The Trump administration’s talk of a major infrastructure bill should not only look at modernizing the nation’s highways and broadband, but it also needs to lay a new foundation for water infrastructure, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said Wednesday.
The Denver Democrat touched on a variety of issues during a luncheon speech at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs. He was scheduled to host a town hall in Steamboat later in the afternoon, the most recent in a series of a 17 public meetings around Colorado that Bennet has convened during the congressional August recess.
“We need to make sure our water systems gets just as much attention as highways and broadband,” Bennet told the audience of more than 300.
He explained that members of Congress are looking for ways to bring the public and private sectors together and inject new capital into rural water projects. He is already talking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local banks and investment companies to think that through. He asked the audience, which includes virtually every major water official in the state, to help figure out how to develop ideas to finance projects in ways that he said should make sense.
Bennet has already had a fair amount of success in finding federal funding for Colorado water. In the past few years, collaborating with other members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, Bennet said the state has won funding from the Department of Agriculture through the 2014 farm bill for water projects. That brought in about $26 million for projects impacting the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, the new Chimney Hollow Reservoir west of Loveland and other projects across the state.
Bennet also said he has invited the new secretary of agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, to visit Colorado to see the condition of the state’s national forests. “If you live downstream of Colorado,” and Bennet said millions of people in 18 states do, “you should care about the health of our forests.”
“We’ve done a lot of work together on water and climate,” Bennet said. “The country is looking for leadership in a way that isn’t partisan, and Colorado is a perfect leader to meet that challenge.”
In a question and answer session following his remarks, audience members were just as interested in seeing what Bennet can do to address Washington gridlock as they were on climate change and water issues.
“I spent my whole first term trying to demonstrate to the people of Colorado that their government could still work, at a time when we thought it was pretty dysfunctional,” he said.
Few senators were going home to talk about what they accomplished with members of the other party, he said, preferring to spend time lambasting the other side.
Bennet pointed to several instances in which he worked with Republican senators during his first term, including as a member of the so-called “Gang of eight,” a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators that crafted immigration reform legislation. The measure overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate in 2013 but never came up for a vote in the House.
He also noted more successful efforts to speed up timelines for drug approvals with the Food and Drug Administration, legislation developed with Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina; and his work on the Every Student Succeeds Act, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
But the 2016 election has produced a new level of dysfunction, he indicated. “Now it’s a little bit different – we have the dysfunction we’ve had before, and the budget issues from before. The priorities of Washington are decoupled from the priorities of Colorado” and the rest of the country. He said he could not have ever imagined that Trump “would be the remedy for that gap.”
Today, not only does Washington still operate in dysfunction, but that is now overlaid with a rejection of traditional American values, Bennet said. “When I think of President Trump, I do not think about the people in my state who are conservative. I don’t see their agenda in what he’s doing.”
Bennet said the mission of all Americans today must be to stand up for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, checks and balances in government, and for the importance of the free press. And “we have to hold people in my job to a much higher standard. If we held our members of Congress to the same standards as county commissioners, this nonsense would be over in a minute.”
There’s a fundamental concern about where the nation is headed, and “it’s all of our job to figure out how to fix it,” Bennet concluded.
Democrat Phil Weiser, a former dean of the University of Colorado Law School and Obama administration official, declared on Thursday that he's running for attorney general in next year’s election, and he’s boasting a powerhouse endorsement out of the gate.
After legislators adjourned the 120-day legislative session Wednesday night, they convened at Stoney’s Bar & Grill in downtown Denver. Gov. John Hickenlooper made the rounds with a message: Don’t make any vacation plans for the rest of May.
He told reporters Thursday he’s going to think about it through the weekend before deciding if he will call lawmakers back to Denver to work some more on transportation, funding the state energy office, health care policy and rural broadband internet, outcomes from the session that Hickenlooper called disappointing.
“With a special session you have a little more time and maybe bills can be assigned to a place where they can get a fair hearing, a public hearing,” the governor said.
“Then the media, therefore the entire state, can see exactly who’s saying what.”
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.
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.
Asked by Colorado Politics what he would ask lawmakers to do differently, Hickenlooper suggested taking another look at sales taxes, but not the high 0.62 percent (on top of the state’s existing 2.9 percent), but something more reasonable might pass with voters in November.
“Let’s do it!” Sandra Hagen Solin of the business coalition Fix Colorado Roads said in a text message after the Hickenlooper’s meeting with reporters. “Let’s finish the conversation. Let’s find the middle ground on a proposal to fund our most pressing corridors that can be supported in both chambers and can secure a favorable vote by the voters.”
Legislative leaders shared a message for the governor: What’s the point?
