Gov. John Hickenlooper gestures during an interview in his office Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017.

(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)

Colorado’s governor says taxpayers need to change the state constitution to provide money for schools. Hundreds of teachers crowded into the the state Capitol Thursday to protest a lack of education funding.

The constitutional amendment known as TABOR, or the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, requires voter approval of tax increases and limits growth of government spending. Gov. John Hickenlooper said it’s largely the reason the state has fallen about $6 billion behind in education funding since the last recession.

“I'm a believer that we have to pay more to teachers," Hickenlooper said. "Ultimately, our kids are going to be the future of our economy, so we're fools or just blind if we don't recognize that and begin finding ways we can increase that compensation. If that means we've got to modify the ceiling on TABOR, then we probably need to do that.” 

Teachers gathered at the Capitol Thursday to protest what they said are low salaries, aging schools that lack adequate supplies, and possible changes to their pension plan, which has a $32 billion in unfunded liabilities. Demonstrations across the state Friday are predicted to be even bigger than Thursday's.

Hickenlooper said lifting the TABOR cap wouldn’t mean a tax increase: “I think what [supporters] are talking about in this case, and there are a lot of different voices, is just removing part of that TABOR cap to allow education to get more money. So that’s not necessarily trying to raise taxes."

Hickenlooper also spoke to Colorado Matters about the state's black market for marijuana. He admitted he may have been too optimistic in a prediction earlier this year that the market will drop to almost nothing in the next two or three years.

“Certainly when I said that, and that was some time ago  … I was unaware of as many issues with the interdiction of marijuana as it was leaving the state and we’ve had several large busts on that basis. It might well be that given the information I had then that made sense to say then and we see more information like that we might have a steeper hill to climb. It might be a longer effort.”

The state’s public safety director, Stan Hilkey, told Colorado Matters that marijuana grown legally in Colorado is sometimes sold on East Coast states where it's still illegal. “There is more and more evidence that there are more and more people coming into Colorado and sort of hiding in plain sight to be able to grow marijuana illegally inside of homes,” he said.

Hickenlooper said if it's needed the state can use marijuana tax money to increase enforcement.

Interview Highlights

On whether teachers should walk out:

"I hate to see kids missing a day at school. ... That being said, teachers in Colorado are not paid sufficiently for the job that they are doing. We're one of the most, right now, the strongest economy in America, one of the most affluent states and we should be able to pay teachers enough to live on and enough to be able to find housing."

On a bill to prohibit teacher strikes:

“We have a whole set of set of rules and regulations that govern when you can strike and when you can’t … so any new law that adds more restrictions on that -- I’d be surprised if it got through the general assembly.”

On reform of the state pension fund, PERA:

The state budget could be used to keep PERA on sound footing for the immediate future. “If we were able to strike the right bargain some of that money should go to education," Hickenlooper said. But that would likely require a trade-off, with cuts in cost-of-living increases for retirees.

On his “optimism” about fixes before the legislature ends:

“I have great optimism and hope that we’ll get -- maybe not PERA perfectly fixed but make real improvements. And the same way with education.”   

On the need for compromise: 

"My mother raised four kids by herself. She would pretend to be cranky when she really wasn't. We'd complain about what was on our plate because maybe it was creamed beef again, I mean she had a million ways of cooking things that didn't cost very much money. We'd complain and she would say, 'It ain't what you want, it's what you're going to get.' Then she'd kind of shake her fist at us."

Read The Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Fourth grade teacher Kathy Rio walked into the State
Capitol this morning to deliver a stack of hand-written letters to the governor. Rio teaches in Douglas
County, and her students had written in pencil, on notebook paper, why they think schools deserve more
money. She read a few highlights for us.

Kathy Rio: So it would be great if you could maybe pay teachers more. You probably got this job because
you got a great education.  Okay. Oh, here's my favorite. Do you really want to let kids that can change the
future not get that chance because you didn't let them get the education they need?

RW: Rio is one of hundreds of educators who today and tomorrow are demanding the state close a gaping
hole in K-12 spending, billions of dollars since the recession. I'd met her just before I sat down with
Governor John Hickenlooper for our regular conversation at the Capitol. Governor, thank you for being
with us again.

Gov. John Hickenlooper: My pleasure, as always.

RW: Do you support these walkouts?

