Donna Lynne, a Democrat who's both Colorado's lieutenant governor and the state's chief operating officer, is running for governor in 2018. In the following in-depth interview, she touts her experience in both the public and private sectors and her intimate understanding of policy under her current boss, Governor John Hickenlooper, as reasons voters should choose her from among a very crowded field bidding for Colorado's top elective office.
There is no shortage of prominent challengers for the gig. Among the declared Democrats who've participated in our gubernatorial-candidate interview series to date are former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy and Congressman Jared Polis, plus entrepreneurs Noel Ginsburg and Erik Underwood. (Representative Ed Perlmutter briefly threw his hat into the ring before dropping out of the governor's race — and after a change of mind, he's now running for reelection in the 7th Congressional District.)
On the Republican side, candidates/interview subjects include 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson, 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock and entrepreneur and onetime state legislator Victor Mitchell.
We've also submitted a slew of interview requests to state treasurer Walker Stapleton and his various representatives, but thus far, his campaign has not responded. More recently, former Congressman Tom Tancredo entered the fray as well.
During our discussion with Lynne, she supplemented biographical background with discussions of her role in the Hickenlooper administration and accomplishments of which she's most proud. Additionally, she touches on the issues that she sees as priorities moving forward and talks frankly about why limitations imposed by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) may necessitate a tax increase to more fully fund education. In addition, Lynne stresses that she isn't intimidated by the presence in the race of big-name rivals able to self-fund their own campaigns (Polis, most prominently) and insists that she's running as something more than a continuation of Hickenlooper's tenure.
Get to know Lynne better below.
Westword: How do you introduce yourself and your story to Colorado voters?
Donna Lynne: I like to tell them a chronological story, but also one that's a little bit more about my experiences in Colorado. So chronologically, I grew up on the East Coast and had an average beginning with a father and a mother, both of whom are military veterans. I learned a lot from them about service. From an early age, I was very interested in government service. Really early. I had a mental path and studied economics and political science and went to graduate school in Washington, D.C., because I thought that's where you started with your government service. And I actually did that for a brief period of time.
Then I moved to New York during the city's fiscal crisis and learned, really, I think, probably the most valuable career lesson during that time, at about the age of 23 — and that lesson was the importance of bringing different parties together to solve complicated problems. When a government is about to go bankrupt, it impacts everybody. It impacts businesses, including banks. It impacts workers who work for the public sector, and it impacts, obviously, the leadership of the state and the city. I watched and participated in a fairly complicated and tough conversation to figure out how to bring all these disparate parties together, and that's a lesson that has stuck with me. Certainly, as I've come to Colorado and tackled issues here, I think that was a very meaningful part of my life.
I spent twenty years in the public sector and twenty years in the private sector. When John Hickenlooper called me a little less than two years ago and said, "Would you step down from your private-sector position to help with the state?," I didn't hesitate. Again, it's that strong feeling about service.
Why did you originally choose to move from the public sector to the private sector? Was there frustration about how things were being done in New York during that period of time? Or were there other motivations?
I had worked for the City of New York at that point in time for twenty years. I had done labor negotiations, I had done health care, I had done operations for four years. That was really complicated and incredibly challenging work. But I had an opportunity to continue to work in health care for a nonprofit health-care organization. Part of its mission was to provide health care to middle-class New Yorkers. It was another dimension of what I could do from a health-care perspective. I had been a purchaser of health care, meaning a large employer that bought health-care benefits and provided health-care benefits for its employees. I'd worked in a public health-care system, and this was a whole other dimension, because I was working for a payer of health care. That was the launching pad back in 1998 to twenty years of private sector work and actually brought me to Colorado, because after about seven years of doing that work, I got a call from Kaiser Permanente and they offered me the opportunity to be the president of the Colorado region and to provide health care to what I grew during my tenure to about 650,000 Coloradans, plus another million or so in four other states.
During the period of time you were at Kaiser Permanente, you served on a number of nonprofit boards and commissions, correct?
