Capitol has much to accomplish
Gov. John Hickenlooper gave his eighth and final State of the State address Thursday, Jan. 11, an address that focused largely on rural issues.
The governor’s 49-minute speech set up his agenda for 2018, with transportation at the top of the list, along with rural broadband, reducing health care costs, fighting the opioid epidemic and fixing the state’s public pension plan.
“We can’t rest on our laurels,” Hickenlooper said, pointing to the successes of the past seven years. That includes creating the country’s first and best methane regulations, the state water plan “that secures food production,” protection of the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species and developing an electric vehicle infrastructure.
“As one farmer told me, ‘In Colorado, you can be a rainfall away from a record crop but a hailstorm away from losing it all.’ So we will not let up. We won’t stop to enjoy the view. We have a lot to accomplish in the next 119 days.”
Hickenlooper laid the groundwork for asking voters to help fund transportation, noting that Fort Morgan and El Paso County voters had said “yes” to paying for road repairs.
Last year’s bill on the hospital provider fee, which saved at least a dozen rural hospitals from closure, also set up a plan for $1.9 billion for road projects, with a quarter of that dedicated to rural communities.
Last week, after state economists announced a revenue surplus, the governor modified his 2018-19 budget request to tap $148 million of that surplus for transportation.
But it isn’t enough, the governor indicated, as did House Democrats Wednesday, Jan. 10. “We can’t innovate our way out of traffic jams without the resources,” he said, pointing out that Coloradans spend hundreds of dollars annually for repairs as a result of bad roads and waste dozens of hours in traffic.
“We’ve been driving on a flat tire for a quarter century. All while Utah raised their gas tax twice,” he said with some envy. The state’s wish list for immediate transportation needs tops $9 billion and over the next 20 years is expected to exceed $25 billion.
“It’s time we look at a long-term solution with a sustainable funding source,” the governor said. “Coloradans deserve the opportunity to vote on whether we need new resources and where they should come from. It’s time to go to the voters,” although he didn’t say just what a proposal for that sustainable funding source would be.
In 2017, lawmakers, including Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City and Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, sponsored a bill that would hike the state sales tax to pay for bonds that would cover the transportation wish list. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate Finance Committee, and lawmakers don’t expect round two in 2018.
Instead, a coalition of supporters of last year’s failed measure are believed to be at work on a statewide ballot measure, although it has yet to be introduced.
A sales tax hike is not an idea beloved by Republicans. Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan told this reporter that taxpayers really cannot afford more taxes and that the transportation wish list can be paid for with existing state revenues.
Hickenlooper also addressed the continued logjam over rural Colorado access to high-speed broadband. He noted last year’s legislature delivered “a modest deposit on our broadband initiative. And today, a high schooler in Julesburg is taking remote business classes so perhaps one day he can start his own company.” Hickenlooper’s plan is to see all of Colorado wired by 2020, although that’s telecommunications services that don’t necessarily include high-speed broadband.
A bill that will direct a state subsidy in telecommunications toward rural broadband has been introduced in the state Senate, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Sen. Don Coram of Montrose. The bill has bipartisan support, a positive sign for a statewide solution in 2018.
Hickenlooper also mentioned the state water plan as a way to preserve Colorado agriculture and called for a funding plan to address the state’s expected $3 billion cost. But that’s not a top priority for legislative leaders, who are more interested in seeing a statewide transportation solution this session and addressing reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association, which has an unfunded liability that may be as high as $55 billion.
Last Wednesday, opening day, also gave legislative leaders a chance to address their own priorities for 2018. In addition to the usual calls for bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers called for measures to solve the statewide transportation backlog, reform PERA and build out rural broadband.
Grantham, who is term-limited at the end of the year, devoted a large portion of his speech to that latter issue. He is the first Senate president from rural Colorado in about 40 years and has seen first-hand the problems rural Colorado experiences from a lack of good internet service. Good broadband will help “the fifth-grader in Dove Creek trying to get his homework done or the business owner in Creede wanting to sell his goods online or a hospital in Hugo researching life-saving solutions” for patients.
“We have a duty to ensure that internet service providers can provide fast internet connections to every household in Colorado,” Grantham said, and “any legislation that we propose must protect existing providers from government-subsidized competition” as well as deliver to the truly unserved areas of the state.
Senate Democratic leader Lucia Guzman of Denver, who also is term-limited at the end of the year, pointed out that despite the strong economy, the state spends $2,000 less per public school student than the national average and the “obscene” cost of health care continues to drive families into “debilitating debt. The question remains whether or not we can summon the collective courage to put partisanship aside and advance an agenda that improves the lives of the working and middle class,” Guzman said.
Speaker of the House Duran, a Denver Democrat, also addressed transportation, as well as a call for solutions on affordable housing and child care. PERA is also a priority, but Duran said it would be unfair to cover the pension plan’s liability “solely on the backs of hard-working public servants” or by “slashing cost-of-living adjustments for retired state employees.” Duran also noted her caucus will sponsor bills to address the opioid epidemic.
House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock also spoke about transportation, reiterating the Republican view that any solution should be paid for out of existing state revenue rather than asking voters for a tax increase. Lawmakers need to prioritize funding “for cleaner, safer roads and bridges; lowering the regulatory barriers that businesses and especially new businesses encounter; enabling students and teachers to find success in education; legalizing affordable health insurance plans and providing consumer choice;” as well as protecting the right to life.
He also asked lawmakers to avoid gun control measures as a reaction to recent mass shootings.
Finally, all four lawmakers and the governor called for an end to sexual harassment at the Capitol. Four lawmakers have been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct — two from the House, both Democrats, and two from the Senate, both Republicans.
One lawmaker, Rep. Paul Rosenthal of Denver, was cleared after the investigation determined the allegations against him took place before he was a member of the General Assembly. Investigations are proceeding against the other three.
Lawmakers are expected to revise the General Assembly’s workplace harassment policy, and they’re also planning to hire a first-ever human resources staffer to handle these issues, instead of putting it in the hands of lawmakers.