Gov. Hickenlooper ‘Agonizing’ Over Liquor Store Bill

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<p>(AP Photo/Brennan&nbsp;<span data-scayt-word="Linsley" data-scayt-lang="en_US">Linsley</span>)</p>
<p>Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers his annual State of the State address to lawmakers and guests, inside the state legislature, in Denver, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.</p>
Photo: Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper March 2016
Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks at the Colorado Capitol on Thursday, March 24, 2016.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said Tuesday there is a 50-50 chance he will call a special session for lawmakers to deal with two specific issues.

One is whether to allows grocery stores to sell full-strength beer and wine. The governor said he is “agonizing” over whether to sign or veto a bill that would phase in sales over the next 20 years -- a bipartisan compromise reached by lawmakers after they debated the issue this spring.

If he decides on a veto, Hickenlooper said he will call lawmakers back to try to deal with the issue, he hopes for once and for all. The deadline for the governor to act on the bill is Friday.

"If I veto it, it means I have to be very confident that we can have a special session and get a better compromise that is more balanced or more fair," Hickenlooper said.

The debate over beer and wine sales in groceries is longstanding. The grocery stores say it’s a convenience customers want. Small liquor stores say it could doom their businesses.

Even though the bill passed and may become law, the state’s two largest grocery chains continue to collect signatures for a ballot measure to allow immediate and unlimited sales. And Hickenlooper said some liquor store owners have told him they don’t like the compromise either.

If he does veto the bill, Hickenlooper said, he’ll call a special session in hopes of staving off the grocery store ballot measure.

Another issue that might prompt a special session, he said, is the fate of the state’s hospital provider fee.

The fee raises about $700 million a year, which is used to expand Medicaid and reimburse hospitals for uncompensated care. The fee is currently subject to the tax and spending limits imposed by the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR.

Hickenlooper wants to change the way that money is accounted for so that it can be used for education and transportation. The legislature rejected that proposal earlier this year.

In his regular conversation with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner, Hickenlooper also spoke about a proposed ballot initiative to take a 10-year “timeout” from tax refunds required by TABOR, and about a proposal to require 55 percent of voters to approve state constitutional amendments.

Click on the audio link above to hear the conversation. An edited transcript is below.

Ryan Warner: Governor, welcome back to the program.

Gov. John Hickenlooper: Glad to be back.

Liquor store sales

Warner: I want to get first to the question of wine and beer sales in grocery stores. You are facing a deadline Friday to make a decision about a veto or whether to sign this bill. Grocery store chains say consumers want to buy alcohol from them. Independent liquor stores say it could put them out of business. The legislature passed this bill that would phase grocery sales in over 20 years. You have expressed skepticism. What is it going to be?

Hickenlooper: Well, I'm still agonizing on it. It's, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't, as my mother used to say to us sometimes as kids.

Warner: Run through that with me. How are you damned if you sign and damned if you veto?

Hickenlooper: Well, here's a government action that's actually going to allow a dramatic change in our system that is going to have a negative impact on many hundreds of small liquor store owners.

Warner: So they claim.

Hickenlooper: So they claim, and I don't think anyone argues it. It would take a significant amount of their business for the convenience. You know, they wouldn't get it back. So action of government taking some value of someone's business and transferring it to other larger businesses for the sake of customer convenience is a difficult balance, right? We've always moved towards open markets. This is a remnant from prohibition that only liquor stores and certain drugstores can sell liquor.

Warner: And if you veto, what's, what's damned if you don't, I guess?

Hickenlooper: If I veto it, it means I have to be very confident that we can have a special session and get a better compromise that is more balanced or more fair.

Warner: Is it automatic that a veto of that bill would come with a special session and is that part of the discussion?

Hickenlooper: Yes, exactly. And when I talk to people around the state, that's exactly how I frame it. If I were to veto this, here's the kinds of things I think that might result if I called a special session that we might get to.

Warner: Because there's a ballot issue looming on the question of grocery store sales, as well?

Hickenlooper: Exactly.

Warner: A special session this year?

Hickenlooper: Oh, yeah. It would have to happen this year, because I think the supermarkets are quite serious. They have been out gathering petition signatures, so they would have a ballot initiative that would, starting immediately, give them full access to beer and wine sales. That would have a dramatic negative effect on the value of small liquor stores, how much their property is worth.

Warner: The idea there of no phase-in period. Special sessions have to be one topic, don't they? In other words, if you declare that the topic, that's what you're asking lawmakers to discuss.

Hickenlooper: No, actually you can have multiple topics. The governor has to specify exactly what the topics are going to be. You can't bring up added issues. But, yes, I can have, and have in the past, had multiple topics.

Special session

Warner: Alright. Well that leads nicely to another question related to a special session.

Hickenlooper: You're so good on these segues.

Warner: You could also address a budgetary maneuver that Democrats couldn't get done in the regular session. This has to do with something called the 'hospital provider fee' and you say that this move would free up money for roads and education. You told us last month that to call a special session, you'd have to see some glimmer of hope that a compromise could be reached. Where does that stand?

