Governor, legislators key into business issues at Capitol

The Colorado Statesman

The governor and legislative leaders unveiled their business agendas for the session that began on Wednesday. Legislation addressing research, economic development and job creation remains the focus for Democrats, while Republicans continue to look towards easing regulatory burdens and doing “no harm.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, kicked off the flurry of business activity during a news conference Monday in which he announced a bipartisan bill that seeks to accelerate research and development activities through $15 million in state funding.

House Bill 1, sponsored by Reps. Dave Young, D-Greeley, Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Sens. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver, would create a program to provide grants for advanced industries that are seeking funding for proof of concept research and development, as well as early stage capital.

So-called “advanced industries” include companies that provide groundbreaking, innovative products. Such industries include aerospace, advanced manufacturing, bioscience, electronics, energy and natural resources, technology and information, and infrastructure engineering.

Companies can apply for grants of up to $150,000, but they must put up $1 for every $3 the state gives them. Companies that have at least 50 percent of their employees working in Colorado could apply for grants up to $250,000, but the company would still need to put up $2 for every $1 the state provides. Grants up to $500,000 could be awarded to collaborative projects that focus on technology or product development.

The measure builds off of a similar bill from 2011 that already provides start-up assistance to companies in the clean technology sector.

Sponsors are still working out funding details, but some of the money would come from diverting cleantech grants, and much of the rest of it would come from reforms to the state’s enterprise zone program. Lawmakers would also likely have to tap into the general fund as well.

“It’s going to function as a magnet to help bring entrepreneurs to Colorado…” declared the governor. “Having a program like this really distinguishes us from other states.”

Sponsors point out that advanced industries account for 30 percent of the state’s economy, 520,300 jobs, as well as hundreds of thousands of ancillary jobs. The state’s research institutions and federal labs bring in close to $2 billion annually in advanced technology research.

“We wanted to make sure that the private sector was involved with us,” said Gerou. “This bill has immediate impact at a time when jobs need to be created now. It will help convert ideas into real jobs and retain and grow Colorado’s companies.”

“Colorado has a vast network of assets, including more research institutions and federal labs, universities, innovative companies and a highly-educated workforce,” added Young. “Aligning these assets around opportunities can grow these advanced industries, and establish Colorado as a global competitor.”

Heath, who said he has a 40-year background in manufacturing, believes the measure will serve to bring jobs back to Colorado.

“It sends a message across this country that Colorado is indeed open for business, and we’re excited and proud to have you here, and we’re going to do everything we can to support you,” boasted an excited Heath.

Tom Clark, chief executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and vice president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the business community loves the idea of accelerating advanced industry growth. He points out that with a patent office scheduled to open in Denver this year, the opportunity for growth is enormous.

“We have now finally been officially declared an innovation hub, and House Bill 1 is a furtherance of saying that,” opined Clark. “Not only are we [an innovation hub,] but we’re going to have additional resources to do it.”

Kelly Brough, president and chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, agreed with her colleague, suggesting that the measure is an exciting way to coordinate business grant funding.

“Anything that we believe will drive jobs for Coloradans and our economic success, we’re going to support,” said Brough.

Democrats unveil jobs bills

Lawmakers have other ideas for creating jobs as well, including assisting small businesses, growing mid-size businesses, and helping the unemployed and underemployed.

House Democrats on Tuesday held a news conference to unveil a package of four bills that launched their jobs agenda for the year. The measures include House Bill 1002, sponsored by Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood.

The bill would provide up to an additional $500,000 for the state’s small business development centers. With current state support of only $85,000, Tyler believes the centers are grossly underfunded. He points out that the centers have offered counseling to more than 5,000 businesses, created 1,700 jobs and assisted with nearly $132 mil-lion in small business capital in 2011.

“It’s a very effective program…” said Tyler. “What I would like to do… is to provide some additional funding… It’s a great bang for the buck…”

Patrick Crawford, co-owner of Denver Beer Co., said a small business development center helped to launch his business.

“It happened to be an amazing resource for two young entrepreneurs who have never started a business before,” said Crawford.

Reps. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, have introduced House Bill 1003 also as part of the House Democrats’ jobs package. The measure would create a so-called economic gardening pilot program.

Economic gardening is a Colorado-specific economic development method that counsels second-stage companies on growth. The pilot program would train and certify small business development center staff on how to provide a year’s worth of assistance to at least 20 second-stage companies.

“Economic gardening is a Colorado-designed approach to cultivate and nurture small businesses with the greatest growth potential by giving them high level strategic assistance and counseling, usually only available to Fortune 500 companies,” said Lee.

House Bill 1004, sponsored by Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, aims to create jobs by connecting people with careers that are immediately available. The measure would provide grants to expand advanced training programs to include workforce training.

“What this bill will do is give tools to the unemployed to be able to find quality employment in the State of Colorado… to build strong collaboration so that we have a qualified workforce in the state… to attract and retain new companies,” said Duran.

The fourth bill in the House Democrats’ agenda is House Bill 1005, sponsored by Reps. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and John Buckner, D-Aurora. The measure seeks to connect undereducated Coloradans with jobs. It would create 20 pilot programs in the community college system to offer under- and unemployed students with professional and technical skills.

“It allows adults to earn co-secondary credentials within a 12-month program, helping them quickly to gain the skills they need to get back to work,” said Fields.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have released at least one component in their economic development agenda for the year. Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, have introduced Senate Bill 1, which would establish $120 million in tax breaks.

It would establish an income tax credit for working families, as well as a child and dependent care credit and a child tax credit against state income taxes. Morse believes as many as 370,000 families could benefit.

“Coloradans are decidedly nonpartisan,” Morse said in announcing the bill. “Like the Senate Democrats, they simply want results. They want the economy to grow; they want their families to be safe, healthy and financially secure; and they want to continue to live in a beautiful, resourceful state. They have elected us to lead the way. It’s a big task, but we will use our Democratic values of fairness, opportunity, and responsibility as a compass to guide us.”

Biz community looks to future

Republicans from both the House and Senate have yet to unveil specific economic development or jobs agendas for the year. But in addressing the business community on Tuesday, Republicans appear to be more on the defensive now that Democrats control both chambers.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said at a policy briefing hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce that the goal for Republicans will be to fight bills that increase regulation.

“Really, our first job is to do no harm,” Cadman told the business leaders. “Let’s do no harm to what really is still a very fragile economy.”

Gerou, who also offered remarks at the briefing, agreed that until the state pulls out of the recession, there needs to be a focus on job creation and limiting regulatory burdens.

“Everybody knows that we’re all still feeling it,” asserted Gerou. “So, as quickly as we can create jobs, we want to do that.”

Hickenlooper said that his administration is dedicated to easing regulation and making it simpler for businesses to create jobs.

“We have gone through every agency; we have been cutting our red tape, trying to figure out how do we, if we cannot eliminate this regulation, how can we modify it to make it easier and less of a burden,” the governor addressed his audience.

The Chamber itself outlined its policy goals for the year, including bringing reforms to education and health care, while fixing infrastructure and improving economic development.

Clark said if he had his way, he would like to see the legislature work on boosting the state’s higher education system, including finding a funding solution.

“It’s not going to happen, but I would like to see an effort to fix higher-ed,” insisted Clark. “It just costs more to have a research institution… But it’s where the magic happens in creating new companies and taking ideas and turning them into something.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com