Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is interviewed by Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner in the state Capitol on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)

Gov. John Hickenlooper is trying to form a closer relationship with President Donald Trump's administration, to address issues like healthcare and education funding.

As part of that, the governor took a call from Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, a few weeks ago. According to Hickenlooper, Mulvaney told him not to get "too agitated," after Hickenlooper expressed concerns about proposed cuts to Environmental Protection Agency funding.

"I think I expressed a little bit of agitation," Hickenlooper told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

"The early cuts to the EPA seemed like a lot of them were going to be to the grant program, [which] we use in smaller communities when they're dealing with a new wastewater treatment system or a drinking water processing plant. That kind of stuff, we usually partner with the EPA. It looked like they were going to eliminate all those grants," the governor said.

Trump's team stressed that the budget is an initial proposal. Congress would have to approve any changes to the federal budget.

Hickenlooper also spoke recently with Trump's special assistant on infrastructure, D.J. Gribbin, about the president's intention to pass a large spending measure in that area.

Elsewhere in the interview with Colorado Matters, the governor talked about his request to keep the Trump administration from shutting down Colorado's legal marijuana market; a proposed budget shakeup at Colorado's Capitol; the future of higher education funding; whether he thinks lawmakers can still pass construction defects reform; and his assessment of the Democrats' approach on a national scale.

Interview Highlights With Gov. John Hickenlooper

​On The Letter, Co-Signed By Four Governors, Sent To Jeff Sessions Asking For A Hands-Off Approach To Legal Marijuana

"To my knowledge, we have not gotten a response yet. We wrote the letter to Attorney General Sessions, really just extending our hand and saying, 'Let's work on this together.' We recognize that there's some difficult decisions to be made here and that we are in conflict with federal law, but at the same time, it's in our state constitution. I took an oath to uphold that constitution, so I feel I'd have no choice but to continue this path. We're just hopeful that Attorney General Sessions won't make what is a difficult job even more difficult."

On The Long Game For Compromise On A Construction Defects Bill At The Legislature

"My point is that there should be a compromise there that allows a builder to build in confidence, that if he builds something competently, and let's say he finds something that was an accidental inadvertent problem and it's something in the flooring is not right, they should have the right to come back in and repair it and fix it. Not have to go through a lawsuit. All this stuff is being negotiated; how many days, how many weeks, how many months, who talks to who when. It becomes a very complicated issue because in larger projects the amount of money involved in something like this is significant. It's more difficult than I thought it would be."

On Frustration As A Political Strategy In The Trump Era

"I think that it gets in the way of a political strategy. I think somehow the Democratic Party has to digest all of what has happened and return to a coherent strategy of how we're going to address this in the short term and then what the long term plan is for bringing the party back into a position where they're actually going to be making the decisions."

Read The Transcript

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. A relationship is forming between the new administration in Washington and Governor John Hickenlooper's administration here in Colorado. In the last few weeks, the governor had calls with President Trump's budget director Mick Mulvaney and his special assistant for infrastructure policy, DJ Gribbin. You'll recall candidate Trump floated the idea of a trillion dollars in new projects nationwide. I asked Governor Hickenlooper what stood out from those conversations.

Gov. John Hickenlooper: They haven't formulated a plan yet, but they are very ambitious in terms of trying to find ways to support states to build more roads, bridges, water projects, and this guy, Gribbin, has worked for a couple of pretty large companies that have built infrastructures. He understands how it's financed. He was very careful to say that these are the opinions of me, not the administration. Whether we're going to find ways of public/private partnerships or we're going to find ways to use tax credits. They're looking at a bunch of different ways to try and find capital they can put into infrastructure.

RW: Public/private partnerships a sort of fancy word for what are probably inevitably toll lanes.

JH: We call them shared use lanes and Mulvaney, we talked in terms of the budget, more about how this is a preliminary budget, don't get too agitated or locked in. There's a lot of work to be done between now and when the budget's finally approved.

RW: Don't get too agitated. The Trump administration has called for many domestic cuts and a boost in defense spending. Are you agitated about his budget?

JH: I think I expressed a little bit of agitation, yes. Some of the things, the EPA, the early cuts in the initial budget to the EPA. It seemed like a lot of them were going to be to the grant programs. The grant programs are what we use in smaller communities when they're dealing with a new wastewater treatment system or a drinking water processing plant. That kind of stuff, we usually partner with the EPA. It looked like they were going to eliminate all those grants, which would just make our hill a little bit steeper to go up. Things like that. We were looking at very specific parts of the budget that could have a negative impact on our ability to solve issues here.

