Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday delivered his annual state of the state, passing over the partisan divides from last year to look ahead at a united future for Colorado. In his address to a joint session of the legislature, he pushed for forward thinking following a year of devastating floods, wildfires and senseless violence that has left the state recovering and searching for a solution.
The governor, who is up for reelection in 2014, has his work cut out for him as he tries to convince voters that he deserves another four years. His popularity has taken a hit following a divisive session last year in which he signed several gun control bills, including requiring universal background checks and banning high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Hickenlooper was also tied to the recalls of two of his fellow Democrats, Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo. A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned rather than face a costly and divisive recall election, thereby preserving the Senate for Democrats by one seat.
The governor’s support of the oil and gas industry, including the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, has also hurt his relationships with the environmental community, which usually serves as a strong base for the Democratic Party.
And signing controversial bills last year around a rural renewable energy standard and sweeping elections reforms, including same-day voter registration, has also caused the governor a bit of heartburn. Republicans claim there are loopholes and conflicts in the elections bill that must be addressed, and they say that electric rates are going up in rural Colorado because of the new standard.
But Hickenlooper left little on the table on Thursday for politicians and pundits to pick apart, instead offering an uplifting speech seeking to inspire Coloradans to stand strong and work together to enhance the future of the state. He said he is “all in.”
“In trying times, Coloradans do what we always have done: pull together and get it done,” Hickenlooper addressed the legislature, pointing to the ongoing recovery efforts following the floods and wildfires, as well as the recent Arapahoe High School shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old female student.
Ten people lost their lives in the Great Flood; 485 miles of state roadways were closed; more than 100 bridges were damaged; 18,000 people were displaced from their homes; and more than 7,000 structures were damaged or destroyed. The total damage was estimated as high as $2 billion, making it the costliest disaster in the state’s history.
“Earning your keep, making your own way, looking out for your neighbor — that comes with the territory,” Hickenlooper said during his 40-minute speech.
“This past year, Colorado has been scorched. Colorado has been flooded. Colorado — once again — endured senseless, inexplicable violence. Yet, despite all of it, we did not let that define us. That is not our story. Our story — and what we showed the world — is Colorado does not shutdown. Colorado does not quit. Colorado does not break… The state of our state is strong.”
Hickenlooper made special note of the murder last year of his prisons chief, Tom Clements, who was gunned down by a parolee. Clements’ family attended the governor’s remarks.
Clements had made administrative segregation a priority focus, working diligently to reform the controversial practice.
“It is a tragic, awful irony that an inmate put on parole directly from administrative segregation showed up at his door and killed him,” acknowledged Hickenlooper. “But that is not what defines Tom.”
There was many a teary eye in the House chamber as Hickenlooper called for a round of applause for Clements’ family.
“Tom’s story and life is not defined by what happened to him but by the immense good he achieved and his legacy of love and compassion and reform,” remarked the governor. “His legacy of public service.”
Even though Clements was yet another victim of gun violence, Hickenlooper did not address firearms specifically, as he did in his state of the state last year when he called for universal background checks.
Instead, Hickenlooper touched on issues surrounding mental health. The governor allocated more than $34 million to create and bolster programs around school-based mental health services, behavioral health community centers and to train and staff mental health crisis centers.
“Part of what has gotten overlooked in the debate about guns is our work on mental health…” said Hickenlooper. “Guns are only a piece of the puzzle. Another clear piece is mental health, trying to identify and assist those who are feeling isolated, bullied, the mentally ill, and trite as this may sound, those who are feeling abandoned and unloved.”
He believes that instead of divisive debates, the legislature should come together to work on issues important to the state, such as violence.
“You don’t need a poll to know that regardless of political leanings, the typical American, the average Coloradan, doesn’t think much of politics or politicians,” acknowledged Hickenlooper. “Who can blame them? Shutdowns; debt ceiling duels; parties locked down, unwilling to compromise — so much negativity.
“The public sees politicians as operators who put their own self-interest or their party’s agenda above the people; and who are obsessed with petty pursuits and ignore the public service part of being a public servant,” he continued.