Hickenlooper: Well, I think that there are, the forces of various special interests are already at work and there's a lot of pressure on the Republicans not to give in to a special session. 

Warner: That's about where it stood when we talked to you last.

Hickenlooper: Exactly right. And there's been a great deal of pressure from all kind, I mean, almost every chamber of commerce, every business group, the road building associations. All of the people that are trying to move the state forward, I would argue, really want to have a special session because they're hopeful that we can, you know, figure out some sort of compromise that makes it a win-win on both sides. And, you know, I'm sending either text messages or talking to somebody pretty much every day and have been for the last two weeks. 

Warner: What would you put the odds on a special session at today?

Hickenlooper: Fifty-fifty, I think. It's a pretty steep hill to climb.

Warner: You have pressure from conservatives not to call a special session. Some saying, for instance, at Americans for Prosperity that it would be an unwise use of state dollars to bring lawmakers back. Is that floating around in your mind, as well, as you make a decision?

Hickenlooper: Well, I certainly don't want to waste a penny of taxpayer money unless I feel that we have a very good chance of getting to a constructive outcome. But, you know, if it costs, let's say, $60,000 to do a special session to, you know, pay for all the overhead and getting the legislature back into session, that's a lot of money. But it's a small amount if it frees up $4 billion or $5 billion in revenue and we can actually begin to solve some of this traffic congestion that we're seeing, you know, especially around places like Fort Collins and between Colorado Springs and Denver, up around Monument. We really are having a toxic, you know, congestion issue around our traffic.


Warner: If you count superdelegates, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton now has enough delegates to be the party's nominee. You are a Democratic superdelegate supporting Clinton. The Bernie Sanders campaign wants to see this through to the convention in Philadelphia, with the idea that superdelegates can be swayed. How do you see next month's convention shaping up?

Hickenlooper: I can't speak for all the superdelegates, but I've talked to a few, and certainly the way I look at it, they created superdelegates to bring a certain amount of stability and judgment in terms of who is the best candidate over the whole campaign, not just what a opinion poll shows at a moment in time.

Warner: Because Sanders supporters would say there are polls showing that he beats Donald Trump.

Hickenlooper: Right. Right now, at this moment, but, again, Sen. Sanders, and I am a huge admirer, right, and I respect the way he has helped crystallize some of these issues, the issues around things like college debt that these kids are saddled with when they graduate. He's really brought some of these issues to the forefront, and I think that Hillary is, she cares about almost the same, many of the same goals as he does, but she's a little more pragmatic and has certainly a different type of experience. So as a superdelegate, I look at that difference in experience and I say, well, I think she's better, and I think as that comes out during a campaign, it will make her a more successful candidate. And that's why I think, partly, I'm not aware of a single superdelegate who signed onto Secretary Clinton who's changed, who's said, no, I think I've changed my mind or I've seen something I didn't understand before. So far, I don't think a single superdelegate has been swayed. 

Health insurance affordability

Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we're back at the state Capitol for our regular conversation with Colorado's Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Earlier this week, your state Division of Insurance announced healthcare costs are likely to rise and coverage options may be cut in 2017. This report says four companies are dropping out of the Colorado market or cutting back on individual plans. This is coverage for folks who aren't insured through their employers, let's be clear. That market has been a bit more steady. What do you make of this? Rate hikes that range from 10 to 35 percent, that presumably the Affordable Care Act was supposed to, you know, make more affordable?

Hickenlooper: Last year, the rate hikes weren't anything like this. They were much smaller. And these are insurance companies that lost money this last year and you're seeing this in pretty much every state across the country. And it is a, I think a valid issue that we have to address as a country. How do we stop this runaway growth of healthcare and…

Warner: Wasn't Obamacare supposed to be the solution?

Hickenlooper: Well…

Warner: Why does the question still need to be asked?

Hickenlooper: Because obviously there is work still to be done. I think expanding coverage we've made great progress. Now we have doctors and hospitals using digital platforms and able to keep data, but the usage of that information and really implementing systems to restrain the growth of healthcare costs, I mean, these are big bureaucracies. I think everyone I know agrees we've got to get our arms around this. It's been going on for 30 years, where individuals are getting plans. They were getting the short end of the stick before Obamacare. I mean, they were having, in many cases, they couldn't get healthcare. In a number of cases, these are people that had pre-existing conditions.

Warner: So is the message to people, just wait a little longer and Obamacare will sort of continue rolling out and the market will stabilize? I mean, these are some big, sophisticated companies, these insurance companies. I mean, is it that they can't figure it out? That there's something fundamentally wrong with this system?

Hickenlooper: Well, they clearly made a mistake, right? In other words, what you're seeing when these, when they are raising their prices so dramatically is that they had gauged their prices a year ago far too low. Instead of having whatever it was, 6 percent increases they probably should have had 15 percent or 14 percent increases. Part of the real goal is to look at the whole spin in healthcare and say, small businesses, how are they doing? And large businesses and their healthcare plans, are their increases as much as they were in the past?

