InnerView with Mark Ferrandino
The Colorado Statesman
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.
House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino is optimistic that the upcoming session will be productive despite hard feelings from an acrimonious reapportionment process. He talked about the Legislature in an InnerView at The Colorado Statesman.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
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.
House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, pictured here at The Colorado Statesman office on Jan. 4, says he’s optimistic that Republicans and Democrats can work together this session, “but actions speak larger than words.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Colorado Statesman (CS): What are your thoughts going into the session?
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?
CS: Not just because times are bad?
Rep. Mark Ferrandino listens intently as his colleagues on the Joint Budget Committee discuss fiscal issues in 2010.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman
CS: Do you not get the distinct impression that, for the Republicans, this is a big issue for them to fight?
CS: Yes, we were.
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?
CS: And they’ll continue to be?
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?
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.
CS: There’s not a sunset for the present designations?
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?
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.
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 —
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.
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 …”
CS: As you’ve said, you won’t be sponsoring it this year.
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?
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?
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 —
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…
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?
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?
CS: But the only way to do that is by voting on those rights, since it’s in the (state) Constitution.
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?
CS: That was still too recent?
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?
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?
CS: Is it a lot different from his predecessor, Gov. Ritter?
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.
CS: But isn’t that an element of leadership?
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?
CS: You didn’t see a lot of solutions on some of those things, though?
CS: People would say he was running the state like he did Denver?
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?
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?
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.]
CS: Two members of the Senate?
CS: He’s still considering it —
CS: Yeah, he’s created an exploratory committee, and he’s got a Facebook page asking for advice.
CS: Do you have advice for him?
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 —
CS: Were they there —
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 —
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?
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.]
CS: Do you feel that the secretary of state — there’s been some criticism that he’s perhaps overstepped —
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?
CS: Cut his budget?
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 —
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?
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.
CS: It’ll be a fun one.