“Vigorous debate is our ally. Partisanship is not,” he added. “Skepticism is productive. Corrosive cynicism is not. So, as we begin this session, my ask is we ignore the divisive politics.”
Touting his successes At times the speech took on a campaign feel, as Hickenlooper defended his record and repeatedly pointed to successes under his leadership. Leading that list was the state’s economic recovery.
He pointed to the state’s 6.5 percent unemployment rate, a drop of about one point over last year, making it the lowest since 2008. He said the state has experienced four consecutive years of economic growth.
Colorado is ranked among the top five states in the nation for business, careers and job growth, said the governor.
He also pointed out that Colorado hosted a record number of tourists last year. And he was careful to point out that there were more hunting licenses over 2012, despite a threatened boycott by hunters over gun control.
“We gratefully welcomed more hunters than last year,” the governor reminded his audience.
He added that between 2009 and 2013, Colorado agricultural exports increased by almost 80 percent.
The governor said the successes were no accident, suggesting that his office’s strategies have bolstered progress.
“Shortly after we took office three years ago we launched a strategy to be a thoughtful and supportive partner with the business community,” he said, suggesting that the effort resulted in a business friendly environment, increased access to capital, workforce training, retention and growth of companies, improved technology and a stronger Colorado brand.
The governor also pointed to economic initiatives in rural Colorado. Areas outside the Front Range are getting extra political attention after voters in 11 northern counties were asked whether they would like to secede from the state. The 51st state movement failed when six of those counties rejected the proposal.
Hickenlooper said the Rural Economic Development Grant Program is in the process of awarding $3 million to rural communities. He pointed to TK Mining in Delta County, a recipient of $350,000 in grants. Representatives of the company were in the chamber for the governor’s remarks.
Hickenlooper also touted investments in aerospace, engineering, advance manufacturing, biosciences, electronics, energy and tech, while also making it easier for Colorado companies to secure state contracts.
In 2010, Colorado was ranked 40th in the nation for job growth; three years later, Colorado is the fourth fastest job growth state in the nation, said the governor.
Meanwhile, since that time, Colorado has added 170,000 jobs.
“In 2010, companies were leaving Colorado. Today, they are moving here,” said Hickenlooper.
Erie-based Magpul Industries, the makers of high-capacity ammunition magazines, recently made headlines for leaving Colorado following gun control laws. The company has estimated that the revenue loss to the state will be about $80 million.
“While we are disappointed whenever a company leaves this state, Colorado is gaining employers and jobs,” said Hickenlooper, pointing out that the state recently gained Ardent Mills, a joint venture of two of the nation’s leading flour milling companies. Executives with Ardent Mills attended the state of the state.
“Landing Ardent Mills is a little like winning the Super Bowl — or at least the Flour Bowl — especially for rural communities,” said Hickenlooper.
“The economic infusion and energy of Colorado’s new companies, along with the hard work of Colorado’s entire business community, has gone a long way to take Colorado past pre-recession job numbers,” Hickenlooper continued.
He also joked about the new state logo, which has not gained widespread acceptance, despite an effort to unify the state.
“We created a unified brand logo, which is almost universally loved,” Hickenlooper said to laughter. “Two hundred companies have requested to use the brand, and 117 companies are already using it.”
The governor also touted successes on the budget, having survived near catastrophic shortfalls.
Three years ago the state had a reserve of only 2 percent, but it has since climbed to 5 percent. Hickenlooper’s request this year is for a 6.5 percent reserve. He has also requested TABOR reserves of $78 million.
And he placed a spotlight on his Pits and Peeves project, which has reviewed, modified or repealed nearly 11,000 state rules.
“We have made hard choices, been disciplined, not spent more than we have — we’ve put ourselves in the position to save more money for rainy days,” said Hickenlooper. “And as we’ve seen, when we get rain, it can be biblical and all at once.
“This money in reserve is what has enabled us to respond quickly to the disasters and get assistance to local partners,” the governor added. “It’s what enabled us to get roads rebuilt and open ahead of schedule.”
Hickenlooper said he would focus this year on more government improvements, including wait times at the DMV. He pointed out that the DMV still uses the ancient computer operating system MS-DOS.
