Gov. John Hickenlooper equates veto requests to stars in the sky. The Democratic governor says he has received so many of them, he could start mapping his own constellations.
“The array of veto requests, it’s almost like stars in the sky…” Hickenlooper joked at a media availability on May 8. “They’re very, very bright stars. There are some stars you can navigate off of.”
But the governor said he hasn’t made any decisions on whether he is going to veto any of the dozens of pieces of legislation sent to him in the last days of the legislative session that ended on May 7.
He already vetoed two Democratic-backed measures in March that would have limited copayments made for physical rehabilitation, and prohibited the state from entering into agreements for a payment in lieu of taxes.
The governor did not veto any bills after last year’s legislative session, despite the contentious atmosphere that included bills on gun control, elections reform and expanding a rural renewable energy standard.
While the governor was light on details, he acknowledged that he is being lobbied to veto certain pieces of legislation this year. One of those bills would create a marijuana financial cooperative. Bankers are calling for a veto because the bill includes hemp as part of that financial co-op.
But Hickenlooper did not appear to be overly enthusiastic about vetoing the measure, pointing out that the state needs to do something to address the millions of dollars in cash floating around because marijuana businesses are unable to access traditional banking
systems due to cannabis prohibition on the federal level.
“It’s all cash,” pointed out the governor. “You’re going to accept that and not do everything we possibly can?
“A couple of the times we got asked by lobbyists and legislators, ‘Well, you’re not even sure that this is going to work.’ Yea, you’re right. We’re not sure that it’s going to work. But we know that doing nothing will not work,” added Hickenlooper. “And if you really want to design a system and really do as much as you could to get organized crime and gangsters involved, one thing is you require all cash, because that is just a breeding ground for
“We can’t have people driving around with bags of cash,” he continued.
Hickenlooper understands that the bill is not perfect, and he acknowledged the concerns around hemp. But the governor does not believe that the hemp industry is a large enough concern, pointing out that it is only a $10 million per year industry in Canada where hemp is legal.
“So I told the bankers I thought that hemp wasn’t enough. It’s such a small part of the problem. We’re talking about $600 million of what we think is going to be a cash business… what would the hemp crop be this year? Two hundred grand? Three hundred grand?” said Hickenlooper.
Pleased with legislative tone
Despite the array of veto requests sitting before him, Hickenlooper said he was pleased overall with the tone and progress of the legislature this year.
He had called for several bills in his State of the State address at the beginning of the session, including a package around telecommunications reform and broadband development, and additional money for reducing the average wait time at the Division of Motor Vehicles. All of those bills and appropriations passed.
Hickenlooper this year also requested bills to extend the job-creation tax credit and increase funding for public schools and colleges. He won in those areas as well.
And following a rocky session last year in which the governor lobbied against mandatory-minimum fines for oil and gas violations — effectively killing the bill — he scored with a measure this year that increases penalties without the mandatory-minimum.
Of the 17 requests made by the governor at the beginning of the session, only two didn’t make it through the legislature.
One measure that was never introduced would have formed a nonprofit enterprise dedicated to fostering public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects. Another proposal that was not included in the final bill would have required student enrollment to be counted five times throughout the year.
Hickenlooper believes the progress had to do with a more bipartisan session that moved away from the vitriol of last year.
“In an election year, this was a notable session for the bipartisanship,” he said. “Perhaps not everything we wanted was as bipartisan as we might like, but I think we should give shout-outs to both the Rs and the Ds… in both the House and the Senate for their work.
“The amount of collaboration on critical issues that happened outside of this building, where people would come back into the assembly with a different idea or a compromise, really was remarkable,” added the governor.
Aerial firefighting dustup
One area in which lawmakers found themselves working together on a compromise was on funding an aerial firefighting fleet. The legislature set aside $20 million for the fleet.
But the issue caused Hickenlooper a bit of heartburn. The governor had not initially supported purchasing a state-based aerial fleet. Instead, he had favored sharing a fleet with other Western states.
Republicans pressured him, specifically Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction, who has been pushing for the aerial fleet for years. At one point during the legislative session, King and Hickenlooper held dueling news conferences on fighting fires. King demanded that the governor “get in the game.”
But Hickenlooper’s chief strategist, Alan Salazar, called King’s proposal “too prescriptive” and said that it would never pass, despite the governor’s own director of Fire Prevention and Control releasing a report that called for spending millions so Colorado can contract its own fleet.
The spat continued for several days between King and the governor’s office. But eventually the two sides were able to secure a deal that was supported by Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate.
The governor was careful to explain that he never opposed procuring a state-based fleet. He simply wanted to have as much evidence as possible before supporting such an expense.
He did not discount King’s role, but he believes that the report from Paul Cooke, director of the state’s Fire Prevention and Control division, helped to better shape King’s proposal.
“The issue with fighting fires is how do you get the maximum amount of firefighting power into that fire in the first hour…” explained Hickenlooper. “A lot of what Paul Cooke’s report said was different than what Sen. King had been saying.
“That being said, I think it was very constructive to have Sen. King out there searching for information,” he continued.
Hickenlooper pointed out that his office began investigating the issue in 2011 when they first discussed Cooke’s ongoing study. He said his administration had been proactive even before King began his public push.
“We were doing that before Sen. King started raising the issues,” declared the governor. “It wasn’t like we weren’t doing something. But Sen. King definitely helped create a context… and in that sense I think he was definitely a valuable partner to have.”
Looking ahead to the election
The friendly, less partisan tone of the legislative session this year could serve as a benefit to Hickenlooper as he heads into his re-election campaign this summer. The governor became one of the faces of contention last year following the Democratic push for gun control.
In the wake of those gun control laws, a grassroots movement mobilized to oust two Senate Democrats from office, then-Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and then-Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo. A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned rather than face a looming recall election.
Throughout the recall elections last summer, Hickenlooper was repeatedly attacked over his support of the gun control measures. Much of that anger fueled a crowded Republican gubernatorial field, which now includes former U.S. Reps. Tom Tancredo and Bob Beauprez, former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp and Secretary of State Scott Gessler.
Hickenlooper was also attacked following last session for signing measures that expanded a rural renewable energy standard and reformed elections laws, including allowing same-day voter registration.
The GOP also pounced on the governor last year for not making a definitive decision on the execution of convicted killer Nathan Dunlap, which spilled into the legislative session as lawmakers discussed the death penalty. Rather than grant clemency and commute the death sentence to life in prison without parole, or actually sign the execution order, Hickenlooper ordered a temporary reprieve from execution.
Within his own Democratic party, progressives and environmentalists criticized the governor last year for fighting against bills that would have cracked down on the oil and gas industry. The governor, a former geologist, has been at odds with environmentalists and community activists over his support of hydraulic fracturing. Many of those individuals and groups lean to the left.
But without too many divisive issues before him this year, the governor has been spared making overly tough political decisions on legislation.
When asked, he shrugged off the political implications of the legislative session.
“The session went pretty well and we’ve staked all of our efforts and our belief that we’re trying to get people to believe in government, trying to use common sense to make the decisions that affect Coloradans and to focus on jobs and business,” said Hickenlooper.
“This was a pretty good legislative session. Not perfect,” he continued. “You may have noticed that the governor doesn’t have all-powerful control over the legislature… But overall, this was a pretty productive session…”