Colorado governor touts progress, legal pot, in final speech
DENVER — “Giddy up.”
It’s a ‘let’s do it” phrase that Colorado’s term-limited governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, used in a 2016 autobiography at a time when some speculated he might join Hillary Clinton’s presidential ticket. He used it again Thursday to conclude a final state of the state speech that focused not so much on his legacy but the work at hand.
Hickenlooper told legislators and an audience that included some who hope to succeed him that “by nearly every measure, Colorado is perhaps stronger now than at any point in history.”
When he took office in 2011, he said, Colorado ranked 26th nationally in unemployment. Thanks to years of efforts to promote business, energy, aerospace and the tech industry, unemployment now stands at 2.9 percent, among the lowest in the country.
Colorado, Hickenlooper proclaimed, is “one of the best places for business in America.”
That said, it won’t stay that way if pressing issues aren’t resolved, he warned.
Near the top: Transportation investment. As he has before, Hickenlooper called the lack of it a threat to Colorado’s economy, with a $9 billion backlog in maintenance and $25 billion in roads needs by 2040. He called for a measure in which voters could decide to raise taxes for roads and transit.
“We’ve been driving on a flat tire for about a quarter of a century,” the governor said, alluding to Colorado’s state gasoline tax of 22 cents per gallon, last raised in 1993. That tax helps fund roads, and per Colorado’s constitution, any proposed tax increase must be put to voters.
“The applause line was for new revenue, and that’s basically asking for a tax increase,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, whose party insists on issuing bonds, not raising taxes, for the state’s increasingly congested highways.
Citing an improved budget outlook for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Grantham continued: “Why would we go to the voters with a proposal that I think is pretty tough to pass when we have the money already?”
The governor urged lawmakers to address an underfunded public employees’ pension fund; attack the opioid epidemic; and promote rural development to bridge the economic divide between the Denver metropolitan area and rural eastern and western Colorado. He insisted that his administration’s emphasis on clean energy continue.
Hickenlooper said he’d ask lawmakers to draft a ballot measure for November that would fix a state constitutional amendment, known as Gallagher, that restricts personal property tax collections and harms rural communities’ ability to pay for essential services.
“That’s a tough nut to crack,” Grantham said of changing Gallagher. “But I’m willing to talk to the governor about this.”
The governor said it was well past time for Washington to leave the Affordable Care Act alone. He acknowledged it needs adjustment — residents in 14 Colorado counties have just one insurer and pay some of the nation’s highest premiums — but the number of uninsured Coloradans has dropped by half under the act.
“We need our friends in Washington to finally move past the tired fight over the Affordable Care Act,” said Hickenlooper, who with other governors, including Ohio Republican John Kasich, sought and failed to prevent Congress from doing away with tax penalties for those who don’t buy health insurance.
“I would have loved to have heard some proposed solutions — but that’s part of our job,” said Republican Sen. Jim Smallwood, who last year introduced legislation that would have abolished Colorado’s state health insurance exchange.
In the same vein, Hickenlooper touted Colorado’s recreational marijuana experiment — a week after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued new pot guidance to federal law enforcement. Hickenlooper reluctantly accepted voters’ decision in 2012 to create the nation’s first recreational pot industry and has insisted it be tightly regulated.
“By the way,” he told lawmakers, “we’re not wild about Washington telling us what’s best for us. We expect the federal government will respect the will of Colorado voters.”
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