Hickenlooper’s 1st Game of Chicken

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Gov. John Hickenlooper (credit: CBS)

Gov. John Hickenlooper (credit: CBS)

Written by Dominic Dezzutti

When John Hickenlooper decided to run for governor, many pundits wondered aloud how he would handle his first truly political environment, the state Legislature. How would Hickenlooper handle his first major political impasse, especially since he was dealing with a Republican House? Many people thought he would be tested early and in a significant fashion.

As accurate as those pundits were about the new Governor’s first fight coming early, I don’t think many people thought that his first game of chicken was going to be with his own political party.

Hickenlooper presented his very first state budget to the legislature this week and most of the Democrats in the Senate reacted as if the Governor wrapped it in a paper bag and light it on fire before he left it on their porch.

The highlights of the contention are the proposal to cut $332 million from K-12 education funding and the idea of raising our state’s minimum reserve from 2 percent to 4 percent.

While the details can be argued, I think the real game of chicken comes down to raising revenue. Hickenlooper has publicly said that he believes that Coloradans have no appetite for any tax hikes right now. He’s suggested some unpopular cuts, but suggesting a tax hike, in his eyes, would be even less popular.

That’s where some Senate Democrats disagree. Sen. Rollie Heath has announced that he will be putting together a tax increase proposal to present to voters this year. He’s confident that voters want to contribute to a solution instead of seeing more cuts to education.

That’s the game of chicken. Will voters go for a tax hike as a solution to potential cuts to education funding or will they accept education funding cuts as a solution in this economy?

Frankly, my money is on Hickenlooper on this one.

No one likes the idea of seeing less money going to teaching elementary school kids. But let’s be honest here, education funding cuts are felt by teachers and administrators much more than the students. And let’s continue the honesty by admitting cutting education funding means directly hurting members of the teachers’ union.

Hickenlooper would rather anger powerful teachers’ unions than anger even more powerful voters. Some Senate Democrats would rather appeal to voters for a tax increase than to accept that they must anger a powerful union that helped them keep their Senate majority.

Here are the two upsides of Hickenlooper’s position:

If he’s right, he will be inoculated from being labeled a Democrat that wants to raise taxes and likely not be hurt in four years if his party is punished at the polls for suggesting a tax hike.

If he’s wrong, the state will have more money to spend on education and Hickenlooper still comes out smelling pretty good, because it’s not likely that the teachers’ unions, although angry, would support a primary run at him in 2014.

The two problems with the Senate Democrats’ position is that if they are right, they’ll have more money to spend but will still have to convince higher taxes were a good thing when they go to be re-elected. If the increased funding doesn’t bring better results, the increase will seem for naught.

If Senate Democrats are wrong and taxpayers are not in the mood for a tax hike, they will hand Republicans a weapon of mass destruction to use against them in the election, and they will give Hickenlooper the biggest, “I told you so” moment in the history of Colorado politics. If Senate Democrats are wrong about this one, they will have no ammunition for fighting Hickenlooper on other issues, and he will know it.

Games of political chicken are unpredictable. Frankly, a lot of wiggling might happen before either participant decides they have to veer off the road. Maybe Hickenlooper went for a lot of cuts knowing he would have to compromise. Maybe Senate Dems will poll the tax hike idea and back off.

The only sure thing is that there is one group of bystanders watching this game of chicken and enjoying every minute of it. I believe House Republicans are going to sit back and enjoy this as long as they can. They know that it’s only a matter of time until it’s their turn in the gauntlet. Until then, they’ll likely make some popcorn and enjoy the show.

About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

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