas that are tough. On Pinnacol, he’s taking on key constituency groups that are not — I don’t know if they’re there yet on what goes on with Pinnacol. I think he uses, he’s smart in where he spends his resources.
CS: He does seem to be taking on some of the sacred cows, but is that the only place he’s spending his political capital? is the question that comes up. With school lunches last year, and near the end (of the session) when the regulations were holding the budget hostage, that was the Hickenlooper I think that a lot of people say they’d like to see more full-time. A lot of fights he did seem to sit on the sidelines, though. You’re saying that, privately, he was steering things?
MF: I think it was him and his staff —
CS: You didn’t see a lot of solutions on some of those things, though?
MF: (Laughs) I think a governor’s in a weird position, any governor, because you have a situation where our government is set up that the Legislature is arguably the more powerful branch of the two — but it’s this issue where I think sometimes you get legislators, especially when you’re a governor, saying, “Don’t tell us what to do. We’re the Legislature, we’ll tell you what to do.” And then the governor’s trying to balance that between being too involved or not being involved. I think if he was the opposite and so involved, right, he would get screamed at by…
CS: People would say he was running the state like he did Denver?
MF: Right, where there’s a strong mayor. I think in Denver — look, he can lead, he knows how to lead. He did it in Denver, I think he’s done it in places as governor. But I think it’s a different role. And I think he’s doing it well.
CS: So after the first year, your counterpart in the Senate, President Shaffer, said that he expected to see a different kind of (leadership) style this year, now that the governor has got his legs under him?
MF: I think he’s going to be more out front on things. Look, Pinnacol, personnel reform, I think he’ll do some other things. There are some other issues that I know he’s working on that he’s probably going to roll out in the State of the State (address). So there’s things he really wants to be out front on. I think he spent his first year trying to figure out what those were. Now he’ll start to do those and roll those out. But I don’t think his style’s going to change — how he approaches solving problems and dealing with policy isn’t going to be any different.
CS: What about your style versus that of your predecessor, (former Minority Leader) Sal Pace? Do you see any differences in how you’ll be doing things?
MF: I’ll just say how I approach it, I won’t — Sal did an amazing job stepping in. I think he was a phenomenal leader. He really showed the ability to actually be the fighter when he needed to be the fighter and be the person who could bridge the divide when he needed, and he really worked well with the speaker. My experience, and what I think I bring to this role is being on the JBC for three years, it really is kind of that committee that does not look at partisan issues. And even with the new JBC, where there’s new members, it really got to a place where it wasn’t partisan. There’s the saying when you cross the street you take your partisan hat off and you write a budget that’s practical and looks out for the best interests of the state, not for either party or the area where you represen
I think that mindset that I have from the JBC will serve me well in the minority leader role to try and make sure I work in that context of thinking, what’s best for the state, not what’s best for my party. I have a good relationship with Frank (McNulty). We joust each other, and we’ll disagree but we actually get along and we hang out together, so I think that will help. And so did Frank and Sal, so I think the relationship between the two leaders in the House, between Sal and Frank, and Frank and I, won’t be very different. I think my experience will help with the job but I think it’ll be very similar in a lot of sense to Sal’s ability to call a spade a spade when it needs to be called but also be willing to sit down and find a common ground where we need it.
CS: This session, you’ll have two members of the House and one prominent member of the Senate running for Congress. [Ed. note: State Reps. Pace and Joe Miklosi are running for Congress in the 3rd and 6th Districts, respectively, and Senate President Shaffer is running in the 4th District. All are Democrats challenging Republican incumbents.]
MF: Two members of the Senate!
CS: Two members of the Senate?
MF: (State Rep. Kevin) Lundberg. [Ed. note: Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, is considering a run against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis.]
CS: He’s still considering it —
MF: Oh, he filed an exploratory committee, that’s —
CS: Yeah, he’s created an exploratory committee, and he’s got a Facebook page asking for advice.
MF: (Laughs) I should weigh in on that.
CS: Do you have advice for him?
MF: I think he should run, I think that’s great (laughs).
CS: OK, so maybe two in each chamber running pretty hard. In your experience, does that skew things? It’s not often that there’s that many —
MF: The only time I can remember — we had (state Reps. Scott) Tipton and Cory (Gardner) running at the same time, yeah. [Ed. note: Two years ago, Tipton and Gardner both ran successfully against Democratic incumbents and were elected to Congress.] And I don’t think it changed much. I think there was a heightened sense of kind of their votes and were they missing…
CS: Were they there —
MF: I remember Cory being gone a lot. So I think there’s heightened. I think the press and everyone else is more heightened to what they’re doing as congressional candidates. But in terms of day-to-day operations in the House and Senate, I don’t think that’s going to change.
CS: But the election year calendar is pushed up quite a bit, so that you’ve got your precinct caucuses, county assemblies and your state assembly and convention all —
MF: But the House District and Senate District assemblies always happen during county conventions, which usually happen in April, so it happened during session already. The only thing we’ve moved up — everything moved up a little and the caucuses, the Republicans are doing February, we’re doing March, which is the exact same time we did it four years ago — well, February was the time we did it four years ago. So I don’t think it changes much. Hopefully what it does change is it puts pressure on members to get done early so we can go out, because of the earlier primary period, and maybe we can get done a week or two early, which is my hope (knocks on the table) — we shall see. I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful.
