Fixing Colorado’s revenue problems will take a grassroots understanding by the public, not top-down initiatives from political leaders, Gov. John Hickenlooper told the Colorado Association of Schools Boards convention Friday.

Gov. John Hickenlooper
Gov. John Hickenlooper

The governor addressed that issue during a question session following a 20-minute talk, his first to the annual CASB meeting at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.

The governor was responding to a question from Scott Mader, superintendent of the South Routt school district, who asked, “How could you use your popularity to change the constitution?” Mader was referring to the tangle of state constitutional provisions that restrict state revenues.

A national poll released this week found Hickenlooper the second-most popular U.S. governor.

The governor, who joked about “my alleged popularity,” said, “The only way I know to change something like the state constitution … is to go out to the people and listen as hard as we can. … Don’t start with a presupposition that we need to raise taxes or that we need to fund this or that.”

He continued, “The discussion has to take place outside the halls of education.”

Turning to Proposition 103, the tax increase for education rejected 2-1 by voters in November, Hickenlooper said, “Most people felt that came from a small group in Denver and that it was a blank check.”

Much was made during the campaign of Hickenlooper’s refusal to endorse or oppose Prop. 103.

“Popularity is all but meaningless,” he said, arguing that if he’d publicly supported the measure “I probably could have picked up four or five percent, maybe six or seven. … It certainly would not have made a difference, and it would have polarized the state.”

The governor also made a bit of news with comments about Pinnacol Assurance, the state-chartered workers’ compensation insurance company. There have been on-and-off discussions about fully privatizing the company in order to generate revenue for the state.

“One of the things we’ve talked about is doing scholarships” with the proceeds of a Pinnacol sell-off, Hickenlooper said.

He added that would be “just the beginning of doing a scholarship program [but] I think it will get us a third of way” toward a statewide program for low-income students.

Speech touches familiar themes

The governor’s prepared remarks touched on such issues as education’s economic importance, the value of high-quality teachers, Colorado’s image as a reform leader and the state’s pending applications for Race to the Top funds and an ESEA waiver, plus the requisite compliments to the audience for their service to kids.

He sprinkled his talk with personal references including dyslexia, being held back in the second grade and working as a teacher’s aide, plus familiar references from his career as a brewpub owner and mayor of Denver.

Hickenlooper gave a brief rundown on his administration’s education initiatives, including implementation of recent reforms such as the educator effectiveness law and a 3rd grade literacy initiative.

“Improving the number of literate and engaged citizens is absolutely essential,” he said, explaining that the administration is working with key legislators on an update of the Colorado Basic Literacy Act, the law governing literacy programs for students in early grades.

An early inception of the bill included requirements for holding back some 3rd-grade students, an idea that drew opposition from many educators and groups. That idea reportedly is being dropped from the bill, partly through the influence of the governor’s office.

Hickenlooper said he’s hoping for a revision of the law that “promotes early and strategically targeted interventions” for students struggling with reading.

On his proposed 2012-13 state budget, Hickenlooper noted that he’s proposing a K-12 funding cut of $89 million, but keeping the cut to that level requires continued suspension of a $100 million property tax exemption for senior citizens.

“Obviously that’s going to be very politically difficult,” he said. “I hope that you will make your legislators at the Capitol hear of your support for avoiding further cuts to schools” beyond the $89 million.

“The next four or five years are going to be a big revolution in education,” the governor predicted. “Thank you for allowing us to be your partners in this.”

Questions spark most interesting comments

Some of the morning’s livelier moments came during the question period. Following the question about taking the lead on constitutional reform, another audience member asked Hickenlooper if he’d declare his support for a Colorado version of Megan’s law. Laws in other states that use that nickname require registration by and public disclosure of information about sex offenders.

The governor seemed a bit taken aback by the question but said his staff is looking into the issue. “Give me a month to put together the details.”

In response to another question, he defended a proposed increase in state economic development funding while schools are being cut, saying, “If we don’t have some modest investments” in economic development, my argument is that we’re condemning ourselves to be stuck in this rut long term.”

Hickenlooper’s Pinnacol comments also came during the question period.