Despite heading into a contentious political year in 2014 — in which Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is facing re-election and a loud and crowded GOP primary field — the governor remains optimistic that he can lead the legislature towards a bipartisan session that begins on Jan. 8.
“We’re going to continue to try to bring a nonpartisan focus on job creation and the economy; try to make sure we can support our small businesses,” Hickenlooper said on Dec. 19 at a media availability in his office.
He is counting on a sense of community in order to bring the legislature together, pointing to devastating fires last summer, horrific flooding this fall and yet another school shooting at Arapahoe High School on Dec. 13 that took the life of a 17-year-old female student.
“Having gone through what we went through with the fires last summer, the floods in the fall and then the shooting most recently, those kind of disasters generally do bring people together,” suggested Hickenlooper. “I think there is a different sense of community right now, even amongst legislators. We’ll see how strong that is and whether it breaks down in an election year. I’m not blind… But I think that our legislators can rise to the occasion.”
The governor believes he can foster a less politically charged environment by simply working with lawmakers and listening to their thoughts and concerns.
“Do a better job of listening and trying to get information to legislators before these bills create contentious situations,” Hickenlooper answered as to how he will work on issues inside the building.
But the governor’s wishful thinking comes at a time when both sides of the aisle are politically dug in, especially in the Senate where Democrats will go into 2014 holding the upper chamber by a single vote.
Recall elections over the summer that ousted two Senate Democrats only added to the charged atmosphere. And Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, was compelled to resign recently after she faced a similar recall attempt.
In both chambers, the two sides of the aisle remain strongly at odds over an agenda led by Democrats in 2013 that included gun control, a sweeping elections reform bill, same-sex civil unions, in-state tuition for undocumented students and a rural renewable energy standard that has caused outrage outside the Front Range.
The session is also shaping up to pit rural communities against the populated Denver metro area, as was demonstrated this November with a vote on secession. While voters for the most part did not side with seceding from the state in northern Colorado, the vote itself demonstrated a divide between the urban and rural parts of Colorado.
Hickenlooper will surely be tested in 2014, charged with a seemingly impossible task of attempting to quell political grandstanding within the Gold Dome in order to get business accomplished for the state as a whole.
He will need to do this while defending himself against a Republican assault as the party works to unseat him in 2014. Every move the governor makes will be observed and analyzed.
Republicans seeking to challenge the governor include state Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Lakewood and Adams County Republican Party Chairman Steve House.
The candidates have already been critical of the governor’s support of the Democrats’ agenda last year, including an education reform bill that rested on a ballot initiative asking voters to pass a nearly $1 billion tax increase. Voters widely rejected the proposal, and Hickenlooper has been attacked for having supported the Amendment 66 effort.
Republicans will do everything they can to compare Hickenlooper to his fellow Democrats. If the Democratic-controlled legislature sends him bills that are considered too progressive or liberal for Colorado, then Hickenlooper may be pressured to use his veto pen, or face loud Republican criticism.
He did not veto a single bill in 2013, mostly criticized for signing the rural renewable energy bill and another piece of legislation dealing with collective bargaining for firefighters, though it was significantly watered-down.
“I’ll find something to veto [this year],” he joked. “I guarantee it.”
There are also things outside the governor’s control that will surely come into play, such as the controversial rollout of the Affordable Care Act and a recent federal government shutdown that has left many Americans with a sour taste for government.
“There are a couple of ambitions. One would be this bipartisan thing… and that’s admittedly something that we can’t necessarily control in a political season…” remarked Hickenlooper.
“But I think Colorado has a chance to set a model for the rest of the country, and if we can do things in a bipartisan way here, I guarantee you they will work out better, we will get better outcomes and better compromise and solutions, and the other states will follow us,” he continued. “Who knows? If we do that within our legislature… then Congress will follow.”
On the issue of gun control, Hickenlooper has made it clear that he does not believe the state needs more laws right now. Democrats last year pushed a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines and a requirement for universal background checks. Hickenlooper had made background checks part of his agenda.
As the new laws are still being implemented, and potentially overturned in court or at the polls, Hickenlooper said he would consider tweaks to the existing laws, though he did not have ideas for any changes.
“I don’t see us introducing new gun laws this session, but I certainly wouldn’t support repealing the laws we passed last year,” said Hickenlooper. “That said, if there is a way to improve them some way, to figure out some way that they work better, to do a better job of what they’re intended, then I think we should sit down and have a discussion.”
In light of the recent school shooting, gun rights advocates have already suggested legislation that would train teachers and allow educators to carry weapons in school. A similar bill failed on a Democratic party-line vote in 2013. Hickenlooper appeared hesitant to move in that direction.
“I’m not sure we should be telling school boards and school districts how to run their schools…” said the governor.
“It’s worth pointing out to the people that are proposing this that we had an armed officer in that school, and he was at the shooter in two minutes. That’s amazing to me,” Hickenlooper continued. “You look at the progress we’ve made in terms of really designing a safe system. Do we want armed guards and security in every school? Let’s see what the school districts think.”
Jobs and the economy
While he was light on details — perhaps saving his full agenda for the State of the State this month — Hickenlooper appeared set on making jobs and the economy his focus this year.
“We’re going to continue to focus on creating ecosystems for small businesses, but at the same time, when it is appropriate and makes sense, attracting global headquarters,” he said.
