Colorado governor will not call a special legislative session on transportation

Author: Peter Marcus - May 19, 2017 - Updated: May 19, 2017


Gov. John Hickenlooper on Friday announced that he will not call the legislature back to work on the outstanding issue of 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.

“We can always do better,” Hickenlooper said at a Friday afternoon news conference. “I continue to have real concerns about how we’re going to finance infrastructure… We received only a fraction of the money that we need for transportation.”

Hickenlooper had been contemplating calling lawmakers back to work more on transportation, funding the state energy office, health care policy, and rural broadband internet.

Hickenlooper called those outcomes from the session disappointing – especially losing funding for the Colorado Energy Office – despite also claiming “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.

“These last nine days we talked to a number of stakeholders… and we wanted to reassess whether it would be worth the effort to bring everybody back, and I think in the end our conclusion is that it really isn’t worth calling special session at this time. The political landscape hasn’t shifted,” Hickenlooper said.

Without a more comprehensive transportation package, the issue could still go to voters. 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.

Tony Milo, executive director of the Colorado Contractors Association, said his organization is going to be re-evaluating the ballot proposals to see which one might work, and whether to run it this year or in 2018.

“At this point we’re going to have to do some more analysis and research on them… to see if there’s an appetite to go in 2017 or maybe step back and write something for 2018,” Milo said.

He added that the ballot proposals must be re-examined after the legislature passed the omnibus spending bill, which Milo called only a “down payment.”

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.”

Hickenlooper said he never gave Grantham a call, who sponsored the failed tax increase proposal in the legislature, because the Senate president made it clear that he wasn’t interested in a special session.

“He was very explicit the day after the end of the session that he wanted no part of a special session,” Hickenlooper said. “He didn’t think there was going to be any different answers… I didn’t have to call him and waste his time. I know how busy he is, despite what the video seemed to portray.”

Following the governor’s comments, Grantham did not appear satisfied with the response.

“I guess there was certainly no need for all the mystery of deciding to not announce it on Monday, and then not announce it on Tuesday, and not announce it on Wednesday …” Grantham said. “I was waiting for the governor to provide the ending.”

Sandra Hagen Solin, spokeswoman for Fix Colorado Roads, which led many of the transportation talks in the legislature, expressed disappointment that the governor didn’t call the legislature back.

“We had hoped there would be another opportunity for a legislative solution to our funding and finance challenge to be crafted for the 2017 ballot,” she said. “We are disappointed that the door is closed for this year. We are committed to keeping the conversation moving forward with legislative leaders and voters.”

Loren Furman, a lobbyist for the Colorado Association Of Commerce and Industry, said business interests will begin to look at alternatives, such as ballot measures.

“Another opportunity to secure long-term funding for transportation is certainly one we strongly support but we respect the governor’s decision,” Furman said. “We know this issue is important to Coloradans who use our roads every day and they should be given the choice of whether to fund our ever-growing infrastructure needs.”

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.

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.