Yes, I did. It wasn't long before I was on the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce working on education in particular, and many other nonprofits, like Colorado Succeeds, Teach for America and the Denver Public Schools Foundation board, as well as the Colorado Education Initiative — all organizations that were focused on improving education in Colorado. But I also was appointed to three different legislative commissions. One looked at the long-term fiscal security of Colorado; that was back in 2009. And in 2013, I was on two education commissions — again, legislative commissions. One was on testing — standards and assessments — and the other one was on outcome funding for higher education. So in my spare time, I had some opportunities to not only support the government community, but also the business community and the nonprofit community.
Was it difficult to jump back into the public arena after Governor Hickenlooper asked you to become his lieutenant governor?
No. I had worked with the governor on his 2010 and 2014 transition teams with a lot of other people who were trying to make sure there was a smooth hand-off from Governor [Bill] Ritter to Governor Hickenlooper — and even in the second term, because the governor had lost some key personnel. I was involved in helping him think through what his second term would look like, and ironically, during that time, we had some conversations about the state having a chief operating officer. Currently the state is a $29 billion organization, and having somebody who made sure that we were spending our money efficiently and effectively was something he was focused on. We ended up not hiring somebody, but when he presented the opportunity to me in 2015, when [former Lieutenant Governor] Joe Garcia resigned, he said, "Remember that concept of having a chief operating officer for the state? That's what I really want you to do as lieutenant governor." And hence I was very interested, because much of my work in the private sector and the public sector has been around delivering results based on what you make a commitment to do. Whether it's growth in a health plan or improving the lives of people in the state, that's something I believe very strongly in.
In the past, some lieutenant governors haven't had a large agenda before them — but clearly as both lieutenant governor and COO, you do. Was that one of the appeals for you? That you knew from the beginning it would be a very substantial job?
Absolutely. And I think the governor also recognized the importance of having a chief operating officer — and the complexity of what we deal with in the state cuts across multiple departments. We have wonderful executive directors running our nineteen departments, from regulatory affairs to agriculture to natural resources. But many issues aren't in a silo. Think about marijuana regulation. It's a revenue issue, it's a public safety issue, it's a public health issue, it's an agriculture issue. So a lot of the pressing issues that we deal with aren't just dealt with in one department. So my role in many ways is to be the person who helps weave together some of those complex issues, as well as to make make sure individual departments — let's say the Department of Revenue and the Department of Motor Vehicles underneath it — are implementing great customer service and developing new technology to make the experience better. For example, anybody who lives in Colorado and needs a driver's license can do it online, or if they choose to come into one of our offices, we want to make sure they don't have waiting times that are inordinate.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your time as lieutenant governor and chief operating officer?
One was back in November of 2016 — and we're about to do it again this November. We released a public dashboard through the governor's website. We disclosed to the public, because I think it's important to be transparent and be accountable. We set some targets and we looked at where we were in 2016, where do we want to be in 2017 and where do we want to be in 2018. Let's take rural broadband as an example. We want to be at 85 percent of all of our rural areas having access to broadband by the end of 2018, and we're right now at 72 percent. We've disclosed that, and we've also described how we're going to work on that issue. And that cuts across every department. How many people are graduating from high school in four years, how are we dealing with equity in our schools, how are we dealing with health care? All of those things are disclosed. So I would say that's number one, and behind that is a lot of work with individual departments in terms of motivating them in addition to hitting those targets.
The second one I didn't anticipate would be an accomplishment, as you might describe it. But in order to do the work that I do, I thought it was really important to visit all 64 counties and meet with state employees and inspect the facilities where we provide services. That could be our prisons, that could be our county social service offices. So I did that fairly early on — met with state employees, got a sense of the temperature of our workforce. But I also met with our business community, met with government officials in those communities, and I heard firsthand what their issues were. And that really facilitated me coming back to the governor and talking to him about what I was hearing outside of the Front Range.
The third accomplishment I would focus on is something we recently did. We established through executive order something called the Education Leadership Council. Through that council — and I worked extensively with the governor on this — we established a bipartisan, geographically diverse, expertise-diverse body that included some of our legislators, both Republicans and Democrats. It included superintendents, teachers, parents, other experts in the field of education. We're working on a multi-year plan that will establish a vision for education going back to early childhood and all the way through our university system.