CS: Was it Speaker McNulty who said that at the CPA briefing? He’d like to talk to you guys about getting done early. Is that something that you’re all in agreement with, or just on the House side?
MF: I know at least on the House side, and I think President Shaffer has said that, so I don’t know — I haven’t talked to Sen. Cadman or the other — (House) Majority Leader (Amy) Stephens or (Senate) Majority Leader (John) Morse. But I think, if we’re done — if we’re sitting there twiddling our thumbs, it doesn’t make sense for us to come in. If we have real work to do at the end, and you’ve mentioned it, last year — you look at the last days of session where we almost went to the brink of a special session because the Republicans wanted to pay back a contributor who happened to be the payday lending industry, in a rules bill and they’d already lost the bill once, so they tried to come around and — Only bad things happen — I think our chief of staff, (former House Majority Leader) Paul Weissmann, says it well: “There’s usually nothing that needs to pass in the last week of session. Anything that gets introduced is usually something that is going to have problems.”
CS: Speaking of things, though, that you might need to take care of early — some of the election laws. Are those on a fast track, or is there the potential to let things stand the way the Secretary of State has them? [Ed. note: Secretary of State Scott Gessler recently ordered primary candidates to file biweekly campaign finance reports after legislation moving up Colorado’s primary date failed to also adjust reporting requirements.]
MF: I think there’s conversations going on around the reporting for the primaries, and going back to a more reasonable, sensible reporting. The fact that most members don’t raise money during session anyway because there’s strict prohibitions for certain — you can raise money, but not from anyone who’s associated with a lobbyist or is a lobbyist. You don’t see people raise that much money because they’re too busy in the Legislature (laughs). Also, reporting every two weeks zero (dollar) reports doesn’t really make much sense and so before (the primary date moved), I think it was like a, somewhere between a month and two months’ reporting before the primary. I think there’s a desire to move back, and I think there’s agreement to try and do that quickly, because it has to be done before Jan. 30.
CS: Do you feel that the secretary of state — there’s been some criticism that he’s perhaps overstepped —
MF: I don’t know if it’s been criticism or it’s been the courts saying that he actually is overstepping. Criticism sounds like it’s unjustified. It’s actually the facts that he’s overstepped his boundaries. To go from (former Democratic Secretary of State) Bernie Buescher, who in most people’s eyes is one of the most non-partisan, most reasonable people in the state who’s been elected office, to go to Scott Gessler [the Republican who defeated Buescher in 2010] who is — he is now using the secretary of state’s office to do what he’s tried to do for decades as a lawyer for the Republicans, to skew the ability for Republicans to actually be able to have advantages in campaign finance and elections. It’s sad to see what’s happened to that office.
And he really has — I think he is — secretary of state is something that should be above politics, because you really, you’re overseeing the campaigns. He has done the exact opposite and made it all politics. You know, when he’s going to go and raise money for a county party that he just fined and waived a significant portion of their fines, just the appearance — He doesn’t understand that that appearance, just even if it’s not illegal, but the appearance of that is bad. You know, I think this is someone who really is out of touch with reality and the mainstream of Colorado.
I think we’re seeing that when the courts — it’ll be interesting to see, he already said he won’t need it, but I doubt it — as he goes through these court cases, I think he’s going to have to come to the Legislature for more money for legal fees. And the question is, why are we paying these legal fees when every time he goes to court, he gets shot down? So he’s clearly continuing to overstep his bound and then the taxpayers are paying for him to overstep his bound and do partisan stuff through this elected office. I don’t think that makes sense, so it’s going to be — I think it’ll be — we will have an interesting session with Scott Gessler.
CS: In addition to making sure that there aren’t loopholes to try to exploit, like the reporting requirements before the primary, does the Legislature need to set some more guard rails for the secretary of state’s office?
MF: You know, the problem is, there are guard rails: the law. And he just ignores it (laughs) and then the courts tell him. And so it’s hard when you have someone who’s an elected official who isn’t following the law, and then the courts are saying no, and then he continues to do it and says, “I don’t really care what the courts are saying.” That is significant — how do you put guard rails on someone who doesn’t care if the guard rails already exist?
CS: Cut his budget?
MF: My bigger question is, if he comes for a legal services request to actually pay for his lawsuit, should we actually fund it if he continues to behave the way he’s behaving and spending money in a way that is, he knows he’s going to lose in court and he just doesn’t care? I think granted, there’s roles in — you know, if you just cut the entire secretary of state’s budget, there’s things that need to get done in the secretary of state’s office like actually doing the elections, business filings, non-profit filings — you don’t want to hurt those people just because of his bad behavior.
The question is, how do you go after what he’s trying to do bad? Because there’s things he’s doing, probably, that are good, that get overshadowed by all the news that he keeps making for himself. And it’s sad, because even with (former Secretary of State) Gigi Dennis and some of the Democrats and Republicans, there have been skirmishes and people saying, “Oh, well this is someone using for political gain,” but nowhere to the level that I’ve ever seen a secretary of state using his office to clearly go beyond what is in his scope of power.
