[Ed note: The Citizen is hosting its inaugural Ideas We Should Steal Festival on November 30th, at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater. Join us and hear Gov. John Hickenlooper share more about his approach to bipartisanship. See here for tickets and info.]
Not once in my 2011 Inaugural Address did I utter the words “Democrat” or “Republican,” or even “party.” I spoke about “partners.” Specifically mentioning Senate President Brandon Shaffer and House Speaker Frank McNulty, I said I looked forward to “working together in the best tradition of the West.” In my State of the State, I asked the General Assembly for bipartisan cooperation in all of the issues we would take on, especially the budget.
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If you’re getting the impression that I was obsessed with the budget, I was. I believed getting the budget done with true bipartisan support was critical. By true bipartisan support, I mean a majority of both Republicans and Democrats in both chambers. I believed such a collaborative success would be significant for three reasons.
No CEO or business owner wants to move to a state or gamble on starting or expanding a business in a state where the government is feuding with itself and dysfunctional, and where who knows what regulations and taxes may pop up.
One: If we created a collegial spirit now inside the capitol, it would lay the foundation for our administration’s next three years, and possibly next seven years. If, on the other hand, this process imploded in tension and animosity, well, that would inhibit getting things done.
Two: Poll after poll showed that Americans had little faith in government. A truly bipartisan budget would give Coloradans reason to believe, in our state’s democracy, at least, and to see that not all elected officials are petty bums.
Three: It was an essential step toward fostering a pro-business environment that would preserve and create jobs in our state. I had learned firsthand as an entrepreneur and a small businessman that the private sector is volatile enough. The business community feels less anxious and is more likely to grow when their government is stable. We all have seen the stock market get conservative during a presidential election, or when the nation flirts with war. No CEO or business owner wants to move to a state or gamble on starting or expanding a business in a state where the government is feuding with itself and dysfunctional, and where who knows what regulations and taxes may pop up. On my very first day in office, I signed an executive order compelling every state agency to scour its rules and look for redundant or flat-out nonsensical rules to trim or cut entirely.
During the four months of that first session, from January into May, our administration and the legislative leadership worked hard to finally get to a budget that no one completely loved or entirely hated. Along the way, everyone had to holster their egos, hold their noses, and make compromises, but we got to a budget that was useful. According to our informal vote count we had true bipartisan support. But the process certainly reminded me of hacking away at that crap in those vintage toilets all those years ago.
Poll after poll showed that Americans had little faith in government. A truly bipartisan budget would give Coloradans reason to believe, in our state’s democracy, at least, and to see that not all elected officials are petty bums.
Virtually every department took a hit in the budget. The toughest bit of negotiating was cutting $229 million from the state K-12 budget. I didn’t like making such a harsh cut to education. Public education was important to me. It’s why at the city, one of the very first things I did was push for the Denver Scholarship Foundation. My own son was in a Denver public school. The public education system is important to business leaders who are considering either to stay in a state or move to a new one. I’ve never met a CEO who didn’t tell me that good public schools were a factor in his or her relocation algebra. But the cut had to be done.
But in the final days of the session, in early May 2011, our collaborative vibe began to unravel. Too often, good politics gets undone because someone somewhere in the process wants something and won’t let it go; the quest for a quick political score for a few undermines the long-term win for the many. That’s what was happening here. All that was left to get the budget deal done was to get the Rules Bill done. The Rules Bill establishes the administrative guidelines for the operation of all state agencies.
House Speaker Frank McNulty wanted a law passed that would allow check-cashing businesses to charge more for their services. Senate President Brandon Shaffer was against it, and had refused to let the bill come to a vote in his chamber. So what does McNulty do? When the House gets the Rules Bill already passed by the Senate, he slips in an amendment for the check-cashing industry and sends it back to the Senate for final approval. I liked McNulty and Shaffer.
I’ve often been faulted for being overly optimistic and trusting; so be it. But more often than not, my faith in people proves correct.
The Senate rejected the amendment and sent the Rules Bill back to the House for approval. McNulty and Shaffer were playing a game of chicken, not only with each other, but also with fundamental state operations. If the Rules Bill didn’t pass, it would undermine the hard-earned spirit of collaboration that had gone into the budget. Late one afternoon, I went up to the third floor of the capitol to visit Speaker McNulty. He poured two glasses of whiskey and I said, “So how do we fix this?” I’ve often been faulted for being overly optimistic and trusting; so be it. But more often than not, my faith in people proves correct. I believed Frank cared about doing the right thing for good government. I appealed to his better angels by saying as much. When I left Frank, he seemed inclined to relent, remove the amendment, and approve the Rules Bill. The Rules Bill passed; and our first budget passed with 80 out of 100 votes—truly bipartisan.
Gov. John Hickenlooper is a Narberth native, brewer and former Mayor of Denver. This is excerpted from The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics written with former Philadelphia magazine writer Maximillian Potter.