Insights Archives - Colorado Politics

Joey BunchJoey BunchDecember 11, 20178min365
James O’Keefe fancies himself a guerrilla journalist, but the conservative provocateur was stung by his own fake news again recently when he tried to sting the Washington Post with clumsy spy-kid tactics. The Post easily sniffed out a woman who falsely alleged U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore impregnated her in Alabama when she was a […]

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Joey BunchJoey BunchNovember 9, 20177min2710

Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican father of our national parks, said it in 1906.

“The lack of power to take joy in outdoor nature is as real a misfortune as the lack of power to take joy in books,” the old Rough Rider said.

That’s why you find Teddy Roosevelt, and not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, creator of the New Deal, on Mount Rushmore, alongside Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.

We don’t view our national parks as handouts to be cut on the whims of Washington gamesmanship. We view them as treasures.

And now the Trump administration plans to make sure we pay a king’s ransom to use them. And it feels like just that, ransom.

The National Parks Service is ready to hike the cost — dramatically — for everyday people to visit what they already own during peak tourism seasons at 17 of the country’s most popular parks, including Rocky Mountain National Park.

It would soon cost $70 a car to take my out-of-state friends from Estes Park to Grand Lake, instead of the 20 bucks I’m used to paying. Motorcycle riders will pay $50 and bicyclists and hikers will pay $30 to get in.

The other parks are Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Zion in Utah; Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming; the Grand Canyon in Arizona; Denali in Alaska; Glacier in Montana; Acadia in Maine; Olympic and Mount Rainier in Washington; Shenandoah in Virginia; and Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree in California.

The park service needs the money for a $12 billion backlog in repairs and improvements, because Congress and presidents won’t do their jobs and make sure parks are available and affordable to anyone who can get there, the idea Roosevelt had in his head and heart.

Poorly funding parks and public lands, however, has manufactured a shameful crisis. The sticker shock of a 250 percent increase in admission is the latest ploy to open up the lands to more drilling, foresting, hunting and off-roading for pay.

“We need to have the vision to look at the future of our parks and take action in order to ensure that our grandkids’ grandkids will have the same if not better experience than we have today,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said when he announced the price hike last week.​

That sounds similar, but not quite as complete as what he said at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver in July.

“Our great lands, our treasures, belong to us,” Zinke said.

But that was only part of his message in Colorado.

“I can tell ya, the war on American energy is over,” the former Montana congressman said.

But what Zinke didn’t say is that the administration will have a fight on its hands to bring more development to public lands, sacrificing a mantle conservationists can rally around — and win.

Scott Braden, public lands advocate for the Conservation Colorado, said “undoubtedly” the parks need more revenue and the maintenance backlog is real.

“Any economist would tell you that if you have too much demand, you should probably increase the price of the supply,” Braden told me.

“However, my concerns are twofold. One, is that the Trump budget and indeed appropriations over the last however many years of sequestration have further strained the ability of the NPS to carry out its mission. Shifting that cost burden to just the users of the parks is misguided, because national parks should be a national funding priority. Second, by increasing the costs of visiting parks, we make it harder to get kids outdoors, especially kids from poorer families and undeserved communities. This hurts our chances to educate and build the next generation of Americans who will care about parks and public lands.”

Zinke said the year before President Obama took office, the department made about $18 billion a year from offshore drilling, but the figure had fallen to just $2.6 billion last year.

He said the decline was an example of the “consequence of locking and shutting American energy, access and recreation off of our lands.”

Industry pays or you pay, get the picture?

Communities at the gates, such as Estes Park and Grand Lake, will certainly get it if tourism pays a price.

In 2015, more than 305 million people visited national parks, which was an all-time record. Visitors spent $16.9 billion in nearby communities.

Somebody always pays.

Politicians in both parties have no problem picking winners and losers, as long as their side wins.

The night before he visited Rocky Mountain National Park, Zinke said it disturbed him that people don’t trust the government anymore — “how far we’ve come from the government I grew up in; the government of Reagan, when the president would say something you knew it was true when our government was on our side.”

The public comment period on the fee hikes is open until Nov. 23. You can comment online at the National Park Service’s planning website or by mailing a letter to 1849 C Street, NW, Mail Stop 2346, Washington, D.C. 20240.


Joey BunchJoey BunchOctober 18, 20177min4340

If you love America it’s easy to hate Bowe Bergdahl.

He was a 23-year-old private first class in the Army when he deserted his remote infantry post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. His court-martial hearing is Oct. 23. Reports are that Bergdahl will plead guilty. He faces life behind bars.

That should be enough to satisfy justice.

But it’s not nearly enough for Facebook and friends.

A friend of mine, who retired from the Army a few months ago, had a Saturday morning post last week about his hatred for Bergdahl. He invited anyone who disagreed to unfriend him. I disagreed and said so, but I didn’t unfriend him. I watched my friend grow up. I was thrilled to see him become a high school football star, and I’m proud as a poppa about his accomplished military career.

I could understand his point of view, even if I don’t agree. He served and didn’t run away. Bergdahl laid down his arms in the din of war.

He walked away from his post guarding trucks parked in a dry creek bed. He left his gun and body armor behind in a hostile corner of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The next morning he was captured, so predictably, by the Taliban.

During the search to find him, Army National Guard Sgt. Mark Allen was shot in the head. The next day, Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Hatch was shot in the leg. Both are expected to testify at Bergdahl’s sentencing.

My friend’s Army buddies lit up his Facebook post in agreement. One used an emoji of a pile of excrement. Another recommended “a short rope and a tall tree.” Execution was a recurring theme.

