Can we all agree that government’s first job is protecting its citizens?
Two of the important disagreements playing out in the Colorado General Assembly this year have a peculiar twist. Republicans are demanding a forceful government response to two public health risks that threaten the life and property of Coloradans, while Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, long insistent on a laissez faire response to these devastating social ills, are only now bending in the direction of a government response.
The two longstanding disagreements between Republicans and Democrats playing out again under the dome highlight an important subtlety in our political process. That is, the most important conflicts between the two political parties do not always center on the conventional question of government vs. no government. In many instances the key policy choices are a simple matter of allocation of resources. Of the resources the government has, how should they be expended?
The first major disagreement has been on whether the state of Colorado should purchase and operate its own tanker fleet to combat the growing incidence of catastrophic wildfire.
Growing incidence is probably the wrong way to describe the situation. This is the West, and fire has roamed the landscape for time immemorial. Still, there is a relative newness to the urgency to act. The impetus is a series of large-scale wildfires that have blackened small communities, displaced large swaths of cities, and taken lives.
For the last several years, Republicans in the legislature, led by Mesa County’s own Sen. Steve King, have demanded that the state invest in a fleet of air tankers to give Colorado the wherewithal to respond quickly to fires in the wildland-urban interface.
The evidence is incontrovertible — the best and sometimes only way to contain fires is to snuff them out before they go large-scale. With the federal government’s own tanker response program in wholesale disorder — think Obamacare website with wings — Republicans in the legislature have called for a state government investment in aerial firefighting assets.
But Democrats, until this year, have fought the effort at every turn. The truth is, running an air tanker fleet is expensive, and statehouse Democrats would rather spend the state’s cash on other goodies.
Some people say Republicans are anti-government. And that’s true on some levels. Anti-Obamcare, anti-welfare state, anti-deficit spending — yes. But when it comes to protecting people and property from the ravages of catastrophic wildfire, the anti-government party here in Colorado has been the Democrats.
The same worrisome logic — sure, that’s a pressing public safety problem, it’s just that, we, the Legislature, don’t want to spend money to address it — has doomed multiple legislative attempts through the years to pass a statute making multiple DUI arrests a felony. The first person to push the felony DUI cause, interestingly enough, was Cory Gardner, during his early years as a state representative. But Democrats have blocked the effort.
It isn’t that policymakers in the majority party don’t care that dozens of people have died through the years because Colorado lacks a statute that locks up chronic DUI offenders; it’s just that they don’t care enough to dedicate the $10 million plus to implement the law that would put a stop it.
But this year, thanks to years-long Republican persistence and a particularly horrendous situation in which a repeat DUI offender killed at 17-year-old student in his latest drunk driving episode, the bill is said to have a chance to pass. Colorado would be safer for it.
And so it is with King’s wildfire bill. King has played an aggressive, frankly brilliant, public relations hand this year, essentially browbeating Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative Democrats into supporting funding for a firefighting fleet. Politics is the tail that wags the dog of policymaking, and King has made it clear that Democrats and the governor will face a severe backdraft if, against the backdrop of another summer of fires, they are seen to have fiddled on aerial firefighting funding.
Both developments are good news for Colorado. When it comes to protecting our state from catastrophic wildfire and protecting citizens from the threat of chronic drunk drivers, we should all be able to agree there’s a role for responsible government. Indeed, if we can’t agree on anything else, we should all agree that the first job government is protecting its citizens from common threats.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Mesa State College and Grand Junction High School.