Governor decides against special session
By Marianne Goodland
The Colorado Independent
After more than a week of speculation, Gov. John Hickenlooper Friday put to an end the idea that he might call lawmakers back for a special session.
The day after lawmakers called it quits for the 2017 General Assembly, Hickenlooper raised the possibility that he could ask lawmakers to come back to deal with transportation funding, rural broadband, the Colorado Energy Office and healthcare transparency issues.
But transportation was clearly at the top of the governor’s priority list.
In January, Hickenlooper pleaded with the General Assembly to come up with a bipartisan transportation plan that would cover about $3.5 billion in road and bridge repairs, as well as transit and mobility issues. He got that solution, with a bill sponsored by the Democratic Speaker of the House, Crisanta Duran of Denver, and the Republican Senate President, Kevin Grantham of Cañon City.
The measure would have asked voters to approve a hike in the state’s sales tax from 29 cents on a $10 purchase to 34 cents. But it never gained traction with the more conservative Republicans in the state Senate, and a committee controlled by those conservatives killed the bill in April.
The governor did get some of the $3.5 billion he wanted for transportation funding, through passage of the bill that would save rural hospitals. That measure, backed by Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, puts $1.1 billion into the transportation list developed by the Colorado Department of Transportation. It also puts more than $450,000 into transportation projects for rural counties with populations of 50,000 or less.
Over the years, the most successful special sessions are those where the deals are in place before the session even starts, and then those sessions need only the minimum three days to get those deals through the House and Senate.
Whether a deal on transportation was ever close to a handshake is unknown, but on Thursday, Grantham put out a humorous video showing he was still waiting for a call from the governor.
Hickenlooper admitted he never called Grantham about a special session, noting that last week Grantham had said there was no chance of a transportation deal, given the current opposition.
That leaves the three other lesser issues that Hickenlooper had on his wish list.
While the General Assembly moved $9.5 million into the state’s rural broadband fund, an action initiated by Becker, Hickenlooper told reporters last week that wasn’t enough money to make progress on his goal of moving the state from 70 percent high-speed Internet service to 85 percent by the end of his term, some 19 months from now. An effort to put another $33 million or so into that fund failed on the session’s last day.
Another issue on the governor’s plate was how to fund the Colorado Energy Office, which promotes Colorado energy, works toward economic development tied to energy, and encourages clean energy solutions, including renewables. Among its biggest successes is helping low-income Coloradans with the costs of weatherization, a program that has assisted 14,000 households in the office’s five-year history.
A bill to reauthorize funding for the office and its 24 employees died on the 2017 session’s last day. Hickenlooper told reporters last week that as of July 1 the energy office staff would have to be pared down to from 24 to about 10. But he also said no state employees would lose their jobs, and he had other options for finding the $3.1 million needed to keep the office at its current staffing levels. One option is that Hickenlooper could veto spending in the 2017-18 budget, and he said that was a possibility.
The last issue was over healthcare transparency. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne had backed several bills in that area, including one that would have required freestanding emergency rooms to disclose their costs. Another would have required hospitals to “open their books” so that the public could see how the state spends its Medicaid dollars.
With the talk of a special session over, and lawmakers and their staff (and some reporters, too) happily putting vacation plans back into action, what’s left is what could happen with transportation.
There are eight ballot initiatives filed by two separate groups that aim to find dollars for transportation, albeit in very different ways. If those measures make it through the initiative process, voters would decide on them in November.
The libertarian-leaning Independence Institute has two of those measures, and would fund transportation using existing state resources. Voter approval is needed to authorize the state to seek bonds that would finance those projects.
The Colorado Contractors Association has the other six, and all seek voter approval for a sales tax increase to pay for that $3.5 billion projects list. Both groups are expected to eventually choose one each to take to registered voters for petition signatures.
All of the proposed measures are statutory, which means that voters could approve them with a simple majority vote. It also means the groups backing those measures would not have to collect petition signatures in all 35 of the state’s senate districts, a change that voters approved last year but only for constitutional ballot measures.
Hickenlooper has called one special session during his seven years as governor, in 2012.
That special session, which lasted three days, was to fix a problem caused when then-Speaker of the House, Republican Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch, halted action in the House the day before the regular session ended, over fears that a bill to authorize same-sex civil unions would have passed the Republican-controlled House. Republicans held a bare minimum one-seat margin that year.
But in allowing the civil unions bill to die, about a dozen other measures, including some necessary to the normal functioning of state government, also went down the tubes. It was up to Hickenlooper to call lawmakers back to pass those essential bills and to take one more stab at a civil unions measure, which still failed.
The following November, Democrats took control of the House and the civil unions bill was among the first bills passed in the 2013 session.