“For every global headquarters job you get, that’s multiplied many times over…” he added. “There are companies that clearly cluster around our larger companies…”
One piece of contention that Hickenlooper may have to deal with is on workers’ compensation reform. Democrats are discussing a bill for 2014 after talking with labor leaders. But the business community fears that reforms could lead to higher rates.
“My first question is going to be, ‘Is this going to help small businesses? And in what ways is it going to help small businesses?’” remarked the governor.
“This legislative session we’re really going to try to push the emphasis on small businesses,” he added.
Oil and gas
Another area of contention for the governor may come from bills dealing with the oil and gas industry. Democrats last session attempted a slew of measures aimed at cracking down on the industry in terms of environmental dangers and business practices.
But only a handful of those measures made it through after Hickenlooper’s lobbying team successfully pushed for the measures to be either watered-down or killed. The governor, a former geologist, has earned himself a less than flattering reputation in environmental circles as “Gov. Frackenlooper,” playing on his support of hydraulic fracturing, and putting him at odds with many of his fellow Democrats.
Democrats at the end of last session said they would be back again in 2014 with more oil and gas bills. The measures would come as five Colorado communities have either permanently or temporarily banned fracking.
Lawsuits are ongoing to determine whether local governments have the right to ban fracking, which goes against rules set by the state.
But Hickenlooper said the issue requires a delicate balance between industry interests and the concerns of citizens.
“We are working as hard as we can to make sure as much as possible that we are promoting clean air, clean water. That even as we’re addressing our energy needs, that we’re doing it in such a way that we’re not putting communities at risk,” said Hickenlooper.
He pointed to a recent push by his administration to toughen methane emission standards in the state. Hickenlooper said he is also working with other Western governors on oil and gas regulatory issues.
“Governors aren’t like legislators, we actually do get along and take pride in finding places where we can work together,” joked the governor.
“Having a rigorous regulatory environment is something we might be able to build by making compromises with each of the governors,” he said.
One compromise that the governor may need to find in Colorado concerns the rural renewable energy standard. Republicans have already proposed a tweak to the law passed in 2013 that would lower the standard from 20 percent to 15 percent.
“We’ve said from the beginning… if the rural co-ops want to come and… find some way, and can demonstrate how this is going to help them succeed, we should sit down and have a discussion,” said Hickenlooper.
In the arena of healthcare, Republicans are sure to push proposals aimed at curbing the Affordable Care Act, despite a Democratic-controlled legislature that would likely render the measures purely symbolic.
With the problematic launch of Healthcare.gov, Republicans feel empowered to take more stabs at the federal healthcare law that they loathe. And with Hickenlooper facing re-election, Republicans will attempt to shine as much of a spotlight on Hickenlooper’s support for Medicaid expansion and problems with Obamacare.
One issue that has popped up in Colorado is that mountain town residents have been reporting higher premiums than other residents of the state under Obamacare. Hickenlooper is open to addressing that.
“We have clearly seen the discrepancies in what the costs are in the mountain towns and what the costs are in the rest of the state, and not everyone who lives in a mountain town has a bigger income…” explained Hickenlooper. “For them to have to pay a higher health insurance, it’s not completely clear to me how that makes sense.”
The governor suggested that in 2015, the state might want to consider one insurance pool for the entire state.
“No one has explained to me, what are the components of that higher cost?” said Hickenlooper. “Why is it so much higher?”
With the defeat of Amendment 66 this November, Hickenlooper will also be pressed to find solutions for K-12 education without raising taxes. He is optimistic, however, that some of the reforms can be implemented without asking voters for more money.
“We have the opportunity to address some of the reforms that don’t cost a lot of money, but they will be more difficult because they were part of a package,” said the governor.
He pointed to transparency as one possibility. The school reform package included creating a website that would have allowed parents to track spending.
“I think that can be done relatively inexpensively,” opined Hickenlooper.
But he said the state must still consider long-term fixes to the K-12 system by continuing to have conversations around revenue.
“One of our concerns is as our economy recovers… how do we make sure we’re not taking what are one-time revenues and put them into a base-building context?” he asked.
Fires and Flooding
The governor also remains committed to finding a solution for devastating wildfires. Lawmakers last session sent him a bill authorizing funding for an aerial firefighting fleet, but the state budget did not earmark funding for it.
Hickenlooper has been in discussions with other Western governors on sharing assets and developing more rapid response, including sharing a regional aerial fleet to fight fires.
“We would do well to have shared assets and use them in a more concentrated fashion,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state continues to pull its way out of catastrophic flooding. A legislative Flood Disaster Study Committee has recommended bills for introduction aimed at aiding current and future flood recovery efforts.
“We need to get that housing back in place rapidly,” said Hickenlooper. “Mostly what we’ve been trying to bring together is a sense of local control that the state is here as a partner with local communities, but that we have the great sense of urgency, and trust me, so do local communities…”
The governor and his family spent Christmas in Estes Park; even taking a snowshoeing trip on Christmas Eve, to demonstrate that the state is recovering. The flood hit the Estes Park area hard.
“How do we maximize and accelerate our federal funding and our planning and our implementation to get these communities back to people in houses and businesses succeeding?” asked Hickenlooper.