When Sister Theobald asked me to bring my father to meet with her at Saint Rita’s Elementary, I figured I was in deep trouble. To my surprise, it turned out it was my father who was in trouble. In an essay I submitted for my English Composition class, I had casually inserted the phrase, “Eastern pricks.” Sister Theobald surmised, accurately, that my dad was likely setting a bad language example for his twin boys. Born and raised in New Mexico, he routinely groused about the Ivy League aristocrats who attempted to impose their preferences on the ignorant frontiersmen of the American West. Forty years later I encountered a similar, lingering hostility on the Mescalero Apache reservation towards the alleged entrepreneurs who approached the Tribal Council with business proposals designed to exploit the Mescaleros’ tribal sovereignty. These hucksters were generally dismissed as phonies in “arrow suits,” which was not a reference to their choice of tailors.
During much of the 20th century, the Rocky Mountain states elected members of Congress who often served as “outliers” in their respective partisan caucuses. While Republicans tended to be marginally more conservative than Democrats, both were willing to link arms when it came to funding the infrastructure projects so vital to the development and economic vitality of the region. Highways, water projects, airports, military bases, national parks and assorted earmarks were steered into job-generating public investments.
In no state did this prove more successful than New Mexico, where Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and his Democratic counterpart Jeff Bingaman funneled more federal dollars per capita into the state’s economy than any other state for more than 30 years. The wisdom of this appropriations hustling is open to question these days, as discretionary federal budgets shrink and New Mexico’s economy stumbles through a prolonged contraction. If you’ve been noticing more of those red and yellow Zia sun plates in Colorado parking lots, it’s a reflection of an increasingly desperate search for employment in Colorado’s far healthier, diverse and expanding economy.
Colorado has a long history of preparing for newcomers, while at the same time grumbling about their impact on our quality of life. When I arrived in 1972, there was droll commentary about the “last man syndrome,” each new immigrant insisting we build a wall once his or her U-Haul crossed the state line. Colorado has remained one of the youngest states in the nation for more than half a century as each new generation strikes out for Colorful Colorado. Yet, over the past decade, our politics has become increasingly reflective of the partisan divides that leave Washington, D.C., in gridlock. Colorado’s General Assembly has increasingly deadlocked over spending issues, irrespective of the fiscal demands imposed by a growing economy and its attendant population pressure. We will require more roads, more transit, more schools and more health care. While this expansion may eventually pay its own way, it will certainly cost more if we fail to prepare. TABOR, which was intended as a restraint on expenditures, has morphed into handcuffs on sensible public policy.
Voters are faced with a challenge: will they let the state finance these looming infrastructure demands? Sadly, it appears that neither the Building a Better Colorado organization nor legislative leadership in both parties is ready to tackle the systemic problems that threaten public services. Kicking the can down the road for another few years by redefining the Hospital Provider Fee represents Band-Aid politics at its most craven.
After 20 years of TABOR, there is little fat left in our fiscal goose. We have created a higher education system largely kept afloat with tuition paid by out-of-state students, a highway system in decay, public schools struggling to improve in the face of frozen budgets and a health care system bursting at the seams.
The last time Colorado faced such a crisis, House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Gov. Bill Owens fashioned the bi-partisan Referendums C and D. While Ref D failed — it would have directed more dollars into transportation funding — Ref C provided five years of relief. It’s doubtful whether Colorado is capable of another such “purple” coalition. The alternative, of course, is to ride our current policy over the cliff, leaving it to a future Legislature and a future governor to pick up the pieces. That’s not a particularly thoughtful resolution, and it’s disloyal to a century and a half of Western, frontier precedents.
TABOR zealots argue that Colorado’s current economic success is directly attributable to the positive consequences of spending restrictions. But the truth is Colorado’s circumstances have changed markedly over the past two decades. It isn’t necessary to throw out TABOR’s requirement that voters approve tax increases. But leaders must summon the political courage to ask voters for needed changes.
It’s unlikely the current Legislature will address this dilemma in an election year, despite the near universal recognition that something must be done. It seems more probable that the Legislature elected in November, the class of 2016, will have to pick up this challenge. Voters should demand candidates demonstrate the kind of flexibility required to strike a bargain and move toward solutions. If we fail to solve this problem for ourselves, well, those chaps my father talked about those many years ago will be quick to advise us what to do.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at email@example.com