Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his sixth State of the State address to the state Legislature Thursday. In his speech he highlighted the need for people from all political stripes to work together to fix the state's big budget problems and discussed Colorado's economic gains and challenges.
"We're one of the top states for economic growth," Hickenlooper said. "One of the best places for business and careers, for quality of life, for health and tourism."
Gov. Hickenlooper spoke for 40 minutes and painted a broad picture on everything from health care and schools, to tourism, mental health and the environment. Lawmakers in both parties said they liked the speech, which was largely uncontroversial.
"I thought it was a very positive speech, it was inspirational, it was a strong speech," said Representative Bob Rankin. (R-Carbondale)
Colorado's legislature is split, with Democrats controlling the House and Republicans holding a majority in the state Senate. The fact that it's a presidential election year puts even more pressure on the political atmosphere within the building. Hickenlooper spent a portion of the speech urging the parties to come together.
"To solve the problems that are bigger than any single one of us," said Hickenlooper. "Let's strive, I mean really try, to be more bipartisan this Session. Let's forgo cheap shots in favor of civility and productive dialogue."
While the governor didn't outline a detailed 2016 session policy agenda, he did give offer some specifics. The most controversial is his plan to turn a hospital provider fee into an enterprise fund. That means the roughly $700 million fee would no longer count as state revenue under the Tax Payers Bill of Rights.
"If we can't make this very reasonable change – like many already allowed under TABOR – then what choice do we have but to re-examine TABOR? Right now, no one can say with a straight face that our budget rules are working for us," Hickenlooper said.
While Democrats gave a loud applause, Republicans are not on board. During his speech on the opening day of the legislature, House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland) spoke strongly against such a plan.
"While I agree, funding for education and transportation are critical, under no circumstances should that justify violating the state constitution," DelGrosso said.
Republican budget committee member Bob Rankin said he's actually open to the governor's plan — although he's not on board yet. So far the legislative legal attorneys have said the plan is unconstitutional.
"I would like to support it if we can find a constitutional path that says it's legal," said Rankin. "I would hate to vote against my entire caucus so I want to be very, very sure that everybody in my caucus thinks it's the right legal way to go."
Rankin said there are other fiscal ways to help the state's budget challenges. The current proposed state budget is cutting money to schools among other things. Supporters of the governor's plan, like joint budget committee member Representative Dave Young (D-Fort Collins), say it's one way to keep more money in the state's coffers rather than refunding it to tax payers.
"I think we have a thorny job here to balance a lot of competing needs," Young said. "I know sometimes people think they are just wants, but we have some dramatic needs that we are not meeting in our current funding mess. So we're going to have to work hard."
On other topics Hickenlooper said he wants to reduce Colorado's suicide rate, and look at studying suicide prevention and gun safety. The speech also a highlighted a recent trade mission that included a visit to Israel and a discussion on cyber security. Gov. Hickenlooper wants to create a National Cyber security Intelligence Center in Colorado Springs.
"As we see it, this Center can be the country's foremost authority on cyber security research and development, training and education. It will provide real time response capability for businesses to detect, prevent, remediate and recover from threats and hacks," said Hickenlooper.
One debate Hickenlooper doesn't want to reopen is on school testing. It dominated the last legislative session and the governor signed a bipartisan bill to reduce the number of tests school children take. Now there's another bipartisan bill to take it even further and eliminate English and math standardized tests in 9th grade.
"There are pivotal moments in our kids' academic careers when we need to know exactly where they stand on the learning curve," said Hickenlooper. "We're standing firm on 9th grade assessments."
The speech ended on a lighthearted note when lawmakers congratulated him on his upcoming wedding. Hickenlooper is marrying 37-year-old Robin Pringle. As he was exiting the chamber after his speech, legislators surprised him by throwing rice on the soon to be newlyweds.