Warner: I want you to talk to a voter who might make a decision in November on a senate race or the presidential race with healthcare in mind. They see these increases and they think, I'm not so sure about this Obamacare. It might be good to try something new. What would you tell them?

Hickenlooper: Well, I think if you want to try something new, which is to say, throw out the old, start from ground zero with something completely new, I think that's a highly risky endeavor. But we are looking at constantly, and I think all of us have to look at, how do we find a way to control the inflation in healthcare costs?

Ballot measures

Warner: You have announced your support for a proposed ballot measure requiring that amendments to the state constitution be approved by 55 percent of the popular vote up from the current 50 percent. You know, a 50 percent majority has been pretty much the standard in this country for 200 plus years. We did a little research...

Hickenlooper: Wait, wait, wait, wait. But, just for the record, the U.S. Constitution is not a 50 percent, I mean, you've got to…

Warner: Super majority.

Hickenlooper: Super majority.

Warner: We did a little research, and here are some of the initiatives from the last several years that would not have passed if the 55 percent threshold had been in place. Two of them are big drivers of the budget: TABOR, which sets limits on state taxes and spending, and Amendment 23, requiring annual increases for K-12 education. This is interesting, medical marijuana would have failed. Recreational would have passed. And a property tax exemption for senior citizens would have been defeated, because of that 55 percent threshold, were it in place. What do you think of that?

Hickenlooper: Well, I think that TABOR still would've passed. It might not have passed on that specific ballot, but if you look at the ballot before, it got 46 percent and before that it got 39 percent. So it was going in a positive direction. They would've had to wait longer. I think it takes these constitutional changes out from the flavor of the moment. If they're truly something that belongs in the constitution, they will eventually get there.

Warner: And you don't think the 55 percent is such a hike as to make it, oh, I don't know, impossible for the little guy to get a measure into the state constitution?

Hickenlooper: No, of course not. No, if the little guy's got the right idea, again, TABOR's the perfect example. That was an idea by a small group of people that really felt this would be a constructive thing to the state. I'm not saying any bill is right or wrong. There are a number of people who think the threshold should be 60 percent.

Warner: You're not with them.

Hickenlooper: No, I think 55 is a, I think that's a threshold that's, it's difficult to get to, but it's not impossible.

Warner: To TABOR, and another idea that is floating around, which is a TABOR time-out, essentially allowing the state to keep future refunds to taxpayers and use that money for any number of things, education, transportation, maybe mental health programs. There's a measure potentially headed for the ballot that would do this. Yes or no, do you support that idea?

Hickenlooper: I haven't seen the final language of it, but I think, if, certainly if we're unable to get the hospital provider fee done…

Warner: In a special session.

Hickenlooper: In a special session, then we would have to look for, I mean, we've got to address our roads, right? The traffic, everyone wants to address it. They're just not sure how.


Warner: We asked our listeners to suggest questions for you, and we got one from Bill Menezes. He's a local progressive activist and here's what he asked. "Governor, in your book you wrote the following: 'Based on experience and science, I recognized fracking was one of our very best and safest extraction techniques. Fracking is good for the country’s energy supply, our national security, our economy, and our environment.' Please explain how fracking is good for our environment."
Hickenlooper: Fracking allows you to harvest natural gas at a low enough cost, so that you can replace coal in the generation of electricity, all over the country. And that, in real-time, is dramatically cleaning up our air and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, in a way that we could not possibly do using solar or wind, without some more time for those technologies to lower their costs.

Warner: Because some would argue that fracking allows you to access gas and oil that was not accessible before fracking technology developed further, and that, in a way, it's prolonging, I think critics would say, an addiction to fossil fuels.

Hickenlooper: Well, I don't think we have an addiction. I think most of us have recognized that climate change is real and it's happening, and we have to dramatically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we're making. But, natural gas, at an affordable cost, allows us to do that without disrupting, you know, whole sectors of our economy. I mean, if you're really talking about trying to, in real-time, immediately, clean up the air and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I'm not sure how else you'd do it without natural gas. 

Warner: And, yet, that's on a global scale and there are people on a very local scale who look at fracking and say, this is doing anything but cleaning up my environment.

Hickenlooper: Well, I disagree. I mean, we're closing coal plants in Colorado, closing coal plants in all, all sorts of western states. 

Warner: Meanwhile, drilling operations are popping up.

Hickenlooper: Drilling operations to provide the natural gas that allows us to close those coal operations.

Warner: In someone's backyard, though. I'm saying, their very local environment.

Hickenlooper: Well, no, of course. But I think that's our challenge. What we've done in Colorado is we've raised the fine. So if someone spills water or crude oil or frack fluids onto the ground or into the stream, the maximum fine in the old days was $500 a day. Now, it's $15,000 a day. We're the first state to go out and actually force the oil and gas industry to go out and measure fugitive emissions, right, methane that's escaping, and make sure that doesn't happen. They've got to capture and either use it or sell it, find some productive use for it. I mean, that's the way to make sure it's safe. 

Warner: Governor, thanks for being with us.

Hickenlooper: Sure. Always a pleasure.