The past two weekends I have surveyed the crowds attending the Jazz in the Park concerts on Sunday evenings at City Park in Denver. They are young, they are breeding and they all seem to have a dog. Their families look a lot like mine did when I arrived in 1972. I presume they probably want for their kids what I wanted for mine — a safe community where families could thrive, where the public schools would prepare students for jobs in a global marketplace, and where government provides taxpayers affordable, reliable public services. Of course, this can’t happen without some serious planning — transit, adequate roads, water, sewage treatment, trash pick-up and disposal all require substantial forethought — and significant expenditures.
Obtaining voter approval for these investments requires political leadership, a quality that seems to have evaporated during the droughts of recent years. Historically, Colorado taxpayers were willing to build the Moffat Tunnel, drill both bores of the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnels, complete I-70 through Glenwood Canyon and even construct a new airport at DIA. Today, crushed beneath the closing vise of TABOR’s fiscal restrictions, state government scrambles to simply maintain existing roads and highways, while freezing salaries and shutting down programs. College tuition is rapidly accelerating beyond the reach of middle class families and our roadways are seizing up from gridlock and congestion.
Candidates rarely paint their vision for the Colorado they would like to see next year, much less create twenty or thirty years in the future. Bill Ritter talked about “The Colorado Promise” during his campaign in 2006, but that promise turned out to be a series of Blue Ribbon panels issuing cautionary reports, which now gather dust in the basement of the Capitol. John Hickenlooper was able to mount a successful campaign for Governor by pointing out that he wasn’t nuts like his two opponents. Together with an assurance that his experience as a saloonkeeper prepared him to wring the best value from state government’s shrinking dollars proved sufficient to prevail. What Colorado should look like, or how we might or could pay to achieve that desired result, comprises an undisclosed agenda.
Federico Peña’s single minded and ultimately successful pursuit of a new Denver airport did not come easily. He nearly lost his re-election bid, was re-quired to battle three voter challenges in Denver and Adams County, and left office with an abysmal approval rating. Yet, he reshaped our regional economy for the better by rallying at least 51 percent of the electorate each time it was needed. Governor Roy Romer pitch-ed in to help, and it is now generally acknowledged that whatever mistakes were made in its execution, replacing Stapleton with DIA was the right decision. Even with that, his successor, Mayor Wellington Webb, had to pick up the political cudgel and insist that Denver would complete and open the new airport, faulty baggage system and all. In retrospect, the key ingredient for success was the personal commitment of a Mayor who came to work each morning and reminded his staff that, “…we’re going to build this thing!”
I believe voters are willing to reward politicians who can articulate and commit to a vision that makes sense. They will even raise their taxes to implement that vision, but first they must be asked. Taxpayers are sufficiently hungry for strong leadership that they will support it even when it offers them pain rather than promise. Look at Scott Walker. During the twenty years since Colorado residents approved TABOR, our political leaders have cowered in the face of polls that indicate voters won’t support any tax increase. The challenge of course is to change those polls by convincing taxpayers that additional expenditures are in their best interest. Hard to do, perhaps, but, certainly not impossible!
Political observer and columnist Miller Hudson has lived through the governmental administrations of Peña, Webb, Romer, Ritter and now Hickenlooper.