Gov. Hickenlooper declines special session in Colorado on transportation

Peter Marcus Updated: May 19, 2017 at 5:58 pm • Published: May 19, 2017 0
photo - Motorists sit in a backup along westbound 20th Street in downtown Denver to reach Interstate 25. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)
Motorists sit in a backup along westbound 20th Street in downtown Denver to reach Interstate 25. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday announced that he will not call the legislature back to work on outstanding issues such as transportation, which could force a ballot initiative.

After the legislative session ended last Wednesday, Hickenlooper had a message for lawmakers: Don’t make any vacation plans for the rest of May.

But on Friday he made it clear that a special session would not happen, despite his frustration with the legislature’s failure to come up with a larger source of money for crumbling roads and highways.

Hickenlooper had been contemplating calling lawmakers back to work some more on transportation, funding the state energy office, health care policy and rural broadband internet, outcomes from the session that Hickenlooper called disappointing, despite the governor also calling it “the most productive legislative session” since he took office in 2011.

Transportation was the top priority. An omnibus spending bill that passed on the last day of the session relies on existing state revenue. Transportation would get about $1.9 billion over the next 20 years. But from that, $500 million would go to rural infrastructure and $200 million to mass transit.

About $1.1 billion — parceled out by yearly budgeting — would go for “other” transportation needs, including clogged interstates that have driven most of the conversation to make massive new investments in the state’s transportation system.

But after the session Hickenlooper said that’s not nearly enough against $9 billion in identified needs, and eventually the state’s traffic jams are going to start hurting the state’s robust economy.

Hickenlooper was considering asking lawmakers to take another look at a sales-tax increase for roads that would have to be backed by voters, a proposal which failed in the legislature this past session. It became clear to the governor that if lawmakers couldn’t come to agreement in four months, then they likely wouldn’t come to agreement in a special session.

Without a more comprehensive transportation package, the issue could still go to voters this year. Several ballot initiatives are being discussed. The Colorado Contractors Association and the libertarian Independence Institute have filed multiple ideas.

The Contractors Association effort proposes a range of tax increases, while the Independence Institute’s proposals would ask voters to approve using existing funds to pay for a transportation bond program.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have lamented that while the governor was considering a special session, he never reached out to Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City.

The caucus posted a tongue-in-cheek YouTube video in which Grantham is sitting at his desk eagerly awaiting a call from Hickenlooper.

Suddenly the phone rings and Grantham quickly answers, “Governor?” But, alas, it is not the governor, it is Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, one of the key lawmakers behind the $1.9 billion omnibus spending bill.

“Jerry, I’m expecting a call from the governor, he said he’s calling about special session and I’m waiting here to receive his call.”

Other issues left on the table 

The governor is also concerned that the legislature couldn’t come to an agreement on fully funding the Colorado Energy Office. Lawmakers came to an impasse on the last day of the session, severely crippling the energy office.

Broadband is another concern for the governor. Lawmakers were able to come up with $9.5 million to expand broadband into rural areas. But they weren’t able to come up with a steady more permanent stream of money.

Several of the governor’s priority health care bills also failed this year, including a bill that would have required hospitals to submit more information about how they spend the state’s Medicaid dollars.

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