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Gov. John Hickenlooper Takes Questions From the Public
Interview Produced by Michelle P. Fulcher and Lee Hill
Time for our regular conversation with Governor John Hickenlooper. For the last month or so, we’ve been asking what questions you have for the governor. Many of you have joined our Public Insight Network to share those questions and concerns. On today’s show, he’s going to answer some of them.
The governor mentioned a site for pointing out inefficiencies in state government. Go to this site where you'll find a link to provide feedback.
Here's a transcript of the interview:
RYAN WARNER, Host: Governor, Thank you for being with us.
JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Colorado governor: Oh, glad to be back.
Warner: We've gotten questions, even some suggestions for you, and themes certainly emerged. We heard a lot about state employee pay and benefits. We're going to talk about that shortly. We also heard a lot about “fracking,” the process of injecting chemicals deep into the ground to free up oil and natural gas. Lots of people told us their fears of those chemicals contaminating water.
Here's a question from Philip Davis, who is a farmer who lives in Hotchkiss, Colorado, on the Western Slope.
PHILIP DAVIS, Hotchkiss farmer: What do you say to people of Garfield County, who believe that fracking has polluted their ground water and resulted in serious diseases? What do you say to the people of Mesa and Delta counties, who depend on a clean environment, who feel powerless against Big Oil and look to their state government to balance the scales and to protect our environment and who are confident that the environmental impacts of fracking are not adequately understood at this time?
Warner: Multi-part question there, but what do you say?
Hickenlooper: Well, there is a great deal of fear out there about fracking. People are-- don't understand it. They're concerned.
Warner: Is it justified?
Hickenlooper: I don't think so. Again, having spent five years as a geologist and really looked into this pretty hard, there was a number of stories in the New York Times, we can't find examples in Garfield County or anywhere in Colorado where fracking has gotten into groundwater.
Now there are a number of occasions where oil companies have been careless or made mistakes and frack fluid has gotten into a stream or a pond, gotten into our water, and my opinion is I think we should be even more vigilant and increase the fines on those things.
But the fracking itself, what you're doing is you're pushing a dense fluid, with, you know, minute grains of sand and silt into the formation. So the formation is already under tremendous pressure, but you're pushing this fluid out there and pushing open these micro-fractures. They're very, very small fractures. And then the silt gets in there and holds them open. So, then, when you stop pushing, all that frack fluid comes back up the pipe again. It doesn't sit there out in the formation.
So, the vast majority of it, 95% of it, comes back up the pipe, and most oil companies, the good oil and gas companies use it again. So they're recycling that water and they're not wasting it.
And one of the things we're doing in Colorado and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association
announced a month ago that we're going to do a baseline water sampling program. So before anyone drills a well, we're going to measure what the ground water is and look at the chemical analysis of it and at regular periods after that well is drilled, if it's fracked, go back and measure and look at that water quality again just to make sure that there is no communication.
Warner: Communication? You mean between the fracking fluid and water?
Hickenlooper: Yes. No communication between, exactly, where the frack fluid has been pushed into the formation and that somehow that didn't get up around the drill pipe and get into ground water.
We're working aggressively with the oil and gas community to convince them, push them, that all the components of the frack fluid should be revealed. They are at the well site now. We want to put them up on some sort of a website and right now, about 90% of the companies drilling already do that voluntarily. So, I don't think there's too much reason not to go ahead and get everybody to do it. And then doing this baseline water sampling is really going to allow us to make sure, to prove to people, that there is no polluting of ground water from fracking.
Warner: So you've got the baseline water testing. How soon would that go into place?
Hickenlooper: That's in place. They're starting it right now, as we speak.
Warner: Okay. And then the separate issue, which is disclosing fracking fluids, that will be a state rule, correct?
Warner: And the question is, how strong will that rule be? They vary from state to state.
Hickenlooper: Well, our expectation is that this rule would be full disclosure. Some states say, well, there's--
Warner: Public disclosure or just to the state?
Hickenlooper: There are several different ways to look at it. My preference-- again, I think this is a question of public trust in the oil and gas industry and I think most of them, most of the companies that do a lot of exploration in Colorado, already post this publicly, right? People can go and see what the components are of everything that they put into a frack. I mean, Wyoming right now, Wyoming reveals all the components of a frack.
Warner: Yeah, one of the strictest rules.
Warner: Would Colorado look like Wyoming's?
Hickenlooper: Yeah, I think that's certainly a goal that we should move towards.
Warner: And when would that be, that rule?
Hickenlooper: You know, again, I think it's more powerful if this comes from the oil and gas industry. So we're at the-- we're not demanding it. What we're trying to suggest is that the oil and gas companies, you know, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, come to, you know, the oil and gas commission, which is the state body that oversees the implementation of rules and regulations around oil and gas in Colorado, and comes to the oil and gas commission and says, 'we want-- we want full disclosure to be required.'
