Governor Hickenlooper holds conversation at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper speaks during a forum on Colorado Mountain College campus Tuesday, Oct. 30, in Breckenridge.
Hugh Carey / Summit Daily News

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper stopped into the Colorado Mountain College’s Breckenridge campus earlier this week for a community discussion ahead of his impending departure from office early next year.

Hickenlooper, who earlier this week pointed toward a potential presidential run before walking back his comments, fielded questions from CMC’s staff, former students and county commissioners about the outdoor recreation industry, apprenticeship programs in Colorado, school funding, the Gallagher Amendment, health care costs and more.

In the arena of education, Hickenlooper talked up apprenticeship initiatives in the state, and spoke about the need for changes in the wages for teachers and education professionals.

“CareerWise, our organization to push apprenticeships, is not solely for the trades like electricians and plumbers,” said Hickenlooper. “It’s really a focus on all businesses. … where our kids who are 16, 17 and 18 can choose, if they want, to discontinue going to high school and they would start working.”

According to Hickenlooper, the pilot program, funded in part by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, already includes 500 students and could eclipse 4,000 by next year. The idea is that students will choose an area of interest from community colleges or organizations similar to CMC, and progressively fade out schooling as they take on more responsibility at paying jobs to gain experience. Hickenlooper said that the program will serve as a solution to a growing skills-based economy where students emerge as ready workers with money already in their pockets and zero debt.

Hickenlooper also pointed to the growth of automation of jobs in different industries as a concern, calling for innovations in the way we look at schooling, lauding shorter-term certificates as a legitimate alternative to four-year universities, and calling for employers and government agencies to better prepare workers for swift changes in the economy.

“We saw what happened when we did not give people the chance to retrain themselves in the 1990s,” said Hickenlooper. “We saw the amount of bitterness and anger, and we’re still seeing that. It’s a lot of what’s informing the politics today is the fact that we left literally millions of people behind and they felt nobody cared about them. … and we’re much better than that. When we think about what automation is going to do in terms of the elimination of jobs, we have to get to the point where we predict those professions that are going to shrink dramatically, and start training people long before they lose their jobs. Places of business are going to have to help support that training, and the government is going to have to partner with schools to increase funding for these types of institutions dramatically to keep pace.”

Hickenlooper went on to call Colorado’s payment of teachers “pathetic,” and said he supports incremental changes to policy, citing potential changes under TABOR laws to free more money for teachers, more moderate tax increases and more involved government action as possible solutions.

“We’re one of the most affluent states in the country,” said Hickenlooper. “And yet we’re paying our teachers less than Alabama and Mississippi. We need to all open our eyes and recognize it.”

Hickenlooper also tied education into the ever-growing outdoor recreation industry, again pointing to certifications as a viable way to help provide educational opportunities for individuals looking to break into the industry. Hickenlooper noted that the industry is on the rise, contributing billions to Colorado’s economy every year, and becoming more of an international draw to the area.

“It’s a much more sophisticated business model than people realize,” said Hickenlooper. “We’re starting to see college-level courses in the business of outdoor recreation. Western Colorado University in Gunnison now has a master’s program in outdoor recreation, and we’re looking at how to take those individual skills in that program, and in others around the country, and provide smaller micro-certifications reflecting a competency in a certain set of skills. We should be able to do that with recreation and anything else.”

Hickenlooper also noted that the outdoor recreation industry could continue to provide a boost to Colorado’s economy, including rural areas, for years to come. He pointed to the Outdoor Industry Association moving its tradeshow to Colorado and the possibility of convincing smaller outdoor retailers to set up camp in rural areas of the state.

“They are so excited to come to Colorado,” said Hickenlooper. “They view it as the natural symbolic base camp for the entire outdoor recreation industry.”

He also said that continued growth in the market could lead to better environmental protections to create cleaner air, water and public lands. He noted the Confluence Accords — currently an eight-state, non-partisan plan to grow the outdoor recreation industry — as a potentially major force in focusing on environmental issues.

Aside from outdoor recreation and education, which served as the primary talking points for Hickenlooper during the discussion, he also touched on issues surrounding the Gallagher Amendment, healthcare and housing in rural areas, and marijuana.

In regards to the Gallagher Amendment, which essentially caps the amount of Colorado’s property taxes that can come from residential properties, Hickenlooper said it would take willingness for everyone in the state to work together to address the concerns raised by mainly rural communities.

“The only way we’re going to get to it is to have that broader conversation in the community,” said Hickenlooper. “If we could find the key people to let people know that we’re all going to give a little, and long term it’s going to help the health of rural Colorado.”

His response was largely similar in regards to the troubles residents of rural areas face in finding affordable health care and housing, but also noted that maintaining policies like the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid were important, as were providing incentives for developers to include affordable housing opportunities in all their projects.

Finally, Hickenlooper discussed the evolution of recreational marijuana over his years in office, saying that the system still has problems — including black market grows and trafficking across state lines — but that there’s reason to be optimistic about the future of cannabis in Colorado.

“We thought we’d see a spike in teenage consumption, a spike in overall consumption, more driving while high and all kinds of terrible consequences,” said Hickenlooper. “But we really haven’t … my sense is that we’re going to keep working at it, it’s a great social experiment. But I’m optimistic we’ll figure it out.”

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