John Hickenlooper on the future of Colorado water, climate change and the monkeypox outbreak

· Aug. 2, 2022, 6:30 pm
Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper at an event marking the end construction on the Interstate 25 South Gap project near Larkspur between Castle Rock and Colorado Springs on Monday, November 22, 2021.

If you’re upset about the federal response to the nation’s burgeoning monkeypox outbreak, John Hickenlooper doesn’t blame you.

“They've got every right to be angry; and the bottom line is that we have allowed our public health system to ... After COVID we knew that we had to reinvest in our public health system and we haven't done it,” Hickenlooper, Colorado’s junior Democratic senator, told Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner. “I think people have a legitimate right to be angry about this.”

Monkeypox, the infectious disease that stems from the same family as smallpox, was recently declared a global emergency by the World Health Organization. As of late July, there were close to 70 confirmed cases in Colorado.

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In a wide-ranging conversation, Hickenlooper also discussed the pending Inflation Reduction Act; most of the focus on the bill has centered around climate change, with Hickenlooper saying Colorado will perhaps benefit as much as any other state. But he added that the package will impact other areas, including prescription drug costs and health care.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Ryan Warner: Senator, thank you for being with us.

Sen. John Hickenlooper: Glad to be on.

Warner: If the Inflation Reduction Act becomes law, how would it transform Colorado in terms of climate change?

Hickenlooper: This is the largest single investment by any country ever for climate rescue, and is going to have massive benefits — not just in Colorado, but everywhere. Colorado will have more benefits than many states because of the clean-energy tax credits. We do a lot of rooftop solar in Colorado. For home efficiency, electrification, rooftop solar, heat pumps — all that stuff, but also the incentives for the Affordable Care Act to make sure we have the subsidies that were about to expire. The savings to the Coloradans who use this is something like 50 percent. So, it's a big jump in making sure that more and more people are covered with insurance.

Warner: That’s a reflection of how broad this bill is. You're talking about tax credits for clean energy, rooftop solar, and presumably, money for those buying plans on the health care exchange.

Hickenlooper: Also, don’t forget: even though it's a limited number of drugs now, allowing the government to negotiate on behalf of Medicare to get cost controls on prescription drugs. That's eventually going to help everyone.

Warner: About two weeks ago, the climate and energy measures backed by the White House appeared to be a no-go in large part because of objections by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, your fellow Democrat. That unexpectedly changed last week with multiple outlets crediting you for playing a key role in helping Manchin change his mind. Give us an example of a sticking point and the conversation you had around it.

Hickenlooper: Joe Manchin knows his own mind, and I don't think I changed his mind. I mean, he negotiated this bill; He and Senator [Chuck] Schumer did almost all the negotiation themselves. When people were giving up — especially Democrats, not just in Washington but around the country, were frustrated and giving up on Senator Manchin, I kept saying that we don't have another choice. This is the best bill for addressing climate rescue that we have seen, ever. Even though it's not everything that everyone wanted in the beginning, it still is a major step forward and we need to be positive. I encouraged various corporate executives — people running large non-governmental organizations — I encouraged them to call Senator Schumer and call Joe Manchin, and keep an optimistic sensibility about this. Because, there is a real danger when people begin to get frustrated and begin to give up.

Warner: Interesting. Is there a shortage of optimism in Washington these days?

Hickenlooper: I think there is. A part of the issue is: People have become so partisan that they would rather just throw bombs and try to make the other side look bad politically, rather than worrying about trying to find compromise or the best possible solution.

Warner: This package can be passed with a simple majority vote in the Senate. But as we know, simple isn't always straightforward. Manchin has been known to change his mind about agreed-upon deals. Senator Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, who is also a moderate democratic voice, has yet to weigh in. Are you leveling a similar campaign in her direction?

Hickenlooper: [laughs] I don't know her as well as I know Joe Manchin, but I know her pretty well and have had very brief discussions with her in terms of taxes and things in the last couple of months. One thing that [indicates] she will be receptive to this is: She negotiated a lot of the tax issues that are in the bill. She actually worked on them. So, she has some sense of ownership. There might be a change here or a change there, but I think this is mostly within the parameters she negotiated in earlier versions of the bill.

Warner: Before the deal was made with Manchin, there were reports that he was going to come to Colorado for a pair of events. One of them was supposedly in your home. Your office denied that. Now that there's an agreement, will Manchin be gracing your doorstep at some point soon?

Hickenlooper: I don't think he's coming to my house because I would have heard about it. A lot of Democrats are frustrated by his changes of direction [and] are angry that he wasn't more enthusiastic earlier in the larger bills, but Joe Manchin has always been a very moderate Democrat. He is a Democrat, though. I point out to people all the time in Colorado: we only have a 50-person majority in this Senate of a hundred people. So, we need the Vice President to break deadlocks. 