JH: Well, I hate to see kids missing a day at school. You see the challenges that education faces at every
line. It's concerning. That being said, teachers in Colorado are not paid sufficiently for the job that they are
doing. We're one of the most, right now, the strongest economy in America, one of the most affluent
states and we should be able to pay teachers enough to live on and enough to be able to find housing.

RW: When teachers come through the capitol, or protesters, I guess, in general, how often do you go out
and meet with them? Is there time in your schedule made for that?

JH: Generally, not. I think this is a large enough protest we're trying to find out how do we get some time
to meet with them. We've worked as hard as we can to get more money into education, right? The last
two years, we've added almost 5% a year for the last couple years, which again, in tight fiscal times, is
always difficult when there are so many competing needs. Since I got here in 2010-11, we've added 26%,
so it's not like we're not trying.

RW: This year, law makers have agreed to about a $150 million pay-down of an IOU, essentially, in terms
of education funding from the state to schools. There's a shortfall of about $672 million a year. Educators
want that IOU from the state eliminated by 2022. Can that happen?

JH: Well, the trick, obviously, is TABOR. It's easy for us to sit around and say, "Well, our teachers should be
paid more," but even if our economy continues to grow, and I think it will, and we get sufficient revenues
that we can afford to pay teachers more, and put more money into education, we're going to bump up
against the TABOR cap. So we'll have to go to the voters and ask their permission to de-TABORize the
restriction on that ceiling and those payments.

RW: You're hearing that from some of the Democratic candidates for governor right now. Is it time for
TABOR reform, in your opinion? TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill Of Rights?

JH: Well TABOR's, you know, in many parts of Colorado, still very popular. It's always been a battle-cry for
conservatives everywhere. When it first passed, what, more than 25 years ago, it was the model that every
state should adopt. I think it is interesting to look 25 years later, and not one other state has adopted
TABOR. In other words, it does not give you the flexibility to adjust to things like teacher compensation. So
at some point, I think it's going to have to be modified to compete. At a certain point, we're going to have
a hard time getting quality teachers to come here. If that continues, then we're going to have a hard time
getting businesses to stay here.

RW: How soon do you think that should happen? There's the potential, I'll say, for an education-specific
tax measure on the ballot this year.

JH: Yes, I think there're a number of potential measures that people are looking at and the ideal would be
to get a referred measure, obviously. That's not going to happen this year.

RW: That is from the legislature.

JH: That won't happen, but they can still go out and gather petitions and put something on-

RW: Would they have your support if they did that?

JH: Well, it depends on exactly what it says. Again, I'm a believer that we have to pay more to teachers.
Ultimately, our kids are going to be the future of our economy, so we're fools or just blind if we don't
recognize that and begin finding ways we can increase that compensation. If that means we've got to
modify the ceiling on TABOR, then we probably need to do that.

RW: Of course, there are some who will say that money in the hands of taxpayers is better than in the
hands of government.

JH: Well, but then the question is, is it better in the hands of teachers or better in the hands of taxpayers? If
your teachers are so far underpaid that you're losing out in the competition to attract new teachers, then
long term there will be less money in the taxpayers' hand, right? If our economy begins to be dragged
down because we don't have a decent education system, which ultimately would happen, I think that is a
stronger argument that there will be even less money for taxpayers.

RW: Isn't Colorado recent history littered with the remains of statewide tax increases that they tried to
pass on the ballot and failed to do?

JH: Well, I think what they're talking about in this case, and there are a lot of different voices, is just
removing part of that TABOR cap to allow education to get more money. That's not necessarily trying to
raise taxes. Now, I realize they're different people having different proposals, but one that I've seen, I
think has more support, is just saying, "All right. Let's get rid of the TABOR cap until we've eliminated the
entire negative factor," that which you called loan from the state-

RW: Yeah, this IOU.

JH: Once that's paid down to zero, then the TABOR cap can be there, but it's in our Constitution, right?
Amendment 23 says we're supposed to be putting this much money into education, and we are still almost
$700 million in the red.

RW: I want to know that this is a walkout and not a strike. Teachers are taking personal leave to
participate. That said, a bill introduced in the legislature the other day would ban strikes and fine teachers,
possibly even more severe penalties for those who participate. The bill was introduced by Republicans in
the State Senate, unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled House. That said, if such a bill were to
pass, would you sign it?

JH: I avoid hypotheticals as you well know, Ryan, but-

RW: Yeah, the fundamental question being-

JH: The bottom line is, if we're doing this properly, we shouldn't get to the point where there's a strike. Our
kids-

RW: That's an artful answer to the question of whether teachers should be allowed to strike.

