DENVER - Despite floods and fires, violence and lost loved ones, Colorado is standing strong, Gov. John Hickenlooper told lawmakers Thursday during his State of the State address.
"Every season of 2013 presented another unthinkable test," Hickenlooper said. "My fellow Coloradans, despite every unforeseen test, despite everything that was thrown at us, the state of our state is strong."
He asked the Colorado General Assembly - a day after the 2014 session began - to put aside partisan bickering and focus on moving Colorado forward by being good public servants.
He then laid out his priorities for the session.
He highlighted the steady job growth that has taken place since he took office four years ago and said the economy is growing stronger.
"But let's be clear," he said. "The unemployment rate is not low enough, and all of us share a commitment to keep a statewide focus on this issue. More jobs all over Colorado is our highest priority."
He implored lawmakers to pass a budget that increases the state's emergency reserves and pours more money into higher education and public schools.
He asked them to increase transparency of school finances, and to reform how school enrollment is counted.
He called for harsher fines and penalties for oil and gas companies that violate state rules.
He urged lawmakers to reform the state's telecommunications act, and make broadband Internet access available to rural communities.
He concluded his address, held in the House of Representatives chambers at the Colorado state Capitol, with a tribute to former Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements, a member Hickenlooper's cabinet who was shot and killed at his Monument-area home by a paroled inmate.
"Tom's story and life is not defined by what happened to him but by the immense good he achieved and his legacy of love and compassion and reform, his legacy of public service," Hickenlooper said.
Clements' wife and daughter attended the speech.
Hickenlooper urged lawmakers to follow Clements' lead and live as public servants.
Hickenlooper - a geologist who became a beer brewer and ran for mayor of Denver at age 50 - is facing a tough re-election bid in 2014 with Republicans saying a radically liberal agenda in 2013 has made him vulnerable in a state that is known for being moderate.
"To me the speech was a hollow campaign speech," said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who is running for governor. "The governor took credit for things that may or may not have just naturally occurred in the economy . He failed to take responsibility for contributing to the division that occurred up here last year."
That division centered on several bills Hickenlooper ultimately signed into law, including five gun bills that were aimed at increasing public safety in the wake of shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn.
In his previous State of the State address, Hickenlooper asked lawmakers to have a conversation about changes in gun laws, specifically mentioning universal background checks, which he signed into law during the 2013 session.
On Thursday, a month after a 17-year-old was killed at Arapahoe High School, he said "guns are only a piece of the puzzle."
Brophy said if Hickenlooper had vetoed the gun bills, the governor would be cruising to reelection in 2014.
So far six Republicans have entered the gubernatorial race: Brophy, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, Steve House of Adams County, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, former state Sen. Mike Kopp and Jim Rundberg of Meeker.
Gessler - who Hickenlooper dubbed the "dogged honey badger" in his speech - launched his first negative campaign ad against Hickenlooper on Thursday.
Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said the governor set the right tone.
"When he became governor we were in the midst of the great recession, 40th in job creation, 9 percent unemployment - to today where we're 4th in job creation and at 6 percent unemployment," Ferrandino said. "The governor made the argument very well about how he's been able to streamline government, how he's been able to make it more efficient."
He said it's been a successful three years with Hickenlooper in office.
Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, said in the 10 years he's held the office, he's only ever missed one State of the State address.
"They are a bit formulaic," Suthers said after Hickenlooper had concluded. "I guess the one thing I would note is I wish there was a little more attention to some of the more serious issues."
Suthers said in the national domain Colorado is being defined by marijuana.
"We need to say a little bit more in detail about how we're going to have this robust regulation," Suthers said. "I think we are opening ourselves up to a huge increase in adolescent use, and I would have liked to have seen more specifics about exactly how the executive branch is going to deal with that issue."
Hickenlooper did say the state was obligated to educate parents and children about the risks of underage use on brain development.
"This will be one of the great social experiments of this century, and while not all of us chose it, being the first means we all share a responsibility to do it properly," he said.
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