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Hickenlooper challenges lawmakers to fix funding shortfalls for transportation and schools

January 12, 2017 Updated: January 13, 2017 at 8:01 am
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Gov. John Hickenlooper on Thursday called for healing following the nation's most divisive election in recent memory, urging the legislature to come together to resolve Colorado's ongoing budget woes.

The Democratic governor delivered his seventh State of the State address to a divided legislature that will preside over his final two years in office.

Hickenlooper took note of the state's booming economy and a historical low in unemployment, but said more funding is essential for transportation and schools, especially in rural parts of the state.

The governor said nothing can be accomplished unless lawmakers work together to focus on state-specific solutions, rather than allow national politics to overshadow the conversation.

"It's no secret that we've just been through one of the most toxic political campaigns on record. Regardless of who you supported, we can all agree: last year was divisive," Hickenlooper said. "But we'll soon have a new president, and it is clear that the new administration and Congress seek a different relationship between the federal government and the states."

Perhaps there is no clearer example than health care, as the Republican-controlled Congress is already moving to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as promised by President-elect Donald Trump. The question is whether it will be replaced. In either case, Colorado is likely to see some major shifts in terms of heath policy and Medicaid funding.

"I think most of us would agree that the last thing we want is Congress in D.C. making all of our decisions around health care," Hickenlooper chided.

Senate President Kevin Grantham , R-Canon City, said he was happy to hear the governor reject a heavy hand from Congress, but that Democrats are late to that particular party.

"I wish he and all the other Democrats would have believed that back in 2009, and then they could have stayed out of all our health-care decisions," said Grantham, who has already proposed eliminating the health insurance exchange in Colorado. "I look forward to the debate ... to hear them explain why we should keep a failed system in place ..."

But with about two years left in his term, Hickenlooper said he would rather look forward, quoting Muhammad Ali, "Don't count the days, make the days count.".

He pointed to his proposal to restructure the Hospital Provider Fee as an enterprise fund in order to come up with money to pay for state services, shot down by Republicans last year. It would have exempted the hospital fee from TABOR, thereby freeing money for spending.

Describing that proposal as being about as popular in Colorado as the Oakland Raiders, he challenged the legislature to come up with an alternative funding solution, even if that means going to voters to ask for a tax increase.

And if lawmakers - Republicans specifically - don't want to ask voters for more money, but instead desire cuts, the governor said, "If that's what you really want, introduce that bill. Make that case. Tell us who loses health care or what schools have to close to add a mile of highway.

"Let's decide what we take to the voters in November, and let's make our case to the public," the governor said, as Democrats gave him standing applause while Republicans remained seated.

Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker said he agreed with Hickenlooper on making sure voters know what they're getting for any tax request they're asked to pass.

"I think it's helpful that the voters understand that they're in charge, whether it's a local question or something statewide," Holbert said. "Ultimately we put those questions before them and they decide."

Hickenlooper also had an eye on rural Colorado during his nearly 40-minute speech, announcing a new broadband office with the goal of covering the entire state with high speed Internet by 2020.

"We can't wave a magic wand to diversify the economy throughout the state, but if we work together, we can support growth in any community that wants it," Hickenlooper said.

He returned time and again to the budget, describing a "fiscal thicket" comprised of constitutional spending and tax conflicts, which has resulted in critical services like education and transportation being diminished.

This year lawmakers are working to trim $600 million from the budget, despite the state's positive economy and revenues.

"In addition to addressing transportation ... let's get our best minds together and find a way out of this thicket that respects taxpayers and gives all of our students the education they deserve," the governor said.

And it wouldn't be a State of the State address this year without highlighting housing development. Construction defects reform could be a legislative accomplishment, as lawmakers work to curb lawsuits against developers in an effort to spur building.

Said the governor to applause. "There has to be a compromise that balances homeowner protections for faulty construction and yet still allows developers to build affordable housing throughout Colorado."

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