Jobs still the focus at Capitol

The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative leaders from both parties on Dec. 14 unveiled their agenda for the upcoming session that begins on Jan. 9. It includes efforts at raising funds for transportation, making improvements to health care and education, while sorting out regulations surrounding marijuana and the oil and gas industry. Measures from last session, including same-sex civil unions and reduced tuition rates for undocumented students, will also surface again in the upcoming Democratic-controlled session.

Both Republicans and Democrats said they will continue to focus on jobs and the economy. But already partisan wrangling is growing over how to stabilize the economy, despite a positive quarterly revenue forecast released less than a week after the governor and leadership made their presentations at a pre-legislative forum hosted by the Colorado Press Association at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Denver. The report released on Dec. 20 by the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting indicated that general fund revenue is projected to be $159.6 million higher in the current fiscal year than was forecast in September.

But for Senate President-designee John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, the improving economy is not a total cure-all. He told a room full of reporters that with Democrats back in control of both the House and Senate following the November election, the middle class can expect a voice.

“The people of Colorado have voted and we retained a Democratic Senate, we gained a Democratic House, and of course, we retained a Democratic governor,” Morse declared. “So, the middle class is coming back. Very clearly, that’s what this vote was about. Democratic values align with middle class family values.”

Morse went on to say those values include fairness, opportunity and responsibility.

But House Minority Leader-designee Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, appeared taken aback by Morse’s comments. He believes Republicans have always been on the side of the middle class, and he was offended by the political speech presented by the incoming Senate president.

“I’ve got to tell you, I am just… a little disappointed with Sen. Morse’s remarks here, because I think he just stood up here and said, ‘Democrats care about the middle class; Republicans don’t,’” said a candid Waller. “That disappoints me greatly, because you know what, we care.”

Hickenlooper also addressed political speculation. As a moderate Democrat, he could receive a barrage of liberal bills that might put his middle-of-the-road platform in jeopardy. But the governor did not seem so concerned.

“We’ve heard a number of comments that folks think that with Democrats in control of both the Senate and House that under the Dome it’s going to be too blue,” Hickenlooper said of the political environment at the legislature. “I don’t think so. I think on both sides there is a commitment to work together to find common ground, and to make sure that as we initiate new policies and new programs, that we get the best thinking from both sides.”

Transportation

One of the new initiatives announced by Hickenlooper at the forum includes a reformed approach to transportation budgeting in an effort to accelerate completion of transportation projects.

The so-called “Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships,” or RAMP, plan will allow the Colorado Department of Transportation to immediately use an additional $300 million per year over five years on projects across the state.

Currently, CDOT does not advertise a project until all of the money for the project has been collected. In most cases, CDOT is saving money for multiple years before construction begins. With RAMP, CDOT could fund projects on an annual basis, rather than saving for the full amount. The department plans on implementing the plan in early 2013.

“[CDOT] is changing the way [it] budgets; CDOT plans to make sure that our transportation projects are going forward as rapidly as they can…” Hickenlooper told the forum. “The efficient and effective use of public monies; making sure that we’re getting all that we can leverage from every public dollar we have, is at the core of this plan.”

CDOT Executive Director Don Hunt also offered remarks, suggesting that the plan modernizes his department’s accounting approach. But he pointed out that the new budgeting does not solve Colorado’s transportation funding crisis.

“This is a one-time program for the next five years, it does not solve Colorado’s long-term funding needs for transportation, but it is a great one-time lift,” said Hunt.

Health care

Hickenlooper also said a priority for him will be expanding efforts around health care reform. He announced on Thursday that his administration will expand Medicaid to 133 percent of the poverty level in 2014, representing an estimated 160,000 new adult Medicaid clients. The governor plans on paying for the expansion through $280 million in cost savings.

“For years, for a couple of decades, people have been focused on trying to expand coverage one way or the other, and they talk about controlling costs, but the results haven’t been there,” Hickenlooper stated.

“It seems to me we should be able to find the savings within our existing Medicaid system to pay for that additional expenditure from the general fund…” he continued. “We are aggressively trying to dial in, as we expand coverage, how do we control costs? And how do we marry them together?”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, agreed that entitlement reform is key to the health care debate, noting that general fund spending for Medicaid will jump $170 million next year.

“We have serious challenges before us in the key area of the budget that is growing at the fastest pace of any area, and that is Medicaid, which now consumes 25 percent of the general fund…” said Cadman.

House Speaker-designee Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said one priority for his caucus will be implementing President Barack Obama’s health care reform law, or the Affordable Care Act, including expanding Medicaid.

“America’s new health care model will enhance access to care, while also tackling the cost curve,” he said.

“I support expanding Medicaid under the ACA and ensuring that we’re doing that, but we have to do that within the budget constraints that we have,” added Ferrandino.

Waller, however, does not believe that the Affordable Care Act sufficiently addresses spending.

“Does expanded and controlled costs mean we’re expanding in a cost neutral way? I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think that’s even in the current proposal,” opined Waller.

Education

The legislative leaders also discussed investments in education, with both sides agreeing that more needs to be done. But how to fund education remains the question. Voters have been resistant to a tax increase, and without money, the legislature is in a bind.

