Governor John Hickenlooper made his first official visit to Summit County since taking office Wednesday and packed the day meeting with locals on forest health and business development and signing two locally sponsored bills into law. Between stops he sat down with the Summit Daily staff to talk about solutions for I-70, promoting business growth and why he loves his job.
Summit Daily News: Where does the Interstate 70 corridor fall on your priority list?
Gov. John Hickenlooper: It's remarkably high. I think the functionality of the I-70 corridor has a direct bearing on the economy of the whole state and by that I mean, logistically, how we move goods back and forth across the state, but even more importantly, it's the identity that allows all those people who live on the Front Range to feel like they're not in Nebraska or Iowa, that they're in Colorado. It's that connection to the mountains. So, we recognize it as a very high priority. Don Hunt, the new head of CDOT, has always been a visionary, out-of-the-box thinker and he's got it as one of his three highest priorities.
SDN: Obviously I-70 is impactful to the state economy, what about the federal economy?
JH: It's critical, but they don't have the same identity, brand connection that we do. It's really just about trucking, that's the real utility to the national economy.
SDN: What are your short-term and long-term goals for the I-70 corridor?
JH: I think one thing we're not going to have is another task force. I think we've studied the thing pretty well. Once we get the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement done, it allows us to look at a range of options. I think we're going to break it down and look at it in short term, what can we do right now that would have a material effect; middle term, what can we do in five years or six years, and then long term, what are we going to be looking at in 20 or 50 years.
SDN: Are there specific suggestions from the Colorado Department of Transportation or the public that stand out in your mind?
JH: The challenge is, how do we find solutions to benefit each of the counties along the way. Clear Creek County has a serious concern around the impacts of travel in their community and long term they are very driven towards finding some sort of a transit solution, but that's a 20-50 year solution. I think that we're going to have to have a transition of solutions; short term, that we can get done in the next two to four years that will have demonstrable reductions in people's time in congestion.
SDN: We'd like to switch gears a little bit to business. We were interested to know if there's been any progress toward addressing the business inventory tax or local sales tax problems.
JH: The local sales tax problems are going to be very difficult to address. If (a community) wants to put extra money towards (for example) culture, they have a right to do that with sales tax. The business inventory tax I think is a serious issue. It affects dramatically the types of companies we attract here. We've looked at a couple of large companies that would bring a lot of supply train with them, but they are very hesitant when they look at some of our taxes. Right now, I think it's hard to argue that we're overtaxed, given the needs we have, but I'm not sure that we're undertaxed.
SDN: Are there plans to address regulation in Colorado?
JH: My goal is to cut the process time of waiting to get a permit and the associated red tape, but to, if anything, increase the consequences when people abuse the system. The goal would be to change the culture of the state - I don't mean the legislature, I'm talking about the man on the street - how do we get them to be more business friendly? The people have worked hard here, that's another part of our constituency. (My goal is) to recognize that we can be pro-business, we can get the smartest people to readjust our tax environment, but because this is Colorado, we're going to have to hold ourselves to the highest standard of protecting our land and waters (and) the highest ethical standards. That's what the Colorado solution should be, a place where you get rid of red tape and are trying to be pro-business, but you make sure you hold businesses to the highest standards in the country.
Part of this bottom-up economic development plan is to get each county when they're having these discussions, to come up with specific examples of red tape. Part of the goal is to have this be a forum so the county commissioners hear exactly what the consequences of their regulations are.
SDN: A question about education: what kind of impact will the upcoming budget cuts have to individual schools, and is there any way to fix that with future budgets?
JH: Each school district in Colorado gets to make their own decisions. Right now there are 178 school districts in Colorado, and metro Denver has roughly almost half the population of the state and they've got (about) 15 districts. So, the rest of the state has all these school districts that are incredibly inefficient. I don't think this is the job of the state, to come and say, 'you must do this,' but certainly, in an economy like this, the luxury of having 178 school districts has to be examined and ... having local control, still local school boards, but maybe one centralized superintendent.
SDN: How do you like being governor?
JH: I'm not sure what this says about me, but I love it. As much as I love education and how intensely I believe in education, when 42 percent of the state budget is K-12 education and you've got to cut that large a percentage of the budget, you've got to cut education. There's no other place to cut. We've cut higher ed over the last three years to the point where we're about to close community colleges and state colleges. Even (with) those worst decisions, even when you're having to cut K-12 education significantly, I still love the job. I love how you get smart people, who could be making tons more money, to commit three or four years of their lives to public service. You get to work with people that you would never meet. If you're someone like me, an extrovert and I guess somehow the DNA do-gooder, I pinch myself. It's the greatest gift I could have ever been given.