RW: Is the subtext of what you're saying that you heard from the Trump administration that his initial budget was something of a first shot across the bow and not to be taken literally? That this is maybe the first volley of a business man who is used to negotiating?

JH: I think that's probably fair. He was saying there's a lot of discussion that's going to happen and the administration was open to working with congress.

RW: On marijuana, you are asking the Trump administration not to intervene on legal pot here. Have you gotten any response to a letter that you sent earlier this month along with three other governors whose states have also legalized recreational marijuana?

JH: To my knowledge, we have not gotten a response yet. We wrote the letter to Attorney General Sessions, really just extending our hand and saying, "Let's work on this together." We recognize that there's some difficult decisions to be made here and that we are in conflict with federal law, but at the same time, it's in our state constitution. I took an oath to uphold that constitution, so I feel I'd have no choice but to continue this path. We're just hopeful that Attorney General Sessions won't make what is a difficult job even more difficult.

RW: Is it normal or abnormal not to have heard back by this point?

JH: Normal.

RW: Normal. Okay.

JH: It takes a while. They're going to read the thing and go back through. I think they're trying to figure out. Just put yourself in their place. They're trying to hire all these people and fill up the ranks of the staff, senior staff in the Attorney General's office and at the same time, people like us, like us four governors, are writing them letters saying, "Hey, we want a response."

RW: I noticed something about the letter you sent with these other governors. Three of you are Democrats. One's an Independent in Alaska. There are three Republicans with legalized recreational marijuana in their states. Did you try to get the governors of Maine, Nevada, and Massachusetts to join in on this?

JH: We did talk to them and they considered it, and I think that they in many ways agree with the sentiments that we expressed. This wasn't for them as high priority as maybe we thought it was.

RW: Do you think it's a partisan question or just a priority question?

JH: No, I think it's a priority question. I think that the, in states where your voters have legalized it, pretty much everyone, Republican and Democrat that I've talked to feels it is their responsibility to fulfill the will of the voters.

RW: Do you see this as being at the mercy of the federal government on this issue, or it sounds like you think, gosh, this state really does have some solid ground to stand on here?

JH: No, I think the state has made a lot of progress and I think if you look around the country.

RW: But doesn't federal law supersede that progress?

JH: Ideally, what I'd like to see is some legislation on national level, that allows states in this one issue to define their own path forward.

RW: Is that a bill you'd like to see a member of the Colorado delegation sponsor? Any conversations in that regard?

JH: Absolutely, and Jared Polis has talked about this and has a draft of such a bill.

RW: The Democratic congressman from Boulder. Colorado's Attorney General, Republican Cynthia Coffman, has also said she'll defend the state's legal marijuana industry. Are you working with her on this?

JH: Yes, of course.

RW: Okay. You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner, and we're back at the state capital for our regular conversation with Democratic governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper.

JH: How come you guys always have to say Democratic governor John Hickenlooper? Why don't you say Governor Hickenlooper? Why do you want to inject partisanship into what is really just a normal question and answer session?

RW: Who said it was partisan? I'm merely stating a fact about you.

JH: It is a fact, but it's a partisan fact. I don't think you can argue that it's not a partisan fact.

RW: Okay.

JH: I'm just asking a question.

RW: Well to the state house now. We focused a lot on Washington. A leading Republican has taken interest in something that you've wanted for several years now. His bill would reclassify a fee that hospitals pay. The effect of this would be having more leeway in how state officials apportion money in the budget. It may also mean the state keeps more money in the future instead of returning it to taxpayers as refunds. For years Republicans have said they're not interested in even talking about this accounting change, so where did this new effort come from? I want to know if you had involvement in its genesis.

JH: No. I think that what we're beginning to see for the last two years, we've had to cut the hospital provider fee in order to balance the budget and that has a double effect because the hospital provider fee, it is almost completely matched by federal funds, so when you cut $200 million out of the hospital provider fee, you're really taking $400 million dollars out of our healthcare budget for the state.

RW: Often for indigent care.

JH: It is almost all for indigent care and the large amount of that care is in rural parts of Colorado, and I think that the rural hospitals and clinics, a number of them are now in danger of being forced to close, that would be a very difficult thing for many legislators to let happen.

RW: Do you think this was the tipping point?

JH: That's my interpretation.

