Hickenlooper delays decision on special session for transportation funding, other topics

Author: Ernest Luning - May 15, 2017 - Updated: May 15, 2017

Gov. John Hickenlooper talks with reporters on March 8, 2017, at the state Capitol in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)
Gov. John Hickenlooper talks with reporters on March 8, 2017, at the state Capitol in Denver. (Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman)

Gov. John Hickenlooper hadn’t yet decided on Monday whether to call a special session to come up with more funding for the state’s transportation needs, among other topics he said were left unfinished in the General Assembly’s 120-day regular session.

While Hickenlooper called it “the most productive legislative session” since he took office in 2011, he said the day after the regular session adjourned that he would ponder over the weekend whether to order lawmakers back to the Capitol to address unresolved matters. Those included whether to ask voters to raise taxes for transportation, authorization to keep the doors open at the Colorado Energy Office, funding to expand rural broadband and several issues involving health care spending.

But the governor’s spokeswoman told The Colorado Statesman on Monday that Hickenlooper wouldn’t be announcing his decision just yet, adding that he’s taking more time to talk to stakeholders and review the issues.

Sandra Hagen Solin of the Fix Colorado Roads coalition — a key stakeholder in the transportation funding debate — said her organization is encouraging Hickenlooper to call a special session.

“We would love to see the opportunity to finish the conversation we began this session,” she told The Statesman on Monday. “We still believe there’s an equation that could work inside the building and with the voters.”

While the Colorado Contractors Association and the conservative Independence Institute have filed potential transportation funding ballot measures with the secretary of state’s office — the contractor’s six possible initiatives would ask voters to approve a range of tax increases, while the Independence Institute’s two proposed initiatives would ask voters to authorize using existing funds to pay for reissued transportation bonds — Solin said her coalition believes a referendum has a better shot with voters.

“A referred measure, particularly out of this Legislature, is a preferred approach because, theoretically, it demonstrates a level of support of state leaders that can be conveyed to voters,” she said.

She noted that polling indicates even the lower 0.5 percent sales tax increase would be an extremely tough sell to voters, although an increase around 0.3 percent could have enough support to make it worthwhile to take the ballot.

A bipartisan transportation-funding package that would have asked voters for a sales tax hike of 6.2 cents on every $10 — raising the state sales tax from 2.9 percent to 3.52 percent — ran aground in a Republican-controlled Senate committee after another committee had dropped the amount to 5 cents on every $10. It would have paid for bonds yielding $3 billion for state roads, along with spending on local transportation and transit projects, but key Republicans balked at sending a tax increase to the ballot.

An omnibus bill passed at the end of the session included funding for $1.88 billion in transportation spending — including a variety of projects — but Hickenlooper said that was insufficient to begin tackling an estimated $9 billion in the Colorado Department of Transportation’s needs for roads and bridges.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, an key sponsor of the original bipartisan transportation funding legislation, tossed some cold water on the possibility of a special session.

“I appreciate the governor’s desire to get things done,” he said Thursday in a statement. “But we had an opportunity for him to have engaged on these issues during a 120-day session, and now it’s Day 121. Unless the governor can point to successes on any of these issues he’s guaranteed to have, he’ll just be wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Grantham said enough lawmakers have already made it clear they’re unwilling to refer a tax increase to voters.

“If he wants a tax hike, is there a Legislature that’s going to put that on the ballot for him now? Not this Legislature, as we’ve already seen.”

And as far as the impasse that left the Colorado Energy Office headed to a July sunset, Grantham sounded unconvinced there was accord to be found.

“He’ll have to make the case that this constitutes some kind of emergency,” Grantham said. “We worked as well as we could with the governor’s office to get something done. But unless the governor’s ability to change the minds of House Democrats and leftist environmentalists has somehow been enhanced in the last 24 hours, I’m not sure what the point would be.”

Hickenlooper has called just one special session, in 2012 after the Republican-controlled House ran out the clock on a bill to establish civil unions on the next-to-last day of the regular session, taking down more than a dozen other bills with it. That special session lasted just three days, the minimum required to pass legislation.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.