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Analysis: Gov. Hickenlooper muses about his last Colorado legislative session

January 10, 2018 Updated: January 10, 2018 at 9:37 am
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The first time I met Gov. John Hickenlooper was in 2003, outside a hotel in LoDo, where he was about to give a speech. We shook hands on the sidewalk, and he jokingly apologized because I was assigned to help cover this local barkeeper's rising campaign for mayor.

I remember thinking he was cross between Sam Malone and Eddie Haskell. (Google it, millennials.) He had boundless energy and a fountain of barstool ideas about how government should work. Watching him discuss his last State of the State address, which is Thursday, in his office in the Capitol you could still see all that in him, but with a political polish he didn't have on an early summer day in LoDo 15 years ago.

So it was no surprise he was unfazed by gunfire on the street outside the state Capitol a week ago, before he was scheduled to meet with reporters. "It had nothing to do with me," he said of the gunfire, which hit no one.

He was "honing the poetry you all will hear." He warned later his last State of the State is still a fluid document, so we may not know what he has up his executive sleeve.

"My staff thinks it's going to be my last opportunity to have the last laugh," Hickenlooper warned about his annual address to the joint session of the General Assembly. He's never been afraid of jokes or quoting pop songs.

"I know that's never the case," the wiser and wizened governor said. "The media always laughs last, so don't think I'm deceived."

He said the speech will again address infrastructure, and easy thing for a politician to say he supports, but a difficult thing to pull off politically to anyone's satisfaction. Republicans want more money for it out of the state budget. Democrats want additional money to come from taxpayers, not beneficiaries of the existing state dollars.

Hickenlooper said Thursday's speech would again "address education, talk about the way we have worked together in this state in a way other states haven't done. I think part of that State of the State will talk about what we all have to have at the top of that list: a responsibility to listen a little harder to what the other person is saying and see where we can find common ground."

The governor talked Thursday about the early days of his administration. But he said some accomplishments are so far in the rearview mirror he would have to do some research to remember them all. (He will do that research himself, if I know anything about the man.)

"Back then we were focused on the economy and jobs, wanted to go through every regulation, every rule, to find more access to capital," he said. "We wanted to talk about the state as a place of innovation, startups. We expanded Medicaid because we thought we would be healthier. Charter schools, we wanted to be one of the states that was innovative. We did a lot of things. But back then, stuff I talked about back then, I'd have to go back and look, to be honest. I think we got most of that (done)."

No TABOR foe

The governor, who has often talked about navigating the "fiscal thicket" of constitutional amendments, clarified last week he is not an enemy of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights - maybe a frenemy. The GOP is the fortress that defends TABOR's spending cap, which limits the size of government growth.

"I have never been against people wanting to vote on tax increases," the governor said of TABOR's key provision. "It makes my life harder. It makes the General Assembly's life harder, but it's remarkably popular in every part of the state I've been to. And in the end it puts a higher standard for all of us that we have to do a better job of explaining what we would do with taxpayers' money."

He would like the people to get to vote on funding transportation, a referred ballot measure Republicans blocked last year.

"I would prefer, in terms of transportation, that we would have a referred measure to the ballot and see what the voters would say," he said. "Last year we couldn't convince anyone that was a good idea. We might have a challenge again this session."

Hickenlooper said that while the economy is strong it's time also to consider how to pay the roughly $800 million tab created by Amendment 23, passed by voters in 2000 to force the legislature to fund K-12 education at the rate of inflation plus 1 percent.

"I think a lot of people would welcome that," Hickenlooper said. "Can we get that to a referred measure? I don't know."

Statewide voters in 2013, however, shot down Amendment 66, a $950 million tax increase for schools, almost 2 to 1.

Listen for compromise

The behemoth issue of his last legislative session, transportation funding, evolved as an issue later in Hickenlooper's first term, around 2013. It has only grown since.

He hopes this session is the one where people either compromise, or help him understand why they won't for the sake of a solution to the state's most pressing issues.

House and Senate Democrats said at a Denver Metro Chamber breakfast earlier in the day that they're not sure yet if they want to put more money into transportation. Hickenlooper asked for $148.2 million of an expected surplus. But Hickenlooper has differences with lawmakers over a lot of spending priorities.

"I think the goal here is, and I really mean this, I need to listen a little harder to exactly what their concerns are, ask them to say it in different ways. Maybe I'm not hearing it right," the governor told the press. "Certainly what I hear when I'm out talking to citizens is they are increasingly frustrated by congestion and traffic.

"I hear people in rural Colorado saying they're increasingly frustrated with so many parts of the state that don't have high-speed internet."

Hickenlooper said managing and conserving water gets shoved to the back-burner, but the results are foreseeable.

"Long-term, Aurora is not going to run out of water," he offered as an example. "They'll just pay to buy water from agricultural pursuits and they'll increase what they're offering to buy water, and we will dry up more agricultural land. I don't think that should be a mystery."

Lame duck governor

Hickenlooper doesn't like to think of himself as a lame duck governor this session, a person with no authority, biding his time until the next election to see if a fellow Democrat follows him, or the basket is flipped with a GOP governor.

"I've never appreciated the image of a lame duck," Hickenlooper said. "I always liked the metaphor of the duck just gliding smoothly across the water and underneath its webbed feet are paddling furiously. But the lame duck is what it is."

He doesn't expect to grow in popularity during the upcoming campaign season, either.

"Over the next 10, what is it, 11 months everything I do is going to be criticized by somebody, and about half the time it's going to be my own party, right?" he said. "Everybody's got to run on change, so our economic success, which I think most of the people in my administration are pretty proud of, and others - in fact, U.S. News and World Report referred to us as the No.1 economy in the country last summer - somehow that will be soiled.

"It's just the way this game works, right? I think I've learned if you don't enjoy it and find some humor it, you might be in the wrong line of business."

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