Governor delivers third State of the State address

Calls for renewed efforts to curb gun violence
The Colorado Statesman

On the heels of “a hard year” in Colorado — punctuated by rampant wildfires and a mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater — Gov. John Hickenlooper urged lawmakers on Thursday to respond to adversity the way westerners always have.

“Even in the hardest of times we reach out to each other. We look beyond sorrow, and we fix our gaze on the horizon. Belief in a better tomorrow is the story of the West,” the Democrat said during his annual State of the State speech, delivered to a joint session of the legislature at the Capitol. He added, “We have an obligation to prevent similar tragedies, to do good, to bring light to darkness. We have an obligation to represent the best that is Colorado.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers policy proposals at his third State of the State address on Jan. 10 at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

After calling for a moment of silence to honor the fallen “and to remember those who are still recovering,” Hickenlooper introduced representatives of last summer’s most high-profile struggles: Duran Cornelius, a Colorado National Guard firefighter, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown, Colorado Springs Mayor Steve Bach, Aurora

Police Chief Dan Oates, Fire Chief Mike Garcia and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall enjoy front-row seats for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s State of the State address on Jan. 10 at the Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Then he ticked off a list of policy proposals that included spurring business development as the state lurches out of a recession, expanding health coverage for Medicaid recipients and battling climate change by “reducing pollutants and promoting sustainable development.” Though he cautioned that, “There are no easy solutions,” Hickenlooper also proposed instituting broader background checks for gun purchasers, part of a plan that also includes beefing up mental health policies unveiled in the wake of a mass shooting last month at a Connecticut elementary school.

Gov. John Hickenlooper embraces House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, as state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, on Jan. 10 in House chambers.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Surely, Second Amendment advocates and gun control supporters can find common ground in support of this proposition: Let’s examine our laws and make the changes needed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people,” he said to thunderous applause from the Democratic side of the chamber.

He also mentioned civil unions and ASSET legislation, two long-stalled Democratic proposals virtually guaranteed to pass this session, after Democrats retook control of the House from Republicans.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar and state Sen. Kevin Grantham,
R-Cañon City, visit before the start of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s third State of the State address on Jan. 10.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Some of us tried very hard, but it didn’t get done last year,” he said. “This year, let’s do it. Let’s pass civil unions!” After more applause from about half the room, he continued: “Let’s find an equitable and fair way for undocumented kids — kids who have grown up here and done well in school — to pursue a higher education.”

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino said after the speech that he was pleased how similar the message had been to his own session-opener delivered the day before, including standard calls for bipartisan cooperation in the wake of a divisive election season.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General John Suthers, all Republicans, sit alongside Helen Thorpe, the estranged wife of Gov. John Hickenlooper, as the Democrat delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“That speaks volumes for the ability of Democrats and, hopefully, Republicans to get some of the big issues facing us solved in this legislative session,” Ferrandino said, adding that he was happy the governor talked about economic development, civil unions and gun safety. “He hit the right tone and I think he hit the right subjects.”

Ferrandino’s GOP counterpart, House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, delivered a more mixed assessment, suggesting that Hickenlooper had offered “a little bit of Republican red meat in the speech and some Democratic meat as well. When he talked about an all-of-the-above to energy in Colorado, that’s something we want to see happen. We want to see responsible oil and gas exploration and harvest in the state of Colorado.”

House Minority Leader Mark Waller and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, both Colorado Springs Republicans, listen as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his third State of the State address in House chambers.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

But he disagreed that broad generalities about gun control can bridge deep divides between lawmakers. “Give us a vision what the issue is truly about,” an exasperated-sounding Waller said. “Just mentioning one issue or one piece of legislation really didn’t talk about gun control — it’s just one tiny sliver of the pie.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, swung back equally hard at potential restrictions on gun sales or ownership.

“We have speed limits,” he said. “I’ve been passed before when I was doing the speed limit — the only way you really know is having someone checking every inch of the highway to make sure no one is going too fast. We can’t afford a government that big and, frankly, we don’t want a government that powerful,” he said, adding, “Criminals don’t care about background checks. That’s why they’re criminals.”

He also questioned whether Hickenlooper’s call for financial responsibility was at odds with his own spending plans.

“The governor himself said we are on an unsustainable fiscal course, but at the same time we’re talking about adding fuel to the engines to drive the train faster when you’re talking about increasing the federal mandates for health care,” Cadman said. “How do you grow something for more people, with higher quality and say it’s going to cost less? The magic wand of government doesn’t exist.”

State Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, had nothing but praise for the speech and its particulars, though she sounded skeptical that partisan struggles might be avoided.

“I think the governor hit all the priorities my constituents are interested in — jobs, medical coverage through the new Medicaid expansion and through the new Health Benefits Exchange. They’re very interested in funding K-12 and higher ed, and we want a stable funding mechanism, we don’t want a crisis every year or two,” she said. “The common ground will be difficult on gun control, especially, but we’re all aware of the need to improve education to be competitive worldwide. We have bipartisan support on the Health Benefits Exchange. But Medicaid is a problem, I know the other party did not like the fact that he is going to expand Medicaid, but I think it’s an investment, not a cost.”

Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, grinned and said simply, “To quote my mother, ‘part-time wonderful.’”

Hickenlooper brushed aside suggestions that he’s had it easy for the last two years with a Republican-led House and a Democratic-led Senate, the divided chambers potentially blunting each other’s efforts to send controversial legislation his way.

“They say I got lucky, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “Our blessing was not divided government in the last two years; our blessing was in the many relationships we formed with lawmakers from both parties — and that you have with each other. These relationships endure. They span the geography of our state and they transcend political affiliation.”

Even as he flubbed the rhetorical climax of his speech — building on a Robert Louis Stevenson line about “punching holes in the darkness” — the homespun former brewpub owner endeared himself to at least one potential political opponent. Stumbling over the wording, Hickenlooper became tongue-tied saying, “Working together, we can punch holes in some pretty big —” and then stopped himself, interjecting, “Oh Jesus,” as the chamber filled with laughter. Smiling, he started the sentence again: “Working together, we can punch some pretty big holes in the darkness,” he finished with a grin.

Beset herself with a voice she had nearly lost due to a recent illness, state Sen. Vickie Marble, R-Fort Collins, smiled and whispered soon after the speech had concluded, “That was the cutest ending to the speech — where things weren’t going well and he was just, ‘Oh, Jesus!’ He is such a dear man in many ways, and I am very much looking forward to working with the people of the House and the Senate this year, and the governor’s office.”

Still, she added that she wanted to hear more and see what specific policy proposals emerge before rendering judgment.

“So many of the things were pretty open-ended, they were general statements where you don’t know what you mean by that,” Marble said. “As they say, the devil is in the details. They could be this way or that way.”