By IVAN MORENO
DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper urged lawmakers to move forward on social and financial goals this session, encouraging them to prove “cynics” wrong and show they can cooperate to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples and make Colorado more business-friendly.
The Democratic governor made his highest-profile push Thursday in support of legal protections for gay and lesbian couples during his State of the State address, saying “government should treat all people equally.”
“It’s time to pass civil unions,” Hickenlooper said to applause and a standing ovation from Democrats. Most, if not all, Republicans remained seated.
Lawmakers passed a civil union bill in the Democratic-led Senate last year but the legislation failed in the House, where Republicans have control.
About a dozen states allow civil unions or same-sex marriage. Civil union laws took effect this month in Hawaii and Delaware. And Democratic governors in Washington state and Maryland also are pushing lawmakers to adopt such laws.
Hickenlooper also encouraged lawmakers in the state’s split Legislature to work together to attract businesses and spur free enterprise- a point the governor underscored by referencing Colorado legend John Stetson, saying the iconic hat-maker embodied the entrepreneurial spirit the state so badly needs to re-capture.
“If there were ever a time when Colorado needed to spur greater support for entrepreneurship to create and attract new business, it is now,” Hickenlooper said.
The state faces nearly $700 million in budget cuts this coming year. The general fund budget is at about $7.4 billion.
He said collaboration would prove wrong those who predict gridlock.
“Cynics say it’s an election year and partisan fights will drown out any hope for success,” he said. “We believe the cynics are wrong”
Hickenlooper also highlighted the need to ease regulations on businesses and asked lawmakers to send voters an overhaul of the state personnel system, saying, “The state constitution is riddled with personnel rules and administrative procedures that are obsolete and should be reformed.”
The speech was largely well-received by both parties, immediate divisions emerged only on civil unions and ways to find budget savings.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said he was pleased to hear Hickenlooper discuss entrepreneurship. “When we hear these themes from the governor, they do fit very nicely with what our agenda is as House Republicans,” he said.
Hickenlooper also used his address to cite some successes from his first year in office, including attracting Arrow Electronics to move to Colorado, passing a budget by a majority vote after a contentious debate and creating a health insurance exchange as required by federal law.
Hickenlooper said the state’s economy is still recovering from the recession and that revenues are still $1 billion lower than they were five years ago and cited that lost revenue a reason to do away with a nearly $100 million property tax credit for seniors.
Republicans are adamant the credit remain and the issue is likely to be sore point during the session.
Hickenlooper said although revenues have begun to increase, Colorado’s economy recovering at a slow pace. He said he wants to restore the property tax break for seniors when the economy is healthier and lawmakers should work on economic development if they want the tax credit restored.
Republicans have said the state should seek a “waiver” from some Medicaid spending requirements in order to find savings.
Hickenlooper has said that’s not possible, but acknowledged that the growth of Medicaid is “not sustainable for the state budget.”
Republican Sen. Greg Brophy has sponsored a bill to seek a waiver and he said it sounded like Hickenlooper “all but endorsed that idea.”
Senate President Brandon Shaffer said he hasn’t reviewed Brophy’s bill but said he intends to keep an open mind. “I think that there’s room for a lot of common ground, a lot of compromise this session,” he said.
Medicaid would account for $185.6 million of the $227.1 million spending increase in Hickenlooper’s proposed general fund budget.
“We are absolutely committed to bending the Medicaid cost curve and pursuing strategies that will cut Medicaid costs. We are tackling fraud, over-payments and eligibility,” he said.
McNulty said Hickenlooper should do more than that.
“What we need to have is not talking points about waste, fraud and abuse,” he said, adding that both parties and Hickenlooper should discuss how “we get out from underneath those federal mandates, for crying out loud.”
Regarding civil unions, McNulty said it’s an issue that “distracts us from the issues of job creation and economic recovery.”
Democratic Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said she was glad to see Hickenlooper “receive broad support from both sides of the aisle on just about everything.”
Hullinghorst said she noticed a large division only on civil unions, where she saw “Democrats standing and Republicans not standing.”