Hickenlooper's State of the State Speech: Did He Get It Right?

January 2014

Yesterday, Governor John Hickenlooper delivered his annual State of the State address to Colorado legislators and assembled guests. Like the national version, the SoS assesses the state’s (and the governor’s) accomplishments and setbacks during the past year and outlines his administration’s goals for 2014. Like the national version, it features the traditional—and let’s admit it, somewhat silly—ritual of strategic audience responses: Depending on their partisan tilt, the pols clap, don’t clap, stand and clap (but not too long), or stand and clap (extended version).

The latter category is reserved for things anyone can openly care about without fear of retribution from their colleagues or constituencies, e.g., the governor’s heartfelt tribute to slain Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements. It’s with the policy issues that the responses become more calculated, as annual speeches like these shed light on the governor’s likely priorities in the coming year. By dissecting the address we can get some idea of where the legislative battles will be fought during this midterm campaign season.

VICTORIES

  • Colorado’s economy: Our unemployment rate is down, and we’ve enjoyed overall growth for four straight years. One of Hickenlooper’s most enthusiastic applause lines followed his recognition that the state has risen from 40th in annual job growth in 2010 to fourth now. (However, by at least one calculation, we slipped from fourth in 2012 to 10th last year.)
  • Startup companies and small businesses: Four of the top 10 and five of the top 20 startup communities in the United States reside here.
  • Tourism: We welcomed a record number of tourists in 2013, a number that’s sure to increase with the anticipated influx of marijuana-craving visitors. (The governor tactfully omitted that detail.)
  • Our international cred: The highly successful Biennial of the Americas has stamped Denver as a non-coastal destination for an expanding number of international travelers.
  • Agriculture: Although this sector continues to struggle overall, the governor highlighted past and future efforts to make our rural communities more successful via farming and energy development, and he also called on lawmakers to expand broadband access to rural areas.
  • Government efficiency: Via its LEAN initiative, an ongoing endeavor, Colorado has made government staffing more consistent, improved the websites of various agencies, and reduced some of the everyday hassles citizens face when dealing with these groups.
  • Disaster relief: The state increased its reserve fund for wildfires, floods, and the like, and Hickenlooper wants to raise the amount even more this year.
  • Transportation and infrastructure: Colorado has created a program, Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP), that promises to speed highway, bridge, and tunnel construction. And the governor is promoting the expansion of public-private partnerships to make more of these projects a reality.

CHALLENGES

  • Education: Although he pointedly called for more funding for students and schools at all levels, the resounding defeat in November of Amendment 66 means that any changes will have to come from the legislature. (Hickenlooper’s opponents have contended that his calls for more transparency in education spending could be accomplished without a funding increase.)
  • Energy and environmentalism: This is more of a win-win/lose-lose proposition, as the governor made it clear that we must strike a balance between economic productivity and sensible environmental regulation. The upshot: Both sides will be expected to compromise.
  • Water: We need more of it, we need to use it more efficiently, and we don’t yet know how to make that happen.
  • Mental health: We’ve begun a few promising efforts, but they’re only beginning to solve a problem that extends throughout all 50 states.
  • Gun control: This topic was conspicuously absent from the address, and after the 2013 recall elections we can expect Democrats to be spending a lot more time fending off challenges to existing laws than proposing new ones.
  • Bipartisanship: The governor closed, in part, by reminding the legislature, “Vigorous debate is our ally. Partisanship is not. Skepticism is productive. Corrosive cynicism is not. So, as we begin this session, my ‘Ask’ is we ignore the divisive politics.” How thoroughly the lawmakers heed this request will go a long way toward determining Colorado’s political tone in 2014.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad

—Image research by Jerilyn Forsythe