The fourth thing I would say I think is a huge accomplishment is the work we've done in health care. The state, as you know, spends $9 billion on health care. That's through our Medicaid program. But we've also had a tremendous influence of growing the number of insured people in Colorado. We're now only at 6.5 percent uninsured. Four years ago, we were at 16 percent. So we've done our own organic work in Colorado, but we've also worked hard to fight against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I worked very closely with the governor on how we do that in a bipartisan way, and how we make sure that our end goal, which is having universal coverage for every Coloradan, can be met.
Regarding your decision to enter the governor's race, at the time you made your announcement, there were quite a few very prominent Democrats and Republicans who had already declared — and many of them have a lot of resources. Why did you decide to get into the race? And did these opponents give you pause in any way?
Not at all. I feel really strongly that the richness of the experience I've had both in the public sector and the private sector over forty years, not to mention my experience as the chief operating officer for the state, is incredibly important. I wanted voters to weigh in and say, "Does that matter for our state?" Because that's the kind of experience we may need going into the next eight years. As you know, we have had a lot of success with the Hickenlooper administration when it comes to jobs, and that's kind of table stakes when it comes to issues. We've got to make sure that we continue having the best economy in the country. But we also have other challenges ahead of us, and I think I'm equipped to take them on. That means better and more affordable health care. It means dealing with some of our transportation issues. And I think also one that's emerging more and more, and that people have talked to me more and more about as I've traveled around the state, is affordable housing.
Let's take a closer look at some of those challenges. You've mentioned health care, and right now, it seems that nothing comprehensive is going to be accomplished legislatively on that topic at the national level. Do you see that as a positive for Colorado? Or do you feel the system is in limbo and there needs to be more clarity to help states?
I think most people know that it's not only what happens on the legislative level in Washington. They can also impact us on the regulatory side. We're going into open enrollment for the several hundred thousand people we have on our exchange — what we call Connect for Health Colorado. And while we control that, because we decided to have a state-run exchange, I believe federally they said they would be cutting the advertising budget as well as the number of people who actually do the enrollment by huge numbers. I think $100 million was allocated before, and they're now down to $10 million. They're shutting down the website for maintenance on Sundays, and you might argue that's when a lot of people might want to do their health-care shopping. So I think Washington can still have an impact on health care in the United States even though they've not been able to pass the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
There are many other programs funded through the federal government that make Coloradans healthy through our Department of Public Health and Environment, and I'm definitely concerned that the federal budget actions will cut back on some of those, too. So I don't think it's over. I think the big battle on the repeal is over for now, but we have a lot of other ways we interact with the federal government. So we need to stay on our toes, and we need to work on how we manage the individual insurance market, because we've had carriers drop out of Colorado, we've had carriers increase their rates, and we have to make sure health care's affordable for people who have to go through the individual markets.
President Trump has said he wants to let the system fail, and as you suggest, there are multiple actions being taken at the federal level that could undermine it. Does this tactic cause you concern? And if so, what can you do as governor of Colorado to prevent things like that from hurting people in the state?
I think one of the things the president doesn't understand is that the Affordable Care Act actually is saving us money. Because all of the people who are getting health care, whether it's through Medicaid or through the individual exchange, whether they have health care through the Affordable Care Act, they get sick, they need medication, they need medical procedures, they need preventive care. If they don't get it, they still get sick — and if they don't have it, they end up in the emergency room, where care is more costly, where the costs get shifted to not just business but to the individuals who are insured. So it never makes sense to have one person who's uninsured, because they just don't take care of themselves and the costs fall to everyone else.
Another issue that you've talked about as being particularly important to you — and you mentioned it earlier — is providing a quality education. But you've also acknowledged that TABOR presents challenges when it comes to education funding. Do you support the repeal of the TABOR amendment? Or would you rather work around it in order to get additional funding to schools in the state?