That hasn't happened yet, but I think there are more and more oil and gas companies that recognize that this is a good thing for them, that we have so much natural gas here. Fracking allows us to get that gas at a very low price.
Warner: It sounds to me like you are saying you want the regulated to come to the regulator and say, 'we want to be regulated.'
Warner: People are going to hear that and say, that's ridiculous.
Hickenlooper: No, no, it happens all the time.
Warner: The regulator is the one that cracks the whip and says this is what you will do.
Hickenlooper: (chuckles) That's the way-- I mean, if you want to continually deal in adversarial environments, that's the way to do it. But--
Warner: But it is an adversarial relationship between the regulated and the regulators, isn't it?
Hickenlooper: That's not true. We have industries come to us all the time. One of the issues we have to deal with at the state is various industries -- for instance, I'm not saying which one is and which one isn't, but say massage therapists or chiropractors, a group of practitioners that at present aren't regulated and they want to be regulated, because they think it creates better trust with the public.
I mean, proper regulation should be a partnership between the advocates for proper protection, in this case, people that are advocates for all the many, many, many different environmental groups we have in Colorado, but also in the oil and gas commission, they should be saying, well, here's what we think is fair. There should be a balance, right?
It's not just one side coming in and saying, we're going to regulate and here's what we're going to do. You don't want to put a regulation on top of any industry that's going to cause them a ton of red tape and additional cost if there's not sufficient benefit to the public.
Warner: I want to go back to one question we haven't addressed from Mr. Davis, again that farmer in Hotchkiss. It's larger than just fracking, but he says, “What do you say to the people of Mesa and Delta counties, who depend on a clean environment, who feel powerless against Big Oil?” He's saying something bigger there.
Hickenlooper: I certainly agree that part of the role of state government is to make sure that we protect our land and water and he says “Big Oil.” You know, it's funny, almost all the large oil companies are happy to reveal all their fracks. It's the smaller companies that resent the intrusion of government telling them what to do, more for political reasons than for business reasons, at least in my opinion.
Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we're having our regular conversation with the governor, John Hickenlooper, and this time we are taking questions from you through our Public Insight Network.
Let's move to state workers. Their salaries have been frozen for three years. The state
contribution to each worker's retirement account has been cut by 2.5% and the employees are required to make that up. So their take-home pay is actually less. Here's a question from a state employee.
REBECCA HULL, colorado state employee: Hi, my name is Rebecca Hull and my question is, why haven't we been able to have a pay raise? I haven't had a pay raise for three years and last year you guys raised the PERA 2.5% more out of our checks, which took more of my money away. And I'm wondering how are you going to be able to fix that so someone like me, that has two children and I'm a single mom, doesn't have to work six days a week and have two jobs on top of that, just to survive and live in a nice place?
Warner: Rebecca, we should say, is a mental health technician in Grand Junction at a rehabilitation center for the developmentally disabled and how do you respond to that question about pay?
Hickenlooper: Well, Rebecca's right. It's been three years of no raises for state employees and, actually, we didn't implement the 2.5% that they now pay towards their retirement fund, towards PERA, that used to be paid by the state. That started under Ritter, but we did continue it.
To Rebecca, I think the only thing I can say is we have tried to maintain government services with increasingly diminished, I mean dramatically diminished, revenues. And we've cut education by some $200-- well over $200 million last year. It was $250 million the year before. We've cut higher ed tremendously.
These cuts are painful for everyone and even with all those cuts, we still haven't had resources to give people a raise. And we would love to reward state employees. One thing I-- every week I'm on this job I recognize and learn more about how hard state workers work. But we're still in a very difficult economy. If you look at architects or construction people who do pavements, there are many, many industries, in-- not just in Colorado but throughout the country, where people have not only had a pay freeze for three years, but they've taken dramatic pay cuts. Many architects I know have taken 15% to 20% pay cuts over the last three years.
Warner: Let me say this a bit more indelicately than you have. Is your message, I know it's hard, but be grateful you have a job?
Hickenlooper: Well, the message is, certainly I encourage everyone to appreciate what they do have. You know, we have 25,000 in the state of Colorado who have been out of work for two years. There's more 6 million nationwide. That's difficult.
One of our priorities and I think this should be of every citizen in the state, if people want to work, we have an obligation to make sure we get them the training so that they can retrain themselves so that they're ready for these new jobs that are evolving, right? The jobs that are beginning to come back into the economy aren't the same jobs that people got laid off from.
So, in many cases, we've got to help people get the training so that they can be prepared for new jobs.
Warner: I want to play just a bit more from Rebecca Hull, who sees some inefficiencies where she is. This has to do with overtime for herself and co-workers.
