Hickenlooper benefits from split legislature
May 13, 2011
DENVER – Colorado lawmakers proposed a raft of divisive bills from immigration to civil unions during the 2011 session. But a split Legislature prevented any of them from going to the desk of first-year Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
“I guess you would say that’s, you know, my good fortune,” Hickenlooper said Thursday, a day after the Legislature adjourned.
The session was marked by bitter battles over the budget, redistricting, taxes and the emotional issues of immigration and rights for same-sex couples. Lawmakers agreed on the budget – because by law they have to. But on other heated topics, Hickenlooper didn’t have to make the ultimate decision on whether they became law.
“He has benefited from having a split Legislature that didn’t put some of the hot-button issues on his desk, and so it gave him the opportunity to pull his team together, to get his legs underneath him,” said Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty, whose party took control of the chamber this year after six sessions of Democratic control.
Republicans quickly launched an aggressive plan tackling illegal immigration, including two bills mimicking Arizona’s controversial law, and pressed for citizenship checks for voters but none of those attempts ever stood a chance in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Same with GOP proposals to roll back sales taxes on sodas and online retailers, and repealing higher fees for drivers renewing vehicle tags.
And Democrats in the Senate easily succeeded in their chamber in passing a bill allowing same-sex couples to have civil unions, a legal contract granting them rights similar to marriage. They also passed a proposal to give illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado schools in-state tuition, a much lower price than what out-of-state students pay. The Republican-led House never let those measures reach the floor of their chamber.
Except for civil unions, Hickenlooper was largely absent from any public discussions on the most contentious legislation.
“The governor played this well. He let the legislative process work and was able to coach when he needed to coach but rarely did he intercede in one way or another,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer.
Republican Senate Leader Mike Kopp also praised the governor’s leadership style.
“He is a jovial, shrewd man and he did not allow himself to get caught between the two parties too often,” he said.
However, Kopp said he wished Hickenlooper had been more involved in some of the conversations that would’ve helped legislation he agreed with, including GOP bills the party considered pro-business.
“We just didn’t get a dialogue established, and he certainly must recognize that his agenda is going require legislative action at some point,” Kopp said.
The governor wasn’t necessarily silent all term – but he avoided talking publicly about measures before lawmakers. Hickenlooper’s office helped craft next year’s budget and helped defuse a last-minute standoff, threatening to force a special session if lawmakers didn’t agree on a bill governing rules for state agencies. Hickenlooper also tried unsuccessfully to broker a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on new congressional lines, which many lawmakers say is the Legislature’s biggest failure this year.
Many attribute the breakdown in negotiations on the map to a riff between McNulty and Shaffer, the party leaders. Shaffer told The Associated Press that much of the partisan fighting is spurred by McNulty. “At some point he’ll mature down here and realize that we don’t have to butt heads on everything,” Shaffer said.
McNulty has publicly accused Shaffer many times of trying to draw a map that will benefit him if he decides to run for Congress in the 4th Congressional District. “Fundamentally, we don’t have a map because of one man’s political ambitions,” he said.
Shaffer has repeatedly dismissed those allegations and said his party’s goal was to draw competitive districts.
Perhaps Hickenlooper’s jovial nature can fix the McNulty-Shaffer strife?
“I’m not sure they’d agree with this, but I think there’s a friendship there under the surface somewhere,” Hickenlooper said.