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Hickenlooper addresses roads, rural needs, marijuana in State of the State

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Term-limited Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper asks a question of his staff before delivering his final State of the State address to a joint assembly Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018, in the State Capitol in Denver. Hickenlooper encouraged lawmakers to take steps to improve the state's crumbling roadways and to commit to education efforts to prepare the populous for jobs in the ever-changing economy. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Along with the growling tractors in the Brush Fourth of July parade and the smell of barbecue in Sterling Gov. John Hickenlooper talked about roads, drug addiction, state employees' pensions, rural broadband and healthcare in his State of the State address Thursday.

A governor who could someday be on a national ticket swerved into Washington gridlock and shortcomings. Insiders predict Hickenlooper might take on Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in 2020.

Hickenlooper spoke of healthcare, in Colorado and the debate in Washington. He said that 14 Colorado counties rely solely on the state healthcare exchange created by the advent of the Affordable Care Act, and that the Western Slope still has some of the highest insurance costs in the country.

"We need our friends in Washington to finally move past the tired fight over the Affordable Care Act," he said. "It's not perfect, and we need to strengthen it in lots of ways - but it has helped reduce our uninsured rate by half."

He noted that 600,000 more people have health care now than seven years ago.

Hickenlooper bemoaned the need for transportation investment, an issue that's lacked significant investment from the legislature in the face of the state's tremendous growth. That's forced communities such as El Paso County to pass local taxes to fix their own needs.

"We've been driving on a flat tire for a quarter century," he said.

The governor called on legislators to find a sustainable funding source and other solutions to the state's problems and needs during the 120-day legislative session that started Wednesday.

Last week he recommended the state spend $148.2 million next year on transportation and an undetermined amount the year after. Republicans want a much larger, more permanent solution that will cost at least $300 million a year to repay bonds to address high-profile problems like traffic jams on Interstate 25 north of Monument and Denver, and I-70 through the high country.

"It's an opportunity for us to show the country how it's done, that politics need not be a blood sport," the governor said in his speech.

Hickenlooper talked, as he has almost every year he's been governor, of compromise. It's a Colorado tradition, he said.

"Popular culture has tried to sell us a tall tale: that Colorado's history is only about rugged individualism and conflict," Hickenlooper said. "But cooperation has always been the defining part of our DNA. Trappers used to go out in packs of 10 or 20, because teamwork was safer and more productive."

He spoke of rural Colorado, which both Democrats and Republicans are vowing to help see the economic gains the urbanized Front Range has enjoyed.

Building out high-speed internet across the state is part of that mission, Hickenlooper said.

"Some of our best entrepreneurs are already in rural areas," Hickenlooper said.

He pointed to the state's new Rural Venture Fund to put investment and capital into rural economic development.

"We need to make it easier for anyone to love any part of Colorado and start a business there," the governor said.

He also called, as he does annually, for more investment in education, especially in rural areas.

"Today, in almost every part of Colorado, ZIP code still determines your educational outcome," Hickenlooper said. "And that determines your economic outcome. This needs to change."

He sought to calm the nerves of a marijuana industry. Two weeks ago U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed federal reassurances that the industry would not be shut down under federal law in state's that had passed legalization.

"We're not wild about Washington telling us what's best for us," Hickenlooper said. "We expect the federal government will respect the will of Colorado voters."

The address was Hickenlooper's last State of the State. He is term-limited, and his replacement will be elected in November. His lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, whom he appointed two years ago, is running in a crowded Democratic ballot.

The governor reflected on his seven previous State of the State addresses. He focused on the state's successes, laying out a resume for an ex-governor who might someday seek a national office.

"When we first met in this room, our economy was in disarray," Hickenlooper said of 2011. "We had just ended the worst year for job seekers in generation."

Today Colorado is hailed nationally as one of the best states for employers and those looking for work, with one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates, at 2.3 percent. The national jobless rate was 4.1 percent in November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We lifted families out of poverty, with a focus on two-generation solutions," Hickenlooper said. "Our family planning initiative has helped reduce the abortion rate among teens in Colorado by 64 percent."

He said in the speech, "By nearly every measure, Colorado is perhaps stronger now than at any point in our history .... This is an era for the record books."

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