Cadman pointed out that the governor’s budget proposal includes a request for $201.6 million in new funding for K-12 education, and another increase of $37.5 million in additional funding for higher education.

With the recent rosier economic forecast, excess funds will carry over into next year’s budget and will be transferred to the State Education Fund, which supports per-pupil funding. Additional funding could go to education, depending on how the legislature addresses $142.7 million in new money for Fiscal Year 2013-14.

“We’re very thrilled to see that this budget is going to allow us to start restoring K-12 funding,” said Cadman.

“The recession hit Colorado hard, in particular it hit our K-12 and higher education institutions very profoundly,” added Morse. “Although we won’t get to pre-recession levels of funding, our schools need proper investment to ensure that all students receive the best possible education.”

“Above all else, economic prosperity requires bolstering our education system so that the door of opportunity opens for every child in every community, starting in pre-school,” concluded Ferrandino.

The governor agreed with the perspectives, but said he is still not supporting a tax increase.

He also discussed a $1 million grant that Colorado received from the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning to study implementing a longer school day in 2013.

“Colorado’s one of the top state’s in the nation in terms of education reform, but we still haven’t gotten to the point where we’re harvesting all that work that’s happened in the last half-dozen years,” said Hickenlooper.

Marijuana

The governor also addressed marijuana regulation after being asked about the topic by reporters. The legislature is required to implement rules and regulations surrounding recreational marijuana after voters approved legalization in November. Hickenlooper has convened a 24-member task force to make recommendations for legislation.

While Obama has signaled that the federal government will not crack down on states that implement legalization, Hickenlooper said he is still awaiting clarification from the U.S. Justice Department.

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But I think it’s fair to say that if the Justice Department and the president come together and together release a statement along those lines, it would certainly give us some clarity,” said the governor.

Legislative leaders agreed that they would take the vote of the people seriously in implementing Amendment 64.
“We have to respect the will of the people as expressed through their support of Amendment 64,” added Ferrandino. “We have to create a legal framework that permits the production, sale and consumption of marijuana by adults without risking the health and safety of non-smokers, including our children.”

Oil and gas

Another thorny issue that lawmakers are likely to approach in the upcoming session is how to regulate the oil and gas industry. The debate has grown louder in recent months as concerns over hydraulic fracturing have increased in metro areas of the state.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is currently considering rules that would implement a 500-foot setback of wells in residential areas, as well as water quality testing requirements for both before and after a well is drilled.

In the meantime, local jurisdictions have already implemented, or are considering, a patchwork of rules and regulations that compete with state rulemaking.

Longmont has passed a ban on so-called fracking, which has resulted in a lawsuit filed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The state is also suing Longmont separately for having enacted their own rules and regulations governing oil and gas development within its borders.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, plans on introducing legislation that would impose a setback of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. Her bill would directly compete with the COGCC.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist who has been criticized heavily by anti-fracking activists for his support of the industry, suggested that the COGCC should be allowed to finish its work.

“Our primary concern has always been that we have a single set of regulations that cover the whole state,” he said.

“We should also recognize that there are very positive benefits that come from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, such as inexpensive natural gas,” added the governor.

Cadman said his caucus will be carefully monitoring legislation to make sure proposals “do no harm.”

“We must also capitalize on Colorado’s vast energy resources… and focus on an all-of-the-above strategy when it comes to producing Colorado energy, employ Colorado workers and driving up state revenues both in the private and the public sectors,” asserted Cadman.

Morse countered that striking a compromise will be difficult: “We’ve got to approach this in such a way that recognizes clean air and clean water are incredibly important, and so is economic development and the personal property rights of being able to extract your minerals,” said Morse. “The balance is very difficult, but the closer it gets to the urban interface, the more difficult and charged it gets politically.”

Civil unions and ASSET

Ferrandino unequivocally stated that measures around same-sex civil unions and reduced tuition rates for undocumented students will surface again in a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Both bills were killed last year in the Republican-controlled House. Civil unions was especially controversial after Republicans led a filibuster that killed it along with 30 other unrelated measures. The bill had enough Republican votes to make it through both chambers, but House Republican leadership held it up. The end result was a special session called by the governor, in which civil unions was killed.

Ferrandino said the measure will pass quickly: “We have to acknowledge that all committed couples deserve equal protection under the law, and put an end to Colorado being known as the ‘hate state,’” said the incoming House speaker.

“People took notice of what happened… what broke through is that we needed to have a special session because the legislature couldn’t get its work done, and that something was supposed to pass, and the House was held up…” he continued. “They didn’t think that was right.”

But Waller fought back, defending his caucus for its actions last session: “The speaker-designee… said this is really about holding up the process; it’s not about giving every piece of legislation the fair hearing that it deserves; it’s not about leaving legislation on the table,” rebutted Waller. “Well, I’m here to tell you that happens every single year … It just happened to be highlighted in this last session.”

Republicans are likely to lose the fight over reduced tuition rates for undocumented students as well in the upcoming session. The so-called Colorado ASSET bill made it further than it ever has last session, but it was still defeated. Ferrandino said change is coming.

“We have to make sure we don’t squander our investments in young people who graduate from our high schools, who consider themselves Coloradans in every way, but through no fault of their own, lack legal immigration status,” he said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com