CS: Can we talk about you and how you got here? You had sort of an unusual path to public office —
MF: I’ll tell my five-minute history of life. Born in New York. I have a twin sister. Was born with oxygen deprivation in the womb, so I was born cross-eyed. Had surgery when I was about a year and a half to straighten my eyes. Actually I had surgery about six months ago to straighten them again, because after a while they start to go the opposite way, so I just had them straightened. But from an early age was kind of known that I was slower, I was not developing the same rate as my sister. So my parents — both being teachers from New York, education’s key to them — had me tested pretty early, and I was diagnosed learning-disabled with reading comprehension issues and thought processing issues.
I always say, when I was a kid, if you asked me a question, my first answer was, “What?” like I didn’t hear you. Because the reason was — it wasn’t because I didn’t hear you, it was to give me the extra time to — and then I would answer the question usually halfway through you asking it the second time, which annoyed people. It’s like, you heard me the first time. But it was that kind of coping mechanism to give myself that extra time.
And so I was in special ed, self-contained classes. Where I grew up in Clarkstown was 10 elementary schools. I went to Kindergarten with my twin sister but then after, I think it was either 1st grade — I think it was 1st grade, there was only one school that had special ed in the entire district at the time. We’re talking 1980, really, kind of right when you started dealing with special ed issues. So from 1st grade to about 5th, 4th grade, I was in self-contained classes, so just… you know, not with my sister. There was a school like literally a quarter of a mile from our house, I got bussed on a short bus across town to another school.
And then by about 5th grade I started getting mainstreamed, so I started taking regular classes and then after that, I started playing trumpet. Playing trumpet I always attribute to helping me overcome a lot of the issues I had kind of emotionally dealing with special ed, because it was kind of this thing that I was doing with everyone else starting in 4th grade that I was as good at as everyone else and didn’t have — wasn’t seen differently.
CS: Do you still play the trumpet?
MF: Still play the trumpet. Still have it in my… Sits in my office at home. So I don’t play as much as I probably should… So then I got involved in sports — I played football, played track, I was a pole vaulter in high school and college. By junior high — it’s weird in Clarkstown, because you’ve got 10 elementary schools, but only one junior high school for two years. So a lot of kids in the one junior — it’s one of the biggest junior highs in the state, at least at the time, of New York. And so I actually was back with my sister and then I went to high school with my sister.
By then I was in all mainstream classes and went to resource room and had help. And I always took my tests on time because that was part of my IEP (Individualized Education Program). And I remember I said this during the [Senate Bill] 191 debate last year, was I remember I think it was junior high I had a teacher who told me that, “If you can’t take your tests on time then you’re not smart enough to be in my class.”
So you know, it was definitely a lot of emotional issues going through. I think in the article that (Denver Post reporter) Tim (Hoover) wrote about me getting my glasses thrown out of the window and finding them by the bus, because I’m pretty blind without my glasses. I mean, I can’t read. I can barely see the 1 on the license plate over there. And so dealing with that — Tim asked me the question, in the role that I have now, what’s more significant, the fact that you are a gay man in this role or the fact that you overcame a learning disability? I said, “It’s not even a question, it’s the learning disability and where I’ve come.”
I had very supportive parents, they were — and I’ve said this, too — they didn’t want me to run for office, partly because I think with the learning disability and with being gay they were very protective of me, and they didn’t want to see me get hurt. Now they’re very proud, and they’re going to be here, actually, in a month or so, they’re going to come — they haven’t been down when I’ve been in session, so it’ll be nice for them to see that.
So I went to college, did my undergrad and Master’s in five years at the University of Rochester, went and worked at the White House Budget Office for three years under Clinton and Bush, met my partner Greg. He got a job out here with (the U.S. Customs Service), at the time, and so we decided to move to Denver — best move I’ve made.
I moved out here, worked with the Department of Justice doing auditing for them. At the time, got involved with Democratic politics, the gay Democratic group. Because it was interesting — everyone thought, you live in D.C. you’re very involved in politics, but I worked at the White House, you couldn’t be involved with politics. I was a non-partisan person so I had to be non-partisan. So as soon as I — and I was very involved — I loved politics as a kid. I would watch all the debates, I volunteered on Mario Cuomo’s campaign, the ABC campaign – “Anyone But Cuomo,” — when he lost. That’s when Pataki beat him.
I was always interested in politics and so when I got to Colorado, I got involved in politics. Ended up becoming treasurer of the state party pretty quickly and moved and worked for HCPF (the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing) just across the street for a couple of years. And then when (former state Rep.) Mike Cerbo stepped down, I was just like, OK, I’ve always wanted to do this and then, yeah, I’ve been in the Legislature now — I can’t believe it, but this’ll be my fourth session. It doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes it feels like it’s been much longer, sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that I got appointed and then elected.
CS: We’re very pleased that you would come over and share your thoughts with us, and we appreciate it. We look forward to covering the session — it should be an interesting one.
MF: It’ll be a fun one!
CS: It’ll be a fun one.