Hickenlooper ready to preside over all Democratic legislature

DENVER — For the first two years of his term, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper presided over a state legislature where Democrats controlled the state senate and Republicans presided over the House, both chambers serving to block partisan legislation from the other from ever getting to the governor’s desk.

That changes Wednesday, when the 2013 legislative session opens with Democrats back in control of both chambers just months after House Republicans killed a civil unions bill in stunning fashion and, with that, the group’s chance to retain its one-vote majority.

Hickenlooper, a moderate Democrat, had a hand in the civil unions drama, returning to the Capitol in an effort to resolve the impasse, meeting House Speaker Frank McNulty in the darkness under a tree outside his office, offering a sip of scotch and one final plea for the Speaker to allow the bill a vote on the floor. When McNulty refused and shut down floor proceedings, killing the civil unions measure and 30 other bills, Hickenlooper called a special session, in which Republicans swiftly killed the bill again.

On Election Night, Democrats won every competitive statehouse seat, taking away McNulty’s majority and stretching their own to a 37-28 margin.

“When I talked to Speaker McNulty last spring, one of the arguments I tried to use to persuade him was that there would be a backlash from voters,” Hickenlooper told FOX31 Denver last week.

“And I think that was — in many of these races that were very close, I think that was one of the issues that seemed to rise frequently.”

But Hickenlooper, who put aside his own distaste for partisan politics and campaigned for several Democratic statehouse candidates, is ready to move on — and undaunted by predictions that an all-Democratic legislature will hurt his apolitical brand because more liberal legislation is certain to reach his desk.

“You know, I vetoed some bills last year and the year before; I expect I’ll veto some this year, but I don’t expect to veto any more than I did in the last couple of years,” Hickenlooper said. “A lot of this is our ability to keep the lines of communication open.”

The controversial legislation that’s dominated the headlines in recent years — civil unions and ASSET, a proposal to lower college tuition for qualifying undocumented students — are certain to pass early in this session now that Republicans can’t block them from passage.

But a host of new issues won’t be easily resolved: gun control, fracking regulation and perhaps a death penalty repeal effort.

Hickenlooper, who’s pushing a number of changes to improve the state’s mental health services, is open to gun control legislation as well, including stricter background checks and forcing gun owners to pay for them.

On fracking, Democrats are likely to challenge Hickenlooper, who’s rankled environmentalists for supporting the oil and gas industry and set-back regulations that some anti-fracking groups don’t believe go far enough.

But when tackling these issues, as well as the state budget, education reforms and other pieces of his agenda, Hickenlooper plans to continue to build support across the political divide.

“I’m a pretty moderate person,” he said. “I’ve been a cautious, moderate person when I’ve been owning restaurants, I’ve been a cautious, moderate person as governor. That’s just who I am. I’m not going to change that based on which party takes control of which house.”