I think it's important to acknowledge the fix we did in the last session of the state legislature. The governor, legislators and a number of us worked to fix the hospital provider fee, and that will allow for not only reallocating some money to education, but also protecting some of our rural hospitals, which is really, really important. I think TABOR creates some significant problems for us even with that fix. We'll have some ability to continue to support education even with the TABOR cap, but sooner or later, it's going to catch up to us. Look at the debate that just went on in our special session. Really, we needed to fix what was wrong in a piece of legislation for our special districts — a technical error. But it became a TABOR conversation, and it really wasn't about TABOR.
I think TABOR will continue to be waved as a flag by the Republicans, and I think many voters in Colorado like the idea of voting on their tax increases. But I think there's an awful lot of other parts of TABOR that could be fixed — particularly the fact that we don't acknowledge that things are changing. The formula of population inflation doesn't deal with other circumstances we have here in Colorado, including the fact that the largest-growing segment of our population is the elderly, and they tend to need more services. So if it strictly uses population, it doesn't take into account some of these other factors.
Given all of that, how do you plan to get more money to education? And in what areas would you like to focus?
Right now, I'm the co-chair of something called the Early Childhood Learning Commission, and we spend a lot of time talking about the efficacy and some of the challenges there are in early childhood. But study after study shows that an investment in early childhood pays off in dividends. It's much harder to remediate somebody years down the road than it is to make sure they're reading at a third-grade level. And if they're not in pre-K or a good kindergarten, that's not going to happen. So from a pre-K standpoint, I think we need to have a conversation about how we would fund pre-K as well as kindergarten. For K-12, as you know, we're ranked fairly low in the country as far as our education funding for students. I also think there are some real differences in some of our rural districts in their ability to use bond and mill levies to supplement what they get from the state, because their property values aren't as high as they are on the Front Range. I think many Front Range communities have overcome some of those challenges. The third area's obviously higher education. Funding for higher education not just in Colorado, but around the country has flip-flopped from where it was twenty or twenty-five years ago, where students have to pay two-thirds of the costs through tuition and the state pays one-third. I think having creative ways to make sure money gets to students, so we don't rank as low as we do in higher education, is important. But I'm sorry to say that I think all three segments are places where we're going to have to find additional resources.
One way, but not the only way, to do that is to make sure we spend our education dollars wisely. We actually are seeing some improvements in our trend line in education. But there's no question we're going to have to find ways to allocate additional money as taxpayers, and put that before taxpayers at some point, to have a first-class education system. Our economy depends on that. We need two-thirds of our population having certificates from either community colleges, two-year institutions, or from four-year institutions in order to meet the demands of the new economy.
Another of your priorities is protecting the environment, which calls to mind federal actions as well, such as the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. Are there things you can do on the state level to protect the environment in Colorado despite these developments and a likely reduction in federal funds?
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As you know, back in July, we issued an executive order on environment and climate change and set some Paris Accord targets — even going a little bit further. We did that in a very collaborative way. Rather than just regulating it or leaving it to chance, we recognized the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dealing with nitrogen-dioxide emissions, working with our electricity and utility companies to make sure they were doing the right thing. And we've announced an electric-vehicle charging-station initiative across all the Western states, because we want to encourage the use of electric vehicles. We set some targets and will continue to tackle that through the rest of this administration and hopefully my administration.
In the past, it's sometimes been tough for candidates in your position, because they're perceived as simply calling for a continuation of the previous administration rather than providing something new and different. How will you be able to stand apart from Governor Hickenlooper, as opposed to simply saying, "My plan is to push the policies that are already in place"?
First of all, I think we all have to be proud of what this administration has been able to do, whether it's reducing unemployment from 9 percent to 2.4 percent, to cutting the number of uninsured in half, to doing the work I've just described about protecting the environment. So I think we've made some real progress. But as I said, there are additional challenges ahead of us. Transportation is one. The funding we got through the hospital-provider fee in this last session gave us some opportunity to fund transportation, but not to the level that communities have identified as needs. And our population continues to grow, and as that happens, we're going to have additional transportation challenges and housing challenges.
So as we contemplate a growing Colorado — and our demographer projects continued increases in our population — I think there are new challenges. I feel I'm up for those challenges, but we've got a strong foundation right now in Colorado given what Governor Hickenlooper and his team have been able to do.