Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper delivers the State of the State address from the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Jan. 12, 2017. (Andy Cross, The Denver Post)

Colorado budget: Gov wants $6M to enforce marijuana laws, fight homelessness with pot taxes

Gov. John Hickenlooper asked lawmakers to send a tax hike measure to the November ballot to build and repair the state’s roads, calling on Colorado to “invest in our future.”

“We’ve had this debate for too long,” he said Thursday morning in his annual State of State address. “If talk could fill potholes, we’d have the best roads in the country.”

The Democrat did not offer specifics about what he wants to see in the ballot measure but made clear a new revenue source is necessary to meet the state’s needs, which transportation officials estimate is $9 billion in the next decade. He expressed a willingness to look at tax cuts in other areas to offset the necessary tax hikes.

Hickenlooper pushed back against Republican lawmakers who argue the state spends enough and needs to shift its priorities to find money for roads.

“But that can only happen if we demand major sacrifices from Coloradans,” he said. “Tell us who loses healthcare or what schools have to close to add a mile of highway.”

He also spoke at length about the need for more affordable housing, touting both his own plans to fight homelessness using marijuana tax revenue and the ongoing discussions to reform construction defects litigation law.

“Too many people and not enough units add up to unaffordable rents and skyrocketing home prices,” Hickenlooper said. “I’ve said it before: we need more affordable housing.”

Hickenlooper requested $6 million to beef up local enforcement of state marijuana laws, likening today’s fight against the so-called “gray market” to what happened with alcohol during the era of prohibition.

“When we ended alcohol prohibition 84 years ago, we worked hard to wipe out organized crime,” he said.

To start his speech, the governor recalled the economic distress and unemployment when he took office and touted the 400,000 new jobs created during his tenure.

“We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in Colorado’s history, and the state of our state is strong,” he said.

The governor also proposed the creation of an office to focus on increasing broadband internet access in Colorado from 70 percent to 85 percent in the next two years — and 100 percent coverage by 2020.

One possible maneuver to open room for transportation spending is the reclassification of the hospital provider fee. The measure failed a year ago but Hickenlooper pledged to keep it a priority.

“Talking about the hospital provider fee on the second floor of the Capitol is about as popular as the Oakland Raiders. But it’s a sensible way to solve some of our problems, though it won’t solve all of them.”

While Republicans have called the hospital provider fee a non-starter, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said he was open to a ballot measure for road funding. But he said there would have to be cuts either to the business personal property tax or the state’s 23-cent gas tax in exchange.

“A standalone tax increase is not something that I would support,” Holbert said. “Anything that I would support would probably need to be at least revenue neutral in the first year.”

Others ripped the ballot measure, blaming the state’s funding woes on spending.

“He signed into law the expansion of Medicaid, for example, which is a huge budget buster,” said Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton. “If he’d show some leadership instead of just feed us a bunch of rhetoric, then I’d be happy to get on board.”

Elsewhere in his speech, Hickenlooper pushed back against Republican efforts to repeal President Obama’s signature health care law, and pledged to fight for a replacement if repeal is inevitable.

“I think most of us would agree that the last thing we want is Congress making all of our decisions around health care,” he said.

This story will be updated.

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