“If he wants a tax hike, is there a legislature that’s going to put that on the ballot for him now?” Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said in a statement. “Not this legislature, as we’ve already seen.
“Unless the governor can point to successes on any of these issues he’s guaranteed to have, he’ll just be wasting taxpayer dollars. I appreciate his desire to get things done. But we had an opportunity for him to have engaged on these issues during a 120-day session, and now it’s Day 121.”
House Speaker Crisanta Duran told reporters Senate Republicans have already demonstrated they won’t support a tax hike for roads, but instead want to take the money from other state programs and services. House Bill 1242, which she and Grantham co-sponsored, would have asked voters to pass a sales-tax hike in November to raise about $700 million a year.
“There were so many ideas incorporated in the 1242 that was the result of anybody willing to have the conversation, anybody who was willing to come to the table,” she said. “Unfortunately there were some who were just not willing to come to the table.”
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said he wouldn’t call the session a failure — “no session is a failure” — even though fellow Senate Republicans rejected the transportation bill he negotiated and co-sponsored.
“Keep working on transportation,” he said Wednesday, as the session was finishing up. “That’s all we can do.”
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.
When it comes to broadband access, Colorado has a mountainous challenge — literally.
The vast majority of Coloradans live in areas well served by multiple, private-sector, high-speed internet providers. Cable providers alone have invested over $8 billion of their own capital to upgrade their network. Most cable customers in Colorado will have access to affordable, 1-gigabit-per-second connections this year without the expenditure of a penny of public funds. That is a remarkable story.
Bipartisan legislation allowing cell-phone and broadband service providers better access to municipal markets won approval in the House Tuesday. House Bill 1193, sponsored in the lower chamber by Reps. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, and Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, should translates to faster and better upgrades to cell-telephone service.
From a press statement by the House GOP:
The bill streamlines broadband and cell providers’ ability to access a local municipality’s light poles, light standards, traffic signals, or utility poles to install small cell signal transmitters, or “micro cell technology.” Micro cell technology is associated with improving 4G and carrying 5G service in Colorado.
The bill also clarifies that the right-of-way access available to telecommunications providers extends to broadband providers and includes small cell facilities.
Becker, quoted in the House GOP statement, said the bill helps make way for next-generation technology:
“Micro cell technology is replacing traditional cell towers, and this bill is a building block for better partnerships between the state and providers to improve cell service throughout the state…I am encouraged by the steps this bill takes to reduce regulations for broadband providers, and look forward to working with rural communities to do something similar to get reliable, high-speed internet and cell service to all of Colorado.”
Centennial City Councilwoman Stephanie Piko announced Sunday she’s running for mayor of the suburban city.
“As the next mayor of Centennial, I will continue to build on Centennial’s great foundation by implementing the plans that are in place to better connect our citizens,” Piko said at Centennial Center Park, surrounded by family and supporters.
Establishing a broadband office to help bring reliable, accessible and affordable internet access to rural Colorado won't cost state government very much in terms of ongoing costs, and the economic benefits could greatly help local communities and the state, according to officials in the governor's Office of Information Technology.
The broadband office was announced by Gov. John Hickenlooper in his Jan. 12 State of the State address, with a goal of helping the state get from 70 to 85 percent broadband internet coverage in the next two years and 100 percent coverage by 2020.
Colorado’s technology industry is booming, and Andrea Young couldn’t be happier.
Young, the president and CEO of the Colorado Technology Association, a trade organization that represents more 300 companies and counts some 15,000 people involved in its network, said in a recent interview with The Colorado Statesman that she’s excited about the prospects for the tech sector in the state as CTA continues its work to bring companies, academic institutions and government entities together.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, say the process is already in motion to launch Senate confirmation hearings for the governor’s two recent appointees to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
Grantham seems to be looking forward to it. “I think we’ll do it sooner rather than later,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “It’s going to be interesting.”
The PUC has become a politics headline maker in recent years, routinely drawing the eyes of lobbyists, activists and op-ed writers as it weighs how best to serve the public interest when regulating the state’s energy, water, transportation and telecommunications industries.
Hickenlooper two weeks ago announced the appointments to the three-member commission. Jeff Ackermann and Wendy Moser will take up positions vacated by Josh Epel and Glenn Vaad.
Ackermann most recently served as the Colorado Energy Office’s executive director. Before that, he was chief researcher for the PUC.
Moser was senior manager at Charter Communications, what the Wall Street Journal called a telecommunications”behemoth” after it bought Time Warner Cable in May for roughly $60 billion. Moser has also worked for Black Hills, the Colorado power company that has made headlines for the steep rates it charges Pueblo-area residents. Moser specialized in regulatory law and government relations.