RW: This bill would free some of that money as well for transportation and for education. It does have a few trade-offs meant to constrain the growth of government. Some things the Democrats have said need to change before they'd vote for it. Any deal breakers for you in this bill?

JH: I think the key, there's some discussions about where the new TABOR base would be. Would you reset the base in such a way that we would sort of be starting all over again, in which case, it really doesn't do anything to help, I mean it does do something to help our rural healthcare, but it doesn't really solve the most pressing issues. So I think that there's nothing we can't negotiate with. They're asking about bonding. I'm not against bonding, but there's legitimate questions about what gets bonded and what's the length of time.

RW: For transportation projects?

JH: Yeah. Well transportation or capital projects.

RW: Did your staff have a hand in writing this legislation?

JH: We've certainly been involved and had discussions. I don't think the initial legislation that he brought forward, that we helped write that, to my knowledge.

RW: Did it feel like a manna from heaven then when it came out?

JH: No. Manna from heaven. You do have a poetic side after all. I think that there was, we began hearing that some of the rural legislators are concerned about the impacts of not adjusting the hospital provider fee, the impact that's having on Rural Colorado, and Senator Sonnenberg has been one of the real stalwart supporters of the rural economy.

RW: He's one of the cosponsors of the bill, Jerry Sonnenberg.

JH: His name came up as someone who might sponsor this and that's when it kind of clicked in my mind, huh, that's makes sense, because sooner or later, somebody's got to speak up for the farmers and ranchers in this state that are going to, they're beginning to lose their healthcare.

RW: You can hear our conversation with Senator Sonnenberg at cprnews.org. Colleges and universities are set to get more money under next year's budget but state funding for higher ed could end completely in the next couple of years according to the American Council on Education. We spoke recently with several higher education leaders about that. The president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, Steven Jordan said he thinks this zero funding from the state is a real possibility. But he says rather than just gradually, quietly shifting money from higher ed to other programs, there ought to be a really thoughtful approach.

Steven Jordan (on tape): You know I think there really does need to be a significant public policy discussion about this and make a conscious decision about whether this is our future or not and whether we can in some way ameliorate that projection. I think that really begins in the legislature with the support of the governor.

RW: Do you think that state funding for colleges and universities will dry up completely first off?

JH: Well I haven't seen the study but I look at the last several years. I mean almost every year with one exception since I've been governor, we've increased the funding for higher education.

RW: But those have been modest increases.

JH: You're right. Modest increases.

RW: The slope over time has been towards zero.

JH: No, no, no. We were cutting, cutting, cutting, right for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and since then we've been going back up. So where does it come that suddenly we're going to cut off funding? I'd have to see his data, so I disagree. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think it should happen. I do think that we have to place a priority and in the state of Colorado we are placing a priority on controlling the growth of healthcare spending.

RW: You're saying that the growth in that is strangling the budget.

JH: Yes.

RW: Meaning that there are fewer dollars available to colleges and universities from the state.

JH: The United States is spending 18% of our total economy, our GDP, on healthcare. We need to begin learning and figuring out, how do we cut those costs and yet still provide quality healthcare to everybody.

RW: You sound positively Republican right now.

JH: I don't think that's Republican. I think that's American, right? You may have missed it but President Obama who was a Democrat is the one who fought for everybody's healthcare.

RW: One more priority for you this session was signing a law to make it harder for condo buyers to sue over defects in construction. For the past several years, businesses and politicians in the metro area especially have said this is a major priority to create affordable housing but it never gets done. The idea is more condo construction would perhaps stabilize the cost of housing. In this year's State of the State, back in January, you promised, this is the year.

JH: Too many people and not enough units adds up to unaffordable rents and skyrocketing home prices. I've said it before. We need to work on more affordable housing. Now part of the answer is the construction defects legislation we almost passed last year and we will pass this year.

RW: And yet a compromise bill seems hard to come by. Lawmakers have killed a few bills on this subject and delayed movement on another recently to let negotiations continue. Just a few weeks left in session, are you still confident they'll pass something?

JH: Did you ever see that movie, "The Longest Yard."

RW: No.

JH: Because last year we moved the ball down the field, almost the entire length of the field and we were so close I felt empowered to make that commitment that we're going to get done because we only had a yard to go. Well it turns out it's the longest yard. It's a little bit like whack-a-mole. You get one thing sorted out and then there are two new problems you hadn't heard about before come up. I still think we're going to get it done.

