Where’s the leadership regarding Colorado’s fiscal problems?

I was a liberal arts major during my first year of college at what we jokingly called North Avenue University.  When I did graduate from another college evidently more interested in collecting out-of-state tuition than in previous academic records, it was with an appropriately titled B.S. degree, earned partially by passing only fairly simple math classes. 

During the final summer session necessary to finish my senior year, I barely survived the Introduction to Economics, a subject I thought any budding journalist ought to know something about.

That’s probably why I found it necessary to skip the late morning session at Club 20 last Saturday in favor of a walk up and down Main Street. Three presentations chock full of charts and graphs and numbers were quite enough, thank you, and a lunchtime discussion of health care was on tap.

Over ensuing decades after graduation, that mathematically challenged journalist morphed, by necessity, into someone fairly proficient with numbers and all too familiar with charts and graphs as a business owner and local-government official. And he became as convinced as most others in business, politics and public policy, that things like Colorado’s fiscal health, the subject of the Club 20 discussions, are best explained with numbers.

We were warned once again Saturday morning that our state is headed for a crisis because mandated spending, especially on K–12 education, Medicaid and prisons, gobbles up increasing chucks of the state budget. Any doubts might be erased by the fact that think tanks like the liberal Bell Policy Center and the conservative Independence Institute seem to agree that, as we were told the Institute puts it, “focusing on trimming the fat fails to address systemic budget problems.”

As Gary Harmon reported in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel, constitutional amendments dear to both conservatives and liberals share the blame and are targeted in recommendations from a statewide strategic issues panel that issued its report under the auspices of the University of Denver.

The message, supported by plenty of pie charts and multi-colored lines, was that Amendment 23, passed by voters intent on guaranteeing that funding for K–12 education kept pace with inflation, has “cannibalized” higher education and “should just go away.” And that only the requirement in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights that voters approve tax increases should be retained, with the rest of TABOR, including provisions that ratchet down government spending, eliminated.

“I’m afraid the long knives come out 12 years from now,” DU panel member Phil Vaughan said, warning that failure to act soon may make Colorado’s current budget problems, which already divide lawmakers, seem trivial.

Former Club 20 President and current Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs Reeves Brown echoed Vaughan’s warnings, urging participation in the TBD (To Be Determined) Colorado, the current state administration’s effort to call attention to fiscal and governance issues.

I’ve been involved in discussions like this since the early 1990s, when I served as a “civilian” on a legislative interim committee on tax policy. I’ve been a member of other so-called blue ribbon panels on affordable housing and climate issues and an eager participant in the effort Brown organized while at Club 20 to initiate a statewide discussion of Colorado’s relatively easy process to amend the state Constitution with such things as TABOR and Amendment 23.

For more than a year, I helped staff a statewide discussion on “smart growth” for one of our former governors. It was at one of those meetings that I heard a bit of wisdom, which I recalled as I listened last Saturday morning.

“Persuade with reason,” that speaker had advised, “but motivate with emotion.”

It occurred to me that the problem with relying on charts and graphs is that they assume a positive response from a motivated public. But it’s hard to generate much emotion with pie charts and columns of numbers.

Perhaps a good start might come from a governor demonstrating some leadership by engaging his fellow Coloradans at a visceral level on issues affecting their families and pocketbooks rather than sitting back and waiting to react to yet another “blue ribbon” effort.

Though he considers it “God’s work,” Jim Spehar declined to participate in TBD Colorado and will leave that effort to the deity and others more enthusiastic. Comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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