“While many of us lay around on our iPhones while waiting in line at the DMV, the employees are struggling to update the files in MS-DOS,” he said to shock and awe from his audience. “Our budget aims to change that. This will reduce the average wait time in DMV offices throughout the state from 60 minutes to 15.”
The governor is also optimistic that a restructuring of the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Twin Tunnels expansion project on Interstate 70 will lead to less traffic on the abhorrent heavily congested stretch through the mountains.
“Just about every one of us has sat in a car on the way to or from the mountains, frustrated, or even worse, stuck in traffic with a kid needing a restroom,” explained Hickenlooper. “This project will reduce travel times significantly during peak Sunday hours, and decrease the number of crashes in the area by more than a third.”
The governor also claimed a win for state government on implementing the will of voters on marijuana legalization.
“This will be one of the great social experiments of this century, and while not all of us chose it, being first means we all share a responsibility to do it properly,” said the governor.
And he believes the health care insurance exchange has been a success for state government as well, pointing out that more than 139,000 residents now have insurance who didn’t have it before.
“While other states have struggled with enrollment and implementation, Colorado has outperformed the national exchange and most states,” he said.
The governor did not rest on his successes. He is also looking ahead, calling for lawmakers to finally update the state’s decades-old telecommunications laws. In past legislative sessions, eliminating subsidies and a fund for rural broadband derailed efforts.
“Fourteen years into the 21st century is well past time to reform our telecommunications laws,” declared Hickenlooper.
“This session, we ask you to pass legislation that will accomplish this, but at the same time, rural and other un-served parts of our state should have the same broadband Internet access as urban areas,” he continued.
The governor also called on the legislature to extend the job-creation tax credit and to work with him on fostering public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects.
Similarly, the governor called on lawmakers to find creative solutions for education reform after Colorado voters this November rejected a nearly $1 billion tax hike to fund K-12 efforts. His budget request calls for a per-pupil funding increase of $223. It also requests an additional $100 million for higher education.
Hickenlooper suggested spending transparency and an update to how enrollment is counted in the state.
“It is nonsense not to have a powerful economic incentive for student retention,” said Hickenlooper.
“Moving forward, our priorities are clear: We are going to remain focused on jobs, education and ensuring that we have a state that is as healthy as it is fiscally sound,” added Hickenlooper.
Oil and Gas
He dedicated several points in his speech to issues surrounding oil and gas, which also tie into conversations on jobs and the economy. But because of environmental and health concerns, Hickenlooper faces a thorny debate.
Five local communities have banned fracking, including Longmont, Fort Collins, Broomfield, Lafayette and Boulder. The state has sued Longmont, arguing that the local government cannot enact rules and regulations separate of the state.
Hickenlooper said any new oil and gas laws should strike a balance between environmental concerns and the needs of the industry.
“Another priority for Colorado families and for us is supporting the energy industry while protecting the environment,” said Hickenlooper.
One concern is protecting the greater sage grouse, which has been threatened by energy development in the high desert sage land of Colorado.
“The viability of the sage grouse has bedeviled Western states for a decade,” said Hickenlooper. “As chair of the Western Governors’ Association, I believe we can protect the sage grouse while at the same time allowing ranches, farms and other economic activity to flourish.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has agreed to observe mitigation efforts, said the governor.
But he added that the energy industry is critical to Colorado’s success, pointing out that it contributes $29 billion to the economy.
“Critical to the success of the oil and gas industry is that operators recognize their moral and legal obligation to protect our air and water,” Hickenlooper said.. “Fortunately, we have been able to bring many in the industry together with the environmental community to work toward solutions.”
The governor pointed to his efforts around oil and gas regulation, including requiring the disclosure of ingredients used in fracking fluids, as well as an ongoing effort to create new air quality rules around methane emissions.
“We’ve said before that we’re committed to holding the oil companies to the highest standards to protect Coloradans and our air and water,” he said, adding that he is working with lawmakers on a bill that would update fines for environmental violations.
Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, killed a similar bill he sponsored last year on industry fines after the governor’s lobbying team was able to water the bill down, removing mandatory-minimum fines. Foote argued that without the mandatory-minimum it would not have teeth. He said the current draft of the bill this year would not have the mandatory-minimum.