RW: You do?

JH: I do.

RW: What gives you that hope? Is that just natural optimism or is there something specific?

JH: About half natural optimism and half that people are still coming to the table trying to discuss this. If you look at how much construction is taking place in Colorado right now, we need to build more condos.

RW: A lot of it is happening in the apartment space.

JH: It's almost all apartments. Long term, these young people that have started businesses here, they're growing their industry, eventually they're going to want a own a place of their own.

RW: I'll say this goes back to a 2007 law that passed here which made it easier for homeowners to sue and people like yourself believe that was an overcorrection. But you know some people really object to the idea that home buyers would have a harder time bringing a lawsuit for shoddy construction.

JH: Well it's not really a harder time bringing it. It's just you got two sides, right? One argument is that the person who's building the building, has done everything, and they do everything perfectly and then all of a sudden there are these what they call nuisance lawsuits, and they happen. I've seen them happen. I used to take old warehouses and turn them into housing.

RW: Nuisance meaning frivolous?

JH: Yes. Frivolous.

RW: And yet there have been cases of some really questionable construction.

JH: Exactly. That's the other side. Someone who's bought a home in a new building, they are, absolutely deserve the right to be able to live in something and to own something that was as promised. My point is that there should be a compromise there that allows a builder to build in confidence that if he builds something competently, and let's say he finds something that was an accidental inadvertent problem and it's something in the flooring is not right, they should have the right to come back in and repair it and fix it. Not have to go through a lawsuit. All this stuff is being negotiated; how many days, how many weeks, how many months, who talks to who when. It becomes a very complicated issue because in larger projects the amount of money involved in something like this is significant. It's more difficult than I thought it would be. You know I'm just being candid.

RW: Before we go, I'm interested to get your take on Democratic politics nationally right now. Last week the Democrats chose to try to block the Supreme Court nomination of Coloradan Neil Gorsuch. He was confirmed anyway. They largely stayed out of the health reform efforts. There's certainly a lot of anger on the left right now. What do you see as the Democratic strategy these days? What is the party focusing on?

JH: Well I think that the issue around Gorsuch, you know Michael Bennett made a couple points.

RW: The Senator from Colorado.

JH: Yes. In terms of the prolonged filibuster, and he was against the filibuster because he said the votes are, if they go to the nuclear option, the votes are going to pass. Judge Gorsuch will become Justice Gorsuch regardless. Better to now recognize that this is someone who even the American Bar Association, a pretty liberal organization, says is qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice and really make the case that the next nomination should still have that 60 vote threshold that you should get to. I think he made a really good point. I'm not sure what the Democrats gained by the filibuster. Now we've got a precedent that 50 votes is what it takes to become a Supreme Court Justice.

RW: I think critics would say listen, the filibuster was going to die on this issue or another.

JH: I don't know whether Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, even people like Lindsey Graham who really believes in the tradition of the Senate, whether if there had been an olive branch, if some Democrats had come and said, we're going to vote, we're going to support this but we want your commitment. You know coming down the road, we've got to get 60 votes. I think there are enough Republicans that would have gone along with that that it would have been worth the risk.

RW: So let's take this a bit more globally. What does this tell us about the Democratic strategy and what are your thoughts about where Democrats are right now?

JH: I think Democrats both in Washington but around the country are very frustrated and they're frustrated that so many, that there's no consistency coming out of the White House.

RW: Do you feel that?

JH: In certain cases yes. I think we would welcome a clear plan of partnership of how we could work together and move forward in terms of issues like infrastructure and healthcare and education.

RW: But is frustration a political strategy?

JH: No I don't think it is. I think that it gets in the way of a political strategy. I think somehow the Democratic Party has to digest all of what has happened and return to a coherent strategy of how we're going to address this in the short term and then what the long term plan is for bringing the party back into a position where they're actually going to be making the decisions.

RW: It sounds like you think the Democrats are still finding their footing.

JH: I'm not sure I'd use those words but I do think the anger and frustration is a very real issue that makes it harder to get everyone together and to figure out all right, because any time you've got, the Democratic Party is a big tent and if you're going to really try and create strategy with that, all those different voices, it takes compromise. And it's hard to compromise and work together when you're just really angry, just bitter about the way things are.

RW: Big tent. I think that was a Reagan phrase.

JH: Was it really?

RW: I think so.

JH: We're going to make this tent great again.

RW: Thank you for being with us.

JH: It's always a pleasure.