JH: Well, we have a whole set of rules and regulations and laws that govern when you can strike and when
you can't. When teachers try to strike, there are a lot of things that get snapped into action.

RW: Indeed.

JH: So any new law that adds more restrictions on that I think will be, I'd be surprised if it got through the
General Assembly.

RW: What should educators be willing to sacrifice, given that the state has competing needs,
transportation chief among them, and not endless cash? A lot of the thrust of the conversation right now is
what should get educators get? Are there things they should sacrifice?

JH: I mean I don't think they should have to sacrifice making a decent living. I don't think schools should
have to sacrifice having the basic tools of teaching.

RW: Might the sacrifices come in another debate happening here at the capitol over PERA, the state
pension fund of which many teachers are members?

JH: Well, there is a challenge there that if you're trying to bring PERA back up into compliance,
conformance.

RW: It has $32 billion in unfunded liabilities.

JH: Right. So there's several different levers there. We can put more state money in. Now, that's money
that this case probably would go back to teachers or education right now. I think there's a strong sensibility
on the second floor that if we were able to strike the right bargain, some of that money that's going to
PERA should go to education. So, there's a difficult balance between teachers that are retired versus
teachers that are active. Or teachers that are active but about to retire. So do you suspend your cost of
living adjustments for several years? Do you lower that cost of living adjustment? That's a burden that's
paid only by people that have already retired, and allows you to put more money into teachers that are
teaching. But that's a difficult choice for teachers to make, right? There's a certain level of solidarity.

RW: So here at the Capitol you've got lawmakers working on shoring up PERA. You've got them debating
on how to clear up a $9 billion backlog in transportation projects. You've got teachers demanding more
money. Two weeks left in session.

JH: Sounds like the plot for a great mystery. Who knows what'll happen in these next couple of weeks?

RW: If the legislature can't solve all of these in the next couple of weeks, is there one that is most
important to you?

JH: Well they're so interconnected. It's hard to imagine solving one without addressing the others. So I
don't prioritize one over another. I really have great optimism and hope that we'll get, maybe not PERA
perfectly fixed, but make real improvements. The same way with education. We're not going to get them
back to where they need to be this year, but by balancing those needs, and transportation as well, we can
make a credible effort.

RW: Would you call lawmakers back for a special session to address any of these?

JH: I don't see anything right now that's at that level. I mean I never say never. But when we were kids, my
mother, you know my mother raised four kids by herself, she would pretend to be cranky when she really
wasn't. We'd complain about what was on our plate because maybe it was creamed beef again, I mean
she had a million ways of cooking things that didn't cost very much money. We'd complain and she would
say, "It ain't what you want, it's what you're going to get." Then she'd kind of shake her fist at us. My mom
was five foot, so her fist was quite small. But I think that's the essence of compromise, right?

RW: I don't think of you as a fist shaker. You know as someone who sort of uses the bully pulpit with the
legislature. Am I hearing that that might be the case this session?

JH: No, that was not the way that ...

RW: That's not how that I should interpret that, okay, all right. You're listening to Colorado Matters, I'm
Ryan Warner and we are at the State Capitol for a regular conversation with Colorado's Governor, John
Hickenlooper. I want to talk about marijuana now. An interview you did with Rolling Stone this month got a
lot of attention on pot issues. There's one aspect I want to follow up on, the black market. You
commented that it all used to be black market, so even if there's still some illegal marijuana here, it's a
huge improvement. Now earlier this year, the news site Colorado Politics quoted you by saying, "I think in
the next two or three years that black market might never be zero, but it will be largely gone." What makes
you say that?

JH: Well because we now have a better system of identifying where that black market is coming from.
We're putting more resources. So last year was the first year, this year we're adding more money to law
enforcement. Coming out of the marijuana tax and setting up a whole detail within the state police and
providing more money to local jurisdictions that they can go after this more aggressively.  We also lowered
the number of plants. Remember the plants were 99 plants, where you could have a, kind of a grow for
your friends and family.

RW: This is under the medical law.

JH: Right. That was just an invitation to black markets. You put all those together and I think we have
reason to be optimistic. Perhaps I was too optimistic, it might take five years.

RW: The problem is we've heard from the Director of Public Safety, is mostly with people growing  
marijuana here, and then selling it in other states, particularly on the east coast, for a lot more money that
they'd get on the Colorado legal market. Here is Public Safety Director Stan Hilkey to us.