The Colorado Springs Gazette last week described the selections as a “disappointment.” The paper characterized Ackermann as a bureaucrat and renewable energy champion, and Moser as an executive whose perspective has been shaped by defending corporate interests. The editorial writer argued the two would likely fail to effectively champion consumer rights.
At the Capitol this week, where the legislative session got underway, there also has been grumbling about Moser.
“I have had some consumer advocates express concern,” said Sen. Irene Aquilar, D-Denver. “The feeling is that we should take a close look and see if there’s a conflict of interest there.”
Aguilar served on an interim legislative task force this past fall that explored how to improve the state’s 9-1-1 emergency service, which has struggled to keep pace with the digital era. Mobile and internet-based emergency services have suffered increasing blackouts and long outage periods in vast rural and mountainous areas of the state. Past legislation aimed at addressing the issues centered on allowing the PUC to regulate 9-1-1 service. Telecommunications companies marshaled their army of lobbyists to limit PUC interference. Lawmakers across party lines were torn on the issue.
Hallway grumbling about Moser brings to mind what Grantham called the “strange circumstance” tied to the appointment to the PUC three years ago of Vaad. By “strange,” Grantham seemed to mean rare and a little surprising. He chuckled slightly at the memory.
Hickenlooper’s recent appointments took effect January 9, Monday of the week the legislative session opened. As is typical, Ackermann and Moser have been serving on the PUC while they await confirmation. That’s how Vaad was serving, too, except he served three years unconfirmed. In fact, his resignation, effective January 8, saved Hickenlooper from continuing a dance he had been doing with the state Senate since 2014.
The Vaad appointment drew an intense opposition campaign spearheaded by clean-energy advocates who saw Vaad, a former Republican lawmaker, as a champion of fossil fuel industry interests who might actively work against the interests of the state’s growing renewable energy sector. Members of the Senate received thousands of protest emails and phone calls opposing his confirmation.
As it happened, then-Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, never put the Vaad confirmation hearing on the chamber calendar. The appointment was read into the Senate record as the second-to-last order of business on May 7th, the last day of the 2014 legislative session. Hickenlooper then, for legal reasons, simply reappointed Vaad the day after the session adjourned.
And so it went. There was no messy Senate hearing. No Senate floor vote was ever taken under Democratic or Republican Senate leadership on the Vaad appointment. And now he’s gone.
“That was a lesson,” said Aguilar. “These commissioners can actually serve without being confirmed.”
That’s not going to happen this year, said Grantham.
“The appointments haven’t been read across the desk yet, but they will be,” he said. “We’re just now getting into the nitty-gritty this session. The two of them will get a grilling.”
He added that he believed the appointees were “clearly qualified.”
“The governor wants to make sure his appointments get confirmed,” he said. “He wouldn’t pick people that would have us all up in arms. That would be bad for us and bad for him and bad for the appointees.”
Hickenlooper’s office played down concerns.
“Both nominations have been made and sent to the Senate for confirmation,” the office wrote in response to questions. “The governor evaluated many candidates for the PUC. His nomination of Moser and Ackerman is indicative of their strong professional experience, subject matter expertise, and extensive knowledge of telecommunications and utilities, as well as their knowledge of the PUC’s responsibility to ratepayers.”
Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, has watched the PUC closely in recent years as it plays referee between Xcel Energy and Boulder, which is working to create its own clean-energy powered municipal utility.
“I think they’re both really good choices, very thoughtful. They understand the PUC and they understand the issues they’ll be considering,” Fenberg said. “I think there’s a healthy mix of interests and expertise among the members.”
Fenberg said it’s “not an inherently bad thing” that commissioners come from industry and have experience advocating for certain interests.
“The PUC is a complicated body. Most members of the public aren’t familiar with it and don’t know how it works,” he said. “It’s important to know how it works. For me, the most important thing is that they are smart people who know what they’re doing, and that they’re fair and follow the rules and processes.”
Aguilar said that, at this point, she thinks the confirmation process will be “fairly pro forma.”
“I think he’d only bring nominees he’s fairly sure will be confirmed.”
Which is not to say the confirmation requirement doesn’t work to watchdog appointments, she explained.
“There have been times when the governor has been told ‘Hey, this would be a difficult confirmation hearing,’ and then he appoints someone else. So, like so many things at the Capitol, the requirement for the confirmation does have an impact, even if perhaps not as publicly as it could have. In the case of clear conflict, the governor might withdraw the appointee’s name.”
The confirmation will likely begin with a vote in the Senate’s Business, Labor, and Technology Committee. Democratic committee members include Sens. Angela Williams and Andy Kerr, both of whom have made telecommunications issues a specialty and generally have non-adversarial relationships with industry.