DENVER (AP) – When Democrat John Hickenlooper took office in January, he promised a laser-like focus on jobs and the economy. On Thursday, as he marked his first 100 days, he said that’s still his top priority.
“We have to partner with the private sector. We have to protect land and water. We’re seeing real optimism out there. As the recovery gains steam, Colorado will lead the country,” he said, surrounded by members of his Cabinet.
Hickenlooper said his administration is working on cutting red tape and improving government services, and he’s working with counties on economic development plans that call on counties to develop their own proposals and coordinate with the state.
Republicans generally give Hickenlooper good marks for being business-friendly. But they say he failed to back legislation that would have required the state to set aside more money to cover shortfalls, and another bill that would have set up a more efficient state regulatory system.
House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, said Hickenlooper has been cautious, relying heavily on his Cabinet.
“He’s been using this time to get his feet under him. He has shown leadership on the proposed budget, proposing large reduction, proposing large reductions to public school funding,” McNulty said.
Hickenlooper got high marks for being willing to take on the powerful teacher’s union by suggesting lawmakers cut $332 million from public education, which was even too much for some Republicans, who pared it back to $250 million.
He also went out on a limb, appointing his lieutenant governor, Joe Garcia, to also run the Colorado Department of Higher Education, to save the state money.
Hickenlooper proposed merging the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State Parks to save $3 million to $4 million a year.
Both the House and Senate agreed with Hickenlooper to close a southeast Colorado prison to save money, though lawmakers put off the closure for six months. They also sided with the governor on boosting Colorado’s reserve fund.
However, the biggest accomplishment so far has been helping lawmakers mold a budget compromise to balance the state budget to help cover a $1 billion budget shortfall. Lawmakers passed the budget, as they do every year, but it bore many of the marks from the governor’ proposed budget, including cuts to public schools.
Hickenlooper admits he’s been lucky. During the campaign when Republicans turned on each other, Hickenlooper focused on his own campaign with no primary opponent while Republicans chewed up each other. And with Democrats firmly in charge of the state Senate and Republicans holding a narrow majority in the House, many contentious bills never even got to his desk.
“To his credit, he has been instrumental in adopting a more conservative budget, even though I didn’t agree with all of it, including a business vendor fee,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, a frequent Hickenlooper critic. Democrats killed a plan to return a small portion of sales taxes, about $60 million a year, to retailers to compensate them for the trouble of collecting the tax.
Keeping a promise to make Colorado government leaner, he asked 96 senior managers in state government to reapply for their jobs.
Kopp said Hickenlooper has had several opportunities to reform government that have been killed by Democrats, including phasing out the business personal property tax and a bill requiring an efficient state regulatory system.
There are still many sticky issues remaining as the Legislature winds down toward adjournment in May, including health exchanges, and a lot of what happens during Hickenlooper’s first year will depend on the leadership he shows next fall if revenues continue to fall short and he has to cut another $500 million without help from lawmakers.
Lobbyist Jerry Braden said Hickenlooper has been good for business, putting together a statewide economic development plan that allows local communities to develop their own plans and coordinate with state agencies. He also praised Hickenlooper for picking a Cabinet willing to work with businesses.
Pam Kiely, the program director of Environment Colorado, said Hickenlooper also continued former Gov. Bill Ritter’s programs to promote renewable energy and protect the environment.
Before taking office, Hickenlooper said his administration would lay out core principles its first year — bipartisanship, an overwhelming focus on creating jobs and environmental protection — and not weigh in with his own agenda.
So far, he has kept that promise.
– By Steven K. Paulson, Associated Press
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)