DENVER — Gov. John Hickenlooper reflected on a year of tragedy, massive wildfires and historic floods during his annual State of the State address Thursday, telling lawmakers that “Colorado does not break” as he implored them to work together to improve the economy and pour funding into education.
“This past year, Colorado has been scorched. Colorado has been flooded. Colorado — once again — endured senseless inexplicable violence,” Hickenlooper said, adding that residents did not allow tragedy to define the state.
“Colorado does not shut down. Colorado does not quit,” he said to applause.
Early in his speech, the Democratic governor used football to lighten the mood, thanking “the Denver Broncos for giving us something to cheer about this season.”
The line drew easy applause before Hickenlooper shifted attention to more serious topics, most notably the economy. Many of his calls for action had some relationship to jobs.
He requested increased funding for higher education, an agenda item he and fellow Democrats consider key to economic development, saying it would “put college within the reach of more families.”
He called for the extension of a job-creation tax credit to enable “more businesses to maintain employees and hire new ones.”
And he wants to reduce wait times to just 15 minutes at Department of Motor Vehicles offices — “one of the places where just about all Coloradans frequently become aggravated.” His plan would upgrade technology, making state workers and the residents they serve more productive.
Hickenlooper also told lawmakers to continue to work on creating a business-friendly environment as he touted improvements in the state economy. He said Colorado now has the fourth-fastest job growth in the country, and he noted the state’s unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, down from 9 percent in 2010.
With the economy improving, Hickenlooper has indicated that he would like to see the state’s general fund budget reserve increased to 6.5 percent, up from the current 5 percent, to be prepared for emergencies and natural disasters. When Hickenlooper took office three years ago, the state’s rainy day fund was only 2 percent, giving the state enough savings to last for only a week.
Economic highlights aside, it’s been a tough 12 months for Hickenlooper as he enters his fourth year in office and seeks re-election.
For the second consecutive year, he dealt with a devastating wildfire season. And flooding in September killed nine people, washed out hundreds of miles of roads and destroyed or damaged nearly 2,000 homes.
Hickenlooper praised the state’s successes in recovering from the disasters, including reopening all the flooded Colorado highways ahead of schedule.
Also, violence hit close to the Hickenlooper administration with the March slaying of Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, who authorities think was gunned down by a former inmate. The man suspected of shooting Clements at his home had been released after spending much of his sentence in solitary confinement, an issue Clements had been trying to reform. Hickenlooper called Clements’ murder an “awful irony.”
He also brought up the shooting at a suburban Denver high school last month. One student was killed, and the gunman, a classmate, committed suicide. Lawmakers spent much of last year’s session on firearms legislation, but Hickenlooper said “guns are only a piece of the puzzle” and cited his administration’s commitment to improve mental-health services.
Hickenlooper called for more bipartisanship and collaboration after a year in which he and fellow Democrats have faced criticism for policies they passed last year, most notably new gun restrictions that limit the size of ammunition magazines and expand background checks for all firearm sales. Those laws, and new renewable energy standards, sparked a symbolic movement in 11 rural counties to secede from Colorado.
“Vigorous debate is our ally,” he said. “Partisanship is not.”
Republicans weren’t sold.
“I heard a lot of really good things from him last year, too. And it ended up being a lot of empty rhetoric,” said Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who is running for governor and released his first campaign ad Wednesday, a Web video saying that Hickenlooper doesn’t lead.
Sen. Bill Cadman, the Republican leader in the Senate, called Hickenlooper’s idea to increase the budget reserves “prudent” and said there’s agreement on some of the education reforms the governor wants to see. But Cadman also said Hickenlooper is simply trying to appeal to more voters in an election year.
“If you look back at the history of the last 12 months, it was governed from the hard-left perspective, including every controversial bill that the governor signed into law,” Cadman said.
However, Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, the Democrat’s leader in the House, said she was encouraged by Hickenlooper’s speech.
“It was an inspirational speech for me,” she said. “It leads us in the direction we really need to go, which is to continue to work together, on both sides of the aisle, even though this is an election year and we’re all aware of that,” she said.
Highlights from Hickenlooper’s speech:
— Hickenlooper called on lawmakers to add $100 million more in funding for higher education for financial aid programs and to limit tuition increases.
— He also called for education overhauls, including greater transparency in school spending. He also wants officials to keep a better count of the number of students in each school district to better adjust funding.
— The governor set a goal of improving Department of Motor Vehicles’ computer system to reduce wait times from 60 minutes to 15 minutes.
His plan would get rid of 30-year-old MS-DOS computer systems in use at the DMV.
— The governor asked lawmakers to pass legislation that would expand broadband access to rural and underserved areas.
— Hickenlooper said he’d like to see a bill to increase fines on oil and gas drillers who violate state rules. “We’re committed to holding the oil companies to the highest standards to protect Coloradans and our air and water,” he said.
— And Hickenlooper told lawmakers to do whatever necessary to implement the voter-approved use of recreational marijuana, and called for continued anti-drug education for young people. He said, “This will be one of the great social experiments of this century.”
“Vigorous debate is our ally,” he said. “Partisanship is not.”