Hickenlooper Prepares for Budget Season, Feb 2012

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Budget negotiations are starting to heat up at the state Capital, and Governor John Hickenlooper is right in the mix. In our monthly conversation, Hickenlooper talks with host Ryan Warner about spending priorities, overhauling the child welfare system, and whether rural lawmakers deserve a raise.

[photo credit: MVerlee/CPR]



Governor, thanks for being with us.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER, Governor of Colorado:

Glad to be back.

Warner: And I want to start with child welfare. A Denver Post investigation into 43 deaths showed that state agencies violated their own policies in every case. You've announced changes to the system and I wonder how specifically the reforms might have prevented the deaths we saw?

Hickenlooper: Well, it's always hard to have expectations of perfection in any kind of government or any business, right? But we know for a fact that if we can improve the level of training of staff at every level, state level, county level, municipal level, that we will get better outcomes.

Warner: Can you give me an example of where training fell short, if not to a specific case, if you saw a pattern emerge?

Hickenlooper: Well, we see human error, a call comes in about an issue, the person logs the call down, they put it in the right box, but they don't follow up. They're supposed to follow up and make sure it gets immediate attention; it sits there for four days.

Warner: A case of abuse.

Hickenlooper: It could be an abuse case. It could be neglect, whatever. And if there were stricter policies around not just making sure that people are trained, but that there's a level of accountability, that they understand the urgency -- which they do. It's just in the workaday-- I mean, they're dealing with this stuff day in and day out and sometimes they make mistakes.

Well, if we are successful as we implement this training and improvement in terms of oversight, those mistakes will diminish dramatically and we will have, you know, less failures within the system.

I mean, it's worth pointing out that, despite the failures we've seen, we're not that much worse than other states, right? We're maybe a little bit below average, but roughly-- I think it's fair to say we're roughly average. That's not good enough, obviously. We want to be the best.

Warner: If I work in child welfare for the state right now, am I going to be in classes soon? Is that what this means?

Hickenlooper: Well, I don't know what the timelines and the process are. This is a fairly large effort. I think if you work in child welfare within the state, you should be pretty happy, because I think you're going to get support and more training and a system that is much more focused on making sure that you're successful.

Warner: You're moving into budget season here at the Capitol. Republicans in the legislature want to reinstate a property tax break for seniors. It costs the state about $100 million a year. You'd like to suspend it for another year with help for the poorest seniors, I should mention.

But here's what I'm wondering. You're getting a new revenue forecast, I think, next month, right?

Hickenlooper: Yes.

Warner: If that's rosy, could it be rosy enough to make this whole debate over the senior homestead property tax exemption moot?

Hickenlooper: Well, that's the big discussion with the legislature is, is that what we restore first? Do we restore that or all the cuts to higher education, all the cuts to K-12 education? And that's a difficult challenge. As hard as it is to cut, it's going to be just as hard when resources come back to figure out what our priorities are.

And, you know, what we've done, we've already-- it's about a $92 million, I think, the homestead exemption is, roughly, and we've reinstated roughly $20 million to support those seniors who are most at risks. Now, this exemption covers the first $200,000 of value of everybody, every senior's home.

Well, we have a number of people all over the state that are very well-to-do. They don't need that tax break. Most of them don't want it. They don't think they need it. Should we be returning that before we put more teachers into classrooms and reduce class sizes? I mean, that's-- it's going to be a tough decision for the legislature to make.

Warner: Are you hearing whispers, perhaps, about what this new revenue forecast might look like?

Hickenlooper: What we've heard is that it's-- that things are going well. I don't think it's going to be dramatically better than what we've seen. So, I don't think it's going to resolve any of the budget difficulties.

Warner: But there-- you do expect to have conversations about restoring cuts?

Hickenlooper: No, I didn't say that. I just said if we did, were we to have those conversations, it would-- they would be difficult because you've got a bunch of competing needs.

Warner: You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we're at the Capitol for our regular discussion with Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hickenlooper: You were trying to trick me again, there, weren't you?

Warner: Yes. That's my job, to trick you.

Hickenlooper: Just kidding.

Warner: Salaries for state lawmakers were in the news recently after the Pueblo Chieftain reported rural lawmakers are slated for a 22% pay increase. The bill is already halfway through the process. The increase will only cost the state about $200,000, but is it appropriate right now?

Hickenlooper: Well, it's a difficult time, obviously, with the state just now recovering. But, you know, unemployment is coming down and you look at the rural legislators, they drive a long way. They can't go back and forth every day. They don't get paid very much money and they haven't had their per diem, their cost of living--

Warner: They do get a bit more, we should say, than lawmakers who live close to the Capitol.

Hickenlooper: But just a fraction-- it certainly doesn't-- they haven't gotten a raise since, what, 1993, I think it is, and think about how much rent has gone up, all of the-- I mean, they've got to have an apartment here for four or five months a year. I mean, it's clearly not politically popular to help provide rural legislators, but you want to make them-- they shouldn't lose money by serving the state and it may not be politically popular, but I think it's probably the right thing to do.