Joe Manchin was elected Senator in a state that supported Donald Trump with 78 percent of the vote. There's probably not another Democrat in America that could win that election. So if it weren't for Joe Manchin, we wouldn't have a majority in the Senate. We wouldn't actually be appointing judges, cabinet members and ambassadors. We wouldn't be able to get bills, like what we're talking about with this energy bill, passed.

Warner: Let’s turn back to climate: I want to talk specifically about water. You have proposed legislation for the feds to pay farmers and ranchers to lay their fields fallow and not use their water, so more water stays in the basin. This idea of demand management isn't new, but Colorado has paused its effort to do this. If this is such a good idea, why can't the government get it done?

Hickenlooper: There are a lot of good ideas that don't seem to be getting done, so I don't think that is a delineation of whether it's a good idea or a bad idea. We have got to face facts: This probably isn't just a drought, this is perhaps a real function of climate change. This shortage of precipitation, shortage of water, could be the new reality. We have got to look at dealing with a 2 to 4 million acre-feet reduction. This is a huge amount of water that we're going to have to figure out — how do we conserve this? We're getting to the point where the power operations that are run out of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams are not going to have enough water left to make the electricity that large parts of Nevada and Southern California depend on.

The upper states, which are Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico, released a five-point plan a couple of weeks ago. One [point] was the system conservation pilot program, which you're referring to, which helps pay users to conserve water. It was scheduled to expire, so Senator John Barrasso [from Wyoming] and myself introduced a bill to extend the program and got it out of committee.

The one thing I've made clear with my fellow senators here is that Denver water and the state of Colorado were in the headwaters: We're the ones who have been using this water the longest, in many cases. We're happy to go and try to work with other states, but it should be something that benefits everybody and benefits Colorado. I argue [that] it should benefit Colorado first and foremost.

Warner: In that case, wouldn't tribes along the river get some sort of seniority? I mean, I know, that has been part of the conversation.

Hickenlooper: They should have some seniority, although there's a big debate because historically, many of the — This is the argument that is used against them: People say that the tribes didn't actually use the water. They were here first, but they didn't do irrigation. They didn't put in that infrastructure. I think the fact that they were here before everything, though, gives them some water rights that demand our respect and our consideration.

Warner: In June, President Biden signed a bill that addresses gun violence, helping states implement programs that include red flag laws and background checks. Those are already on the books in Colorado. You are also a co-sponsor of the Background Check Expansion Act. Is the ability to make a difference in this realm much tougher now that the Supreme Court ruled the way they did in New York?

Hickenlooper: It certainly didn't make it any easier. Again, this is something that's been going on for a long time. The bill that we just passed finally closes the boyfriend loophole that allows people who have been found guilty of domestic violence to get firearms.

I'm actually spending a lot of time trying to think through how we make more progress around gun safety, and find some solutions where Republicans and Democrats can come together and try to find common ground. So, I'll make sure I give you a call if I figure it out. Because it is an issue where people are so resistant to any kind of compromise or solution that will make this country safer. This is one of those ones where it seems so frustrating to me because I think we have a universal desire to solve this together.

I mean, there's just no questions. It's like immigration: When we are so short of workers in almost every industry, how can we not all come together and find an immigration solution? So, guns are the same thing.

Warner: Yeah. Although if you are befuddled, you're closest to it.

John Hickenlooper: I'm befuddled, but I'm not giving up. I want to make that perfectly clear. Sometime in the weeks ahead or the months ahead, I'm going to figure something out that we can try.

Warner: Last week, you and fellow Colorado senator Michael Bennet, who's up for re-election, joined a group of colleagues asking the Department of Veteran Affairs to offer abortions and abortion-related services to veterans and eligible dependents. You contend that this would impact almost a million women veterans who live in states that ban abortion. 

A larger question, do you want Roe codified into federal law? And given the filibuster that's often used to prevent such measures from being passed, is such a thing even possible?

Hickenlooper: Absolutely, I think it should be codified into law. It is one of the most essential civil rights and something that, depending on how narrowly it is construed, is something that should be able to get through Congress.

That being said, it hasn't, obviously. And now people are digging in politically. But at a time where people feel threatened on so many levels after going through the pandemic to suddenly wake up one morning and hear that the Supreme Court [opinion] wasn't just a draft — That they have now ruled that they're going to throw out Roe v. Wade. Which means that three of our new judges — three justices that Donald Trump appointed — had lied in [their confirmation hearings] saying that this was settled law and they weren't going to try and reverse anything.

