Guv: State prevailed in year of scourges
DENVER — Despite last year’s flood, fires and school shootings, the state of the state is just fine, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday.
But things could be better, the governor said in his fourth State of the State address to a joint session of the Colorado Legislature.
“Every season of 2013 presented another unthinkable test,” Hickenlooper told the 100 members of the Legislature and hundreds of other guests. “This past year, Colorado has been scorched. Colorado has been flooded. Colorado, once again, endured senseless, inexplicable violence.
“Yet, despite it all, we did not let that define us. We know there are folks out there still grieving, still recovering. Despite every unforeseen test, despite everything that was thrown at us, the state of our state is strong.”
Hickenlooper said the state is now ranked among the top five in the nation for business careers and job growth, five of the top 20 communities in the country, including Grand Junction, led the nation in company startups, and the state has added 170,000 jobs since January 2010.
“In 2010, when it came to job growth, this state ranked 40th in the nation,” the governor said. “Now, three years later, in that same ranking, Colorado is the fourth-fastest job growth state in the country.”
While that may be true for Front Range communities, it isn’t for the Western Slope and other rural parts of the state, local lawmakers said.
Although the unemployment rate in Mesa County last month dipped below 7 percent for the first time since January 2009, it’s still not where it was years before that, said Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction.
And while that 6.9 percent rate is better than the 11.4 percent the Grand Valley saw back in January 2011, the governor hasn’t focused enough on job creation outside of the major Front Range cities, he said.
“They’re taking the whole state and painting it with a broad brush and saying, ‘Wow, the numbers look great,’ ” Scott said. “He needs to spend a little more time with us over there, and we’re going to press him to do that.”
The governor did highlight some things that have been done to help the Western Slope, including helping a Delta County mining company, TK Mining, get a $350,000 state grant to help it add jobs.
Rep. Diane Mitch-Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, said several businesses in her area were able to benefit from an expanded program that offers tax credits to businesses that add new workers.
She said the governor had a lot to do with making that happen.
“To me, the message of the governor was that if we have good, common-sense, practical public policies, and we act like public servants to create that policy and not politics, then we can help the private sector, families and communities,” she said.
But while Rep. Jared Wright, R-Fruita, said the governor was very specific about what the state has already faced, he wasn’t on what’s coming, particularly when it comes to helping folks of the Grand Valley.
Wright said Hickenlooper’s ideas left lawmakers on his side of the political aisle with a lot of questions about what the governor expects from the Legislature during the 120-day session, which began on Wednesday.
“In terms of how he would address the dichotomy that exists between my district on the Western Slope and the Front Range in terms of economic development, he was vague,” Wright said.
“I didn’t hear specifics on how he wants to go about helping the Grand Valley and Delta County in catching up with the rest of the state when it comes to economic development.”
As it was, the governor’s speech made brief mentions of the importance of the state’s agricultural areas, finding some middle ground with federal agencies over the sage grouse issue and bringing broadband Internet service to parts of the state that have little or none of it.
Improving the state’s broadband connectivity, particularly in mountainous areas of the state where it’s difficult to string cable, isn’t a new promise.
Rural lawmakers have been talking about the broadband issue for years.
But what makes Hickenlooper’s promise to achieve that goal different this time is in linking it to infrastructure improvements along with such things as roads and bridges, said Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.
“We had to separate it from that conversation about deregulation,” Schwartz said. “It was get getting hooked onto that wagon and that failed. Now, I have a separate bill to dedicate the rural high-cost fund to rural (broadband) infrastructure.”
Last year, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission decided to phase out the high-cost fund, money that telecommunications companies pay to cover the cost of bringing basic telephone service to hard-to-reach areas of the state. The PUC ruled that because of newer satellite technology, such a fund no longer is needed.
Schwartz and a handful of other rural lawmakers have been trying to convert that $50 million fund into a broadband fund to help pay for more connectivity in the same hard-to-reach areas.
Doing so would help boost economic development, she said.
“It is a crime that we’ve done nothing about it, and it’s time we do,” Schwartz said.