Rebecca Hull: How smart is it to offer all this overtime that they give us here? They give us, I think it's 24 hours a week of overtime. They're paying somebody double the job.
Warner: You've been big on finding inefficiencies. Does overtime strike you as one?
Hickenlooper: Yes, overtime if it is rampant, but, again, it must be in cycles or very brief periods, because didn't Rebecca also say that she was working two jobs? And if she could pick up 24 hours of overtime at time-and-a-half, with all the extra benefits, you'd be pretty wise to do that. I'm not sure what her second job is, but it's probably not paying that kind of wage.
My guess is, is that overtime is short-- for a brief period. Let's say for three weeks or four weeks we need to get a bulk of work done or there's a lot of patients that come into a particular facility, then we use overtime rather than hiring new people.
If it's something that's been going on for six months or a year, you know, we have a website where we're trying to get people to let us know where they see inefficiencies. Because folks trying to manage this enterprise, we're not the ones who are going to find the real savings, right? It's people like Rebecca that are actually out there doing the work.
Warner: Given the number of state employees we heard from through our Public Insight
Network, what we'll do is we'll post a link to that feedback site that you've got.
Warner: So if there others who see inefficiencies and want to pass them along, they can. We'll post that to cpr.org.
Just lastly, on state employee salaries, what would be the threshold or the indication to you that it was time to raise salaries again?
Hickenlooper: Oh, it's already time to raise salaries. I don't have any argument with that. If you haven't gotten a raise in three years, it's hard to be motivated and to really get fired up, unless you look around and say, 'boy, I sure am glad I've got a job.' But, still, that's hard.
We need to get more revenue back, right? We-- I think if we can begin getting-- again, I don't even think we're going to have to get back and replace all the money we've lost to higher ed and to K-12 education and some of the other cuts, but we ought to get close or, at least, begin to see a prospect, have a budget plan where we can recognize we're going to get there in a couple of years.
Then we-- I mean, giving a raise to state employees is a high priority. You just-- three years, 2.5% pay cut and no raises, that's tough.
Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and Gov. John Hickenlooper is our guest. He's taking questions from you through our Public Insight Network. We'll continue the conversation in just a moment. This is Colorado Matters on Colorado Public Radio.
It's Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner. Let's get back to our conversation with Gov. John Hickenlooper. He's taking your questions through our Public Insight Network, questions and comments, really, as well.
This, from Regina Jackson. She's a Realtor from Denver and she got frustrated recently when she tried to replace a lost driver's license. She got to the Department of Motor Vehicles office at 10 in the morning and drew number 861 from the machine.
Warner: She found that the clerks were serving 735 and they told her that it would be a three-hour wait. So here is Ms. Jackson's question. “Why can't worker's shifts be staggered to allow for longer hours at places where citizens go for public services?” She goes on to say, “This is an easy fix by having a 12-hour business day with staggered employee shifts.” What do you think?
Hickenlooper: I certainly think it's an interesting idea. They've tried it in the past and they found out that they didn't-- on what they call the tails of that workday, so either at the early hours or the later hours, they didn't have as many customers to keep the people busy. So if you can't--
Warner: When did they try this?
Hickenlooper: In 2002.
Warner: Okay. And it was at DMV offices?
Hickenlooper: Yes. So that there were three malls in the metro area, Westminster, Buckingham Square and Southwest Plaza. And they operated manned kiosks during mall hours. They found that they weren't-- those offices weren't as productive as the other offices.
Again, I'm willing to try anything. You know, one thing that people-- I mean, with driver's
licenses people can now go online and get their driver's license. We can maybe--
Warner: That's a renewal thing, not the original, not a first license.
Hickenlooper: Right, but a lost license. Like what this woman was talking about. She was told she had to wait in line for three hours. She probably could have done this in five minutes at her home, just going online. And we need to find a way to let her know that she can go online.
Warner: Maybe this is it.
Hickenlooper: This might be it.
Warner: Okay. But the staggered shifts, rocky history?
Hickenlooper: Yeah, they just weren't found to be as efficient and as productive as what we really need, especially with-- you know, in a diminishing resources.
Warner: You talked a lot during your campaign about getting banks to free up loans for small businesses and we got a question from Terri Ives. She's a doctor of Audiology, working with folks who have hearing problems. She describes her business as a startup business and she wrote in to ask that banks in Colorado, even through the SBA program, are not lending to small businesses unless you are already making a huge profit.
She tried over 30 banks in Colorado to find a loan, with 100% collateral, 20% down payment and a less than 2% failure rate for the industry. None would give her a loan or an SBA loan, Small Business Administration.
She says, "you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink. Does the governor have any plan to help small business or startups when banks won't?"