I think it makes people feel so uncertain. And not just women's rights leaders; It's all of us. Anyone who cares about civil rights should feel that — what's next? Look at what [Justice Samuel] Alito put in his writings, along with that decree that maybe we should be looking at getting rid of same-sex marriages. I mean, everything's going to be under attack.

Warner: I think that was [Justice Clarence] Thomas.

Hickenlooper: Was it Thomas? I'm sorry.

Warner: That's okay.

Hickenlooper: I think you're right.

Warner: I'll add that that ruling also ushered in a very bright day for Americans who oppose abortion.

Hickenlooper: No, it's true.

Warner: The question is: Should the federal government get involved? You say yes. There should be a law on the books that should not be left to the states.

Hickenlooper: Again, there are so many different ways to discuss this. But to a certain extent, it is a religious issue; At least for many, many people, this is a religious issue. It seems to me that that means that should be left to individuals. I don't think the government wants to be getting in between a woman and the discussion she has with her doctor; That's her personal issue. And in a powerful way, trying to establish at what point life begins is really challenging.

Warner: Let’s pivot to a different topic: Inflation, which is crushing many Americans. It's a global experience, as well, at the moment. Recently, your successor as Colorado Governor, Jared Polis, suggested that President Biden perhaps isn't being empathetic enough towards those who are suffering. Polis said, "The federal government needs to borrow a page from states and rise to the occasion and have a policy agenda that addresses the pain point of the people, which is saving people money.”

Biden's national approval ratings are at a new low: 38 percent. Do you share Polis' frustration? And I'll just say that he also is up for reelection.

Hickenlooper: Certainly I recognize the frustration that people have all across the country with inflation. It is hard, especially for people that have just gotten a raise or they're getting paid a little more money and then they see that disappearing.

I think [President] Joe Biden has made it a top priority. He doesn't have the same freedom to address inflation that a governor does. I mean, the price of gasoline has been coming down for what — I have to get my numbers out in front of me. Releasing crude oil from the strategic reserves was a step in that direction. Obviously raising interest rates, which the [Federal Reserve] has done. But I worry: You've got to balance the inflation with making sure that we're going to also have jobs.

Look at the stock market over the last month: No one's talking about that. The S&P 500 was up almost 10 percent; That's going to have a beneficial effect, hopefully, on reducing inflation.

Warner: Would you support President Biden in 2024 if he decides to run again?

Hickenlooper: Yeah. If he decides to run, I will definitely support him. I think that he has a 50-person majority, right? It's a 50-50 senate. And, assuming we get the Inflation Reduction Act passed, which I think we will. He's done remarkable things. If anyone on January 1st of 2021 had said, "Here's what we think Joe Biden can get done in his first two years," people would say, "You're crazy. There's no way he's going to get that done."

Warner: The U.S., and therefore Colorado, does not have enough of the monkeypox vaccine to meet demand. This virus can cause excruciating pain, although it is highly survivable. While it can affect anyone, the gay community has born the initial brunt. Many in that community feel it's another example of their lives being undervalued: The government won't take it seriously until it hits other populations, as it has begun to. What would you tell those folks who are eager for a monkeypox vaccine?

Hickenlooper: I tell them they have every right to be angry. The bottom line is that we have allowed our public health system to — After COVID, we knew that we had to reinvest in our public health system and we haven't done it.

I pushed very hard for more vaccine preparation, [and] pandemic preparation. I wrote a letter to the CDC pushing for better investments, even around monkeypox. I think people have a legitimate right to be angry about this.

Warner: Angry at whom? In other words, you're one of a hundred people in charge in the Senate right now.

Hickenlooper: I think they should be angry at Congress. As you know, [in] Congress, you don't [always] get to have your way, but this is a specific issue where I lost. I chaired the Space and Science Subcommittee and we brought this up repeatedly and have pushed it. But, at a time where we see so clearly what happens when you're not prepared to fund to full preparedness, I just find it defies common sense: the common sense we're supposed to bring to these jobs.

Warner: Do you want to name one other priority, congressionally, that you have your eyes on?

Hickenlooper: The PACT Act. [Veterans] in Iraq and Afghanistan [and] around the world would burn all kinds of waste: tires, medical waste, automobiles. Those noxious fumes without question created terrible cancers and other sicknesses that affect our military personnel.

[Veterans] haven't been able to get the direct correlation to the burn pits and their sicknesses, and this act finally does that. The Republicans had voted for it almost by 80 percent in previous iterations and suddenly — the same bill — they pulled back on it. I think that's something we should look at.

[Editor’s Note: On Tuesday evening, the Senate passed the PACT Act, with an 86-11 roll call, according to The Washington Post.]

Warner: Thanks so much for being with us.

Hickenlooper: Always a pleasure.

You care.

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