Last week, with newly ordained and first Latina Colorado Speaker of the House, Crisanta Duran, behind his right shoulder, Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, provided the annual State of the State report. Focusing on responsibilities falling to the states in the face of nationally divisive politics, Hickenlooper struck an optimistic tone. Noting the strong Colorado economic recovery, he also mentioned the need for improvements in transportation, information technology, education, healthcare and environment. He essentially issued an invitation to invest.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, Colorado is 12th in job creation and fifth in job growth rate for 2016. The state office of economic development provides incentives and financing to support investment and job creation. The office highlights 14 industries for investment including seven STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) based sectors, and touts the state’s top ranking for private aerospace employment and number three ranking for high tech workers.
Comparing Colorado’s condition to neighboring states, Hickenlooper called on the state legislature to make a case for supplementing or diverting taxes for necessary road and highway investment, “Utah has about half as many people as Colorado but invests four times what we do to expand their road capacity every year.” The Governor noted that, “Over the next decade, Colorado has $9 billion of unmet transportation needs, and that need will only grow.” Though Hickenlooper mentioned “balanced transit options with highway expansions,” his most specific plans referred to street and highway improvement.
Eastern neighbor Nebraska also got a mention for their Rural Electrification Act providing power and internet to rural communities across their state. Hickenlooper used that example to encourage further resource influx in rural Colorado, “Every school, hospital, clinic and home should have high speed internet. In rural Colorado, only 7 in 10 households have access. Today, I’m announcing the creation of a broadband office to help us get from 70 percent to 85 percent coverage by the time we leave office and 100 percent by 2020.” Currently, Broadband Now rates the state as 32nd most connected, with 8 percent of the population as under-served. Fastmetrics rated Colorado as tied for 29th most connected, providing ample opening for additional investment.
Hickenlooper extolled a quadrupling of “wind and sun” energy in “recent years” noting that, “the clean energy industry provides jobs to over 60,000 Coloradans.” One of the industry’s brightest spots has been the investment by Denmark headquartered wind turbine company, Vestas. As of fourth quarter 2016, the company had created four manufacturing facilities and invested over $1 billion. The company now employs nearly 4,000 workers. An additional billion dollars could be invested over the next two years to create the recently approved Rush Creek wind project for southern Colorado. Vestas would manufacture an additional 300 turbines for the site.
Conservation Colorado Executive Director, Pete Maysmith, was excited about the prospect of increased investment in renewable energy resources, “Now is the exact time for the governor to lead on wind and solar energy. The bi-partisan tax credits that Sens. Gardner and Bennet passed are begging to be used in Colorado. Renewable energy is cheap and it will help us have the cleanest air in the nation. Let’s get going!”
A bit more controversially, in this portion of the speech, the Governor mentioned, “We’ve become one of the best states in the country for natural gas production.” Given his past record of supporting fracking, this is an area that pits him squarely against the progressive branch of his Democratic Party.
Also controversial were Hickenlooper’s comments about spending nearly equal amounts on education about underage marijuana use and law enforcement around the industry. “We’ve dedicated $7 million this year to educate youth, their parents, and trusted adults about underage use. We’ve also requested $6 million to provide financial resources to local law enforcement to increase training and detection, shut down illegal grows and prosecute criminals.”
Denver cannabis entrepreneur, Wanda James, was taken aback by Hickenlooper’s marijuana strategy, “I am struck by Gov Hickenlooper’s words and left feeling confused. On one hand, he spoke clearly of the 400,000 new jobs, yet the governor conveniently left out that 25,000 jobs came directly from the cannabis industry. He spoke elegantly about the increased tourism at our ski resorts, yet conveniently left out that 48 percent of tourists come to Colorado for legal cannabis. He then spoke about needing to give law enforcement $6 million MORE to stop the black market of a legal product.” She continued, “I find this concerning given the job of law enforcement has become LESS difficult since we have decreased cannabis arrest by over 85 percent. I would assume this gives our law enforcement many hours that are no longer dedicated to arrests of people of color and petty possession, to work to end the black market grow facilities… As an African American business owner, my concern of increased law enforcement dollars, usually means increased harassment of people of color, which is the reason we have fought to legalize in the first place. Law enforcement should be embarrassed asking for more to regulate a legal market.”
In allusion to an impending repeal of Obamacare, Hickenlooper assured Coloradans that healthcare coverage will hold a prominent place in his agenda for the next two years, “We believe that basic health care is a right, not a privilege. If changes are inevitable I will fight for a replacement plan that protects the people who are covered now and doesn’t take us backward.” New Lieutenant Governor, Donna Lynne, is a former executive of New York City’s health system and top-level executive at Kaiser Permanente. Her industry experience gives automatic credibility to the team’s expertise.
Immediately after the Governor’s speech, Republican strategists went after him on the issue of healthcare. Compass Colorado issued a press release highlighting the U.S. Health and Human Services report entitled, “Colorado Did Not Correctly Expend Establishment Grant Funds for Establishing a Health Insurance Marketplace.” Information from this report was used by Senate President Kevin Grantham (Republican, Canon City) to call for the repeal of the state healthcare exchange during the Colorado Senate’s opening day. Compass Colorado Executive Director, Kelly Maher questioned Hickenlooper’s pursuit of healthcare in the name of state’s rights, “One has to wonder if Hickenlooper would be crowing about “state’s rights” issues if Hillary Clinton had won the Presidential election. If he is truly committed to bipartisanship, he would not already be setting the tone for an adversarial relationship before the new President is even sworn into office.”