Warner: So, the Joint Budget Committee reacted with some consternation when it learned that your administration is seeking another $17 million to fix CBMS, the Colorado Benefits Management System. This is a computer system that helps with food assistance, Medicaid, it's been plagued, I think it's fair to say. Why $17 million more? Is this good money after bad?

Hickenlooper: Well, we've been spending three times that on an annual basis for the last several years just to put our finger in the dike, right? Just to make sure that it functions. And we're in lawsuits with various constituencies and, you know, advocates for different parts of that system that feel their clients are being disadvantaged.

We're talking about $17 million and fixing it so that-- I mean, there are other states out there that are about to spend $200 million, $220 million. We put this $17 million in and I think we will have a better system than many of those states.

That's such a small-- I mean, we had a real problem. There were some terrible mistakes make and I don't think it's worth dragging back, you know, who was at fault or what the issues were--

Warner: But fair to say under previous governors.

Hickenlooper: Previous governors, of course, that's always the hallmark, every elected official. But the bottom line is, we are now within striking distance. Kristin Russell, who came-- she's our chief information officer and secretary of technology for Colorado, and she came to us-- she was senior VP of global IT services for Oracle, and we've sat down and she is seriously optimistic that, again, we've had all the troubles, but we can fix it, we can actually end up with a software system that, while not perfect, it'll be better than what other states are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on today.

Warner: Well, if the $17 million is allocated, I'll be asking you, a short while from now, whether it actually made the fix.

Hickenlooper: Yeah, fine, absolutely.

Warner: We'll check back in, okay?

Hickenlooper: I will be-- I hope I get a chance to answer that.

Warner: The last time we talked, you were on your way to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and you'd hoped to meet with business leaders, maybe convince them to move or expand their operations to Colorado. I really-- I want to hear about one great interaction.

Hickenlooper: Okay. So, at one point we were talking to John Rice, who is the vice chairman of General Electric.

Warner: Okay.

Hickenlooper: He is the heir apparent to Jeff Immelt. And just so we're clear, General Electric-- they're building the solar facility out east of Aurora. They are a $128 billion a year company, right? That is five times larger than any Fortune 500 company we have in Colorado.

When they make an investment, it's not for five years or 10 years when they build a plant. And they just built several plants in Mississippi because they saw Mississippi as pro-business, but also holding them to very high standards, exactly what I was saying, and John Rice sat next to me at a breakfast. I spent an hour with him. As he walked away, he says, you know, we are really looking forward to doing more things in Colorado.

Warner: In what realm, in energy?

Hickenlooper: That's a great thing. He didn't say-- they are never-- they build turbines. They do a lot of advanced manufacturing.

Warner: You're going off to a meeting of the National Governors Association and the theme, I've read, is “Growing State Economies.”

I want to ask about what I perceive to be competition among the states, right? You're going to go to this meeting of governors and isn't really that you would love to poach the companies they've got and bring them to Colorado?

Hickenlooper: Well--

Warner: Right?

Hickenlooper: You've got a bit of a competitive streak in you I didn't know was there.

There is a healthy competition between governors and what we're-- we're not trying to poach companies. Obviously, if a company wants to leave New York or California--

Warner: Oh, you'd dance on their graves.

Hickenlooper: All right, I'm a very poor dancer. If a company wants to move their headquarters to Colorado, we welcome them with open arms, but that's not helping the country, right?

But I do think that what we're working at to be more pro-business, but with high standards, right? The highest ethical standards, highest environmental standards, that that is a model that other states should emulate. And that's a good thing for the country. It makes the country stronger and more resilient.

Warner: Well, you are -- I think right after we're done talking -- going to meet with some students who have a campaign to name the state amphibian.

Hickenlooper: Yes.

Warner: Yeah. So, give us three facts about the western tiger salamander. Go!

Hickenlooper: One is they are quite large, two that they are found in almost all parts of the state, and three, they are incredibly mobile and a little bit slimy to touch, to be honest. I did take one up to my cheek.

Warner: I'm surprised you were able to do that, the three things.

Hickenlooper: The-- oh, you're surprised? Come on.

Warner: Well, that's--

Hickenlooper: I pay attention. This is a learning job. This is not a job where I just go through motions. I'm learning.

Warner: What will you tell these youngsters who want to name the state amphibian?

Hickenlooper: Well, I'm going to say that this is such a wonderful example, not just for them, but for the-- for every classroom in the State of Colorado, that if you have an idea and you're willing to push yourselves and be persistent, because this didn't just fall in their laps. They had to call and call and this person, that person, but it looks like they might be successful.

If they pull this off, isn't that a great model for all the kids around the state?

Warner: Governor, thank you.

Hickenlooper: Always a pleasure.

Warner: Democrat John Hickenlooper. He's Governor of Colorado. He speaks with us regularly at the Capitol.

When we come back, we'll review the week in the State House and Senate with CPR's Megan Verlee. As usual, she's been following a wide range of bills, from tax breaks to tanning beds.