Stan Hilkey: What they have been telling us, and what we've seen, is that there is more and more evidence
that there are more people coming into Colorado and sort of hiding in plain sight to be able to grow
marijuana illegally inside of homes.

RW: Now, Hilkey acknowledged progress in enforcement, including the new money that you mentioned.
But is it an expanding problem, as he says? Or will it be gone in a number of years? Square those views for
us.

JH: That's hard to predict. Law enforcement personnel generally see the dire circumstances coming at
them. Those of us that have been in policy longer and maybe not so concerned with that narrow part of
policy tend to be a little more optimistic.

RW: Although I suppose they'd say they've got the real view of things.

JH: Right, exactly. I think they probably would. They are the ones who are spending more time thinking
about this, have greater access to the facts. They may well be right. My sense is that if we continue to see
a greater problem, we will put more money into having greater and greater law enforcement, until that
point where we knock it down.

RW: Isn't the rub here though, that it's hard to have a real grasp on the numbers? The state doesn't seem
to keep comprehensive statistics about black market seizures or marijuana-related crime, for example. I
want to play for you local Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Randy Ladd, who talked with my
colleague about this.

Randy Ladd: My partners in law enforcement are telling me that no, they're not required to keep a statistic.
For example, if someone is murdered in a parking lot because there was a marijuana deal going on, it's just
a homicide. It's not a marijuana-related homicide. Statistics are kept for domestic violence and hate crime
and other categories of crime, but the marijuana crime statistics are not being kept.

RW: His point is basically the public should know what's being done, just like they're able to know the
positives around pot in terms of tax revenues coming in from legalization, for instance.

Randy Ladd: Well, why is no one looking at the other side of the spreadsheet? What is being spent on that?
All of the law enforcement resources, the hundreds and hundreds of search warrants that are executed
across Colorado every year that are related to marijuana, and all the time and resources.

RW: What do you think about this idea of better tracking those aspects of legalization?

JH: Well, it's not even legalization. I mean, that's an issue, the connection of drugs to crime, or just the
possession of marijuana. Someone gets shot in a parking lot, and there's marijuana on the scene. Was the
marijuana part of that killing or not?

RW: I think that's what people may be craving to know, or to have better tracking.

JH: No, I think that's true. And Colorado is a local control state, so most of our police work is done by
municipalities. They don't like having the state come say, "All right, now you're going to have to keep this
data." You'll end up with 25 pages of rules and regulations of those specific situations where they're going
to suddenly now have to call this a drug-related crime. They've already got tons of those rules and
regulations already. I'm a believer in data so if there's a way to do it efficiently, I would support that kind
of proposal.

RW: What data are you hungry for around marijuana? What answers do you not have, particularly around
the black market that you'd like?

JH: Well, I'd love to see exactly where there are people getting arrested in other states, and we actually
have definitive proof that it came from Colorado, and place and time, and see that on a map. I think that
can be meaningful in terms of getting out ahead of it. There's been discussions about whether people's
electric bills should be accessible by law enforcement. In other words, if you look at black market
marijuana, I guarantee you they're not doing it out in the sunlight. They're doing it under grow lights and
you're going to see a spike in electrical consumption. But, there's a lot of First Amendment privacy rights
when you start talking about that kind of stuff.

RW: I guess without a lot of the data you're talking about, we've been talking about around the black
market especially, makes me wonder how you can say confidently it's disappearing.

JH: Well, certainly, when I said that and that was some time ago, we did not have as many, or at least I
was unaware of as many issues with the interdiction of marijuana as it was leaving the state. We've had
several large busts on that basis. It might well be that given the information I had that's made sense to say
then and we see more information like that that we might have a steeper hill to climb, might be a longer
effort. We have the resources now. We have tax revenue from marijuana that should be used for
marijuana caused unintended consequences. I think that's a resource that at least for me makes me feel
confident that we'll eventually get at it. People were flying marijuana into Colorado. We were always a
major center for distribution of all kinds of narcotics.

We were famous. People would take it out to Tulsa and Oklahoma. People would take it down to Texas.
For whatever reason, it was easier to fly it into Colorado for whatever reason. What we have now is more
resources to go after that. It's different. Obviously, now it appears that it's being grown to a larger extent
here and then being transported around the country. That's something I think we will continue to apply
more and more resources to stopping.

RW: Governor, thanks for being with us.

JH: Always a pleasure.