Hickenlooper: Well, certainly I know exactly how she feels. You know, several years after we'd opened the Wynkoop Brewing Company back in the late 1980s, again, a very difficult recession and we wanted to expand and we got turned down again and again and again. You know, when I first started the Wynkoop, I got turned down by 33 banks. So she's at 30. She's got-- she's close to breaking my, at least my own personal best, my personal record.
What's happened is a number of the federal regulations have restricted the way banks look at collateral. So now people need more collateral for their loans and the sad truth is at the end of this recessions this always happens.
Now, we have gotten a $17 million grant from the federal government that we're using to try and make collateral that is marginal, according to these new regulations, and make it satisfactory. In other words, we provide 3%, 4%, 5% of the first at-risk, money so that a bank knows if the business doesn't do quite as well, but can still keep paying back, the first money that's lost is not the bank's. And, in many cases, I think that's going to help.
Warner: How does that program get accessed by someone?
Hickenlooper: Probably the Office of Economic Development and International Trade would be the best place to start. You can access it through the SBA.
Warner: The money has not already been used up?
Hickenlooper: No, no. We just started this a month ago, a month and a half ago.
Hickenlooper: One of the big challenges is that there are-- at least you talk to the bankers and they think there are a lot of people out there that have good ideas and their business is up and going, but it hasn't really proved itself, and yet they want to aggressively expand. That was my problem. When we started the Wynkoop, we were doing great, but we'd only been in business two and a half years and banks-- you know, people forget, banks aren't in the risk business, right? They can't afford to have loans not get paid back. So, in terms of entrepreneurs, someone starting a new business, it's very rare to get a bank loan.
Warner: We're just coming out of August, which you designated as Colorado Proud Month. The idea was to celebrate locally grown foods and agriculture and so in that spirit, here's a question from Dea Jacobson, a community gardener who lives in Cedaredge, on the Western Slope.
DEA JACOBSON, Cedaredge community gardener: As the cost of gas increases, it's become more important to develop and support local agriculture so people can access fresh produce closer to home. It is healthier for the people and for the environment. So in light of that, how are you working to support small, local farms and agricultural producers statewide?
Warner: The assumption in that question is that you are.
Warner: But is that a safe assumption?
Hickenlooper: That is a safe assumption. You know, we're doing it in a number of different ways. My wife is actually a member of what they call a farm-to-table co-op. So we have a share in a small farm up north of metro Denver. Every week we get a bushel basket full of all kinds of vegetables, whatever's ripe and fresh and that's really growing up all over the state.
We've also seen a number of small farmers and ranchers trying to brand their food and their meat. You know, I was out in Hayden, Colorado, a couple of weeks ago, and there's a young couple with two small kids who have taken over the old mill, the old grain mill, and looking at can they do specialty grinding, so-- you know specialty flours and it would be kind of branded with this West Slope Hayden brand.
Warner: And the state support for all this? I mean, the examples you've cited are all grassroots, it sounds to me.
Hickenlooper: Absolutely. Well, that's-- that's the way every entrepreneurial movement starts, right? It's always from the grassroots. And our job in the state, I mean, we're not going to go out there and start figuring out whether to make a pecan butter or an almond butter, but what we can do is try and make sure that, wherever possible, we can help connect these various-- these small entrepreneurs to each other and begin to build a community.
Warner: Well, let's wrap up with a lighter question for you. You have referenced your experience as the owner of a brew pub. Here's something from a member of our Public Insight Network.
CHUCK REID, Littleton government consultant: I'm Chuck Reid from Littleton, Colorado.
I'm a local government consultant and I'm wondering if, now that you're more familiar with statewide issues and assets, what new brewing flavor or technique will you bring back to the Wynkoop that's indicative of the state, the job you're doing as governor?
Warner: We should say that you divested from the Wynkoop, but we like the question. Given your experience so far, would it influence a flavor, a new recipe or something?
Hickenlooper: Well, that's a tough one, right off the top of my head. Although, first, it's worth mentioning that Colorado continues to expand its identity as, really, one of the brewing centers of the world. You know, the Front Range has become the Munich of the West in every sense. We have 142 breweries now.
In terms of names and recipes, the one I liked the most that I saw this summer for a light, a kind of summer approach to beer, New Belgian had a beer called Somersault and the label is kind of upside down.
So, what I love about Somersault is that sort of the-- when you go into the governor's office, never having been involved in state politics to a high extent -- as the mayor, I was involved somewhat -- it is like a somersault, like you do a full flip and all of a sudden, you go all over the state, you meet these incredible people. You learn all these issues in the Eastern Plains and in the mountain towns and suddenly it's like you've done a somersault.
Warner: Somersault, then. I just-- I can't believe you didn't say Red Tape IPA.
Hickenlooper: (laughs) Well, Red Tape IPA certainly has a future, but I haven't seen anyone make it yet.
Warner: Okay. Governor, thank you so much.
Hickenlooper: Always a pleasure.
[Photo: Colorado governor's office]