Still, Hickenlooper believes lawmakers should move forward with updating fines, despite not having a minimum requirement.
“We are working with legislators, industry and the conservation community to ensure we pass a bill this year that will strengthen penalties for violations of permits and rules,” said the governor.
Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, applauded the governor for highlighting the need for regulations.
“Now is the time for the rest of the industry to take responsibility for oil and gas development’s impact on our air quality and communities,” said Maysmith.
Just as oil and gas is a crucial resource, so is water, explained the governor. He said he would emphasize conservation and address incremental storage and mitigation this year.
“We must create alternative choices to buy-and-dry,” he said. “No matter where we live, we cannot afford to let our farm and ranch land dry up.”
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Water Quality/Quantity Committee was pleased to hear that Hickenlooper will make water issues a focus.
“Water in Colorado is critical to our future. Not just for cities but for recreation opportunities, tourism and the natural environment,” said Rachel Richards, Pitkin County Commissioner and vice-chair of NWCCOG. “Gov. Hickenlooper’s mention of the Colorado Water Plan in his state of the state address reinforces just how important the issue of water is for all of us on both sides of the Divide.”
Reaction from Republicans
Despite the uplifting speech, Republicans remain skeptical. Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Hickenlooper this year, sat front and center.
Hickenlooper even offered Gessler a shout out, referring to the secretary by his nickname, the “honey badger.” Gessler earned the name after demonstrating a fearless approach to governance, which has often gotten him in more trouble than good.
Gessler seemed unimpressed by the governor’s remarks shortly after the speech, though he was surprised by the “honey badger” comment.
“The way I look at it is the governor said a lot of great things a year ago; he talked about bipartisanship and all that a year ago. But it wound up being empty words,” said Gessler. “So, I’m hopeful we’ll see some real leadership going forward, but I haven’t seen it in the past.”
Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray is also seeking his party’s nomination to challenge Hickenlooper. He said the problem isn’t what Hickenlooper says; it’s more of a lack of leadership and action.
“It’s not what the governor said, it’s what he does that matters…” said Brophy.
He believes bipartisanship will be lost this year because Hickenlooper will fail to lead on the topic. Brophy said if he were governor, he would implement strategies that bring the state together.
“We have models from the past of both Gov. [Bill] Owens and Gov. [Roy] Romer who would lead on behalf of the state of Colorado and the people of the state of Colorado, and I anticipate doing that as the governor of the state of Colorado next year,” said Brophy.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs pointed out that the governor did not talk about the tone during the interim, including the recall elections, a lawsuit filed against the state for enacting the gun control measures and the secession attempt.
“There’s two issues here,” said Cadman. “What was negative here last year was how things were handled, that was one part of it. The other part of it… was the record was negative, and the people responded to that. So, you can’t really run from that.”
Cadman was not surprised to hear a positive speech from the governor, adding, “This is his state of the state, and it’s up to him to put out a very positive … message… that’s his role.”
House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland agreed with the governor that economic progress has been made. But he believes there are still areas struggling, such as rural Colorado.
“We have to continue to look at all four corners or our state…” said DelGrosso. “Yes, there is good news — unemployment is down… But the reality is that to make our state better, we’re going to have to work together on our policies to see as many of our fellow Coloradans get back to work.”
Shana Kohn, executive director of the Colorado Republican Committee, agreed with her fellow Republicans that while the speech was positive, it’s the governor’s actions that matter.
“In 2013, he also called for bipartisanship, and then oversaw the most divisive and partisan legislative session in memory,” said Kohn. “He waged war on rural Colorado, he criminalized law abiding gun owners, he pushed a massive $1 billion tax hike on working Coloradans and he refused to work across the aisle.
“While it is our hope that Gov. Hickenlooper stays true to his word this time, the Colorado Republican Committee will continue to work day-in and day-out to ensure that in 2014, we will have a governor who will actually respect, listen to and represent everyone in Colorado, regardless of their party affiliation or where they live,” Kohn added.
See the Jan. 10 print edition for full photo coverage.