The Taliban held Bergdahl for five years. He was caged in darkness, chained and regularly beaten. Execution surely crossed his mind as a better option, as well. He never should have been there.

Two years before he joined the Army, Bergdahl was discharged from the Coast Guard, reportedly for psychological reasons. The Army’s Sanity Board Evaluation determined after his release that he exhibited schizotypal personality disorder even then. He had deserted before, but returned, but none of the red flags registered enough to kick him out.

He was a virtual unknown, even as a captive, until 2014 when President Obama traded five Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay prison for his release, which touched off a political firestorm. Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden with Bergdahl’s parents and said, “Whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity — period.”

On the campaign trail, Bergdhahl’s name was an applause line for Donald Trump. At a rally in Las Vegas in 2015, Trump called the soldier “a no-good traitor, who should have been executed.”

My friend and Trump said Bergdahl, but I heard my name.

In 2012 I covered the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting and the Sandy Hook massacre in with a series of wildfires. It got the best of me, and then some. I interviewed victims, friends and families. I owed them the respect of looking them in the eye and trying to understand their pain. I’ve done this enough to know that people need and deserve that.

Nobody shot at me, and I wasn’t ordered to kill anybody. I know I could not do a soldier’s job. I paid a high price for doing my own.

In 2013 I was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Episodes came from nowhere and came from everywhere. I would wake up drenched in sweat every night I stayed in a hotel room — the only time I was alone in Newtown after days spent at children’s funerals. I stopped eating and lost 30 pounds. I struggled with my thoughts about a world so unquestionably wicked and cruel.

I did irrational things, and what people would think of me constantly occupied a place in my mind with my irrational thoughts. On a Tuesday morning in March, I held back jagged breaths in a restroom stall at the office whenever anyone else came in. There was no way to explain why a disaster journalist with decades of experience was crying over strangers’ children months later. I went to the sink, threw cold water on my face and returned to the stall until I looked sane enough to walk across the newsroom to my cubicle. It was an unseen bear that shook my life like a rag doll.

In 2012 — the year mad men killed 28 in Connecticut and 12 in Aurora — 5,000 suicides were linked to current or former service members with a history of PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs said. The VA said more than 27,000 American suicides that year were veterans. The numbers were overwhelmingly men.

It might feel like a rush of patriotism to execute Bowe Bergdahl with your words, but you don’t know where you’re leaving unintended land mines. You don’t know who is hearing their name.

If any of my readers need to, please e-mail me at We’ll talk. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs encourages anyone feeling lost to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. The state also offers a free 24-hour crisis line and peer support. The number is 1-844-493-8255, or you can text “TALK” to 38255.


Joey BunchJoey BunchSeptember 3, 20176min1800

If U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions thinks he can score political points for Republicans by coming after Colorado’s pot, then a whole Phish concert would want what he must be smoking.

State Sen. Tim Neville doesn’t like pot, not to smoke it or eat it.  He didn’t vote to legalize in 2012, but like a handful of lawmakers with some of the most conservative bonafides in the statehouse, he sees the issue as much more than stoners and Cheetos.

He took a break to talk on the phone on a recent Friday morning, as he and other senators brewed up some suds to serve at the Great American Beer Festival, an annual competition with the House. “Haze,” suggesting a thick microscopic brew, is expected to be part of the name of their brew, he said.

Neville and other legislative Republicans have gotten onboard to make sure marijuana is strictly regulated — a given for a tough guy like Neville — but regulated and taxed fairly, like any other business.

Plus it’s in the state constitution now, and Neville said he takes his oath to uphold that document deadly serious.

“It’s something all of us have to be involved with now,” Neville said.

In Neville’s view voters agreed to legalize pot on the condition that it’s well-regulated with a focus on keeping it out of the hands of people younger than 21.

“Once the people in (Colorado) said yes, it was up to us to craft the best policies possible,” he said.

Now that marijuana is a legal business, it should be treated as fairly as any other legal business.

Neville and fellow Republican Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins drove the conversation and legislation on creating clubs where people could use pot the same way they enjoy beer and booze in bars.

I told you in February they saw it as commonsense and good business, not reefer madness. Marble said the state invites tourists, allows them to buy pot, but then designates no place for them to smoke it legally. Most hotel rooms won’t even allow it.

“The one thing we do not want in this state is for people to come on vacation and leave on probation,” said Marble, who successfully passed a bill to allow people to seal misdemeanor arrest records for marijuana if what they did was made legal by Amendment 64.

In the last session, Neville linked arms with Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont, on a bill to allow pot shops to operate more efficiently. Pretty liberal, Singer has been the chief proponent of reasonable but thorough regulation from the start. The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers, including from Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speak Crisanta Duran. The governor signed it into law in June.

“My feeling is that when businesses operate more efficiently, it’s good for everyone,” Neville said of knocking down pointless, expensive hurdles for business, a general passion of his. “My real fear is that if we don’t allow businesses to operate as an industry, it’s just going to backslide into an area we can’t control, the gray market or the black market.”

Neville isn’t the only Republican driving the magic bus.

Out of 23 pot-specific bills in the last session, 19 had bipartisan sponsorship and 18 became law.

Colorado Springs Rep. Bob Gardner joined with Democrat Dan Pabon of Denver on legislation to create pot clubs, after Marble and Neville’s bill died in a Senate committee. The House and Senate, in bipartisan fashion, passed different versions of the bill.

On the last night of the session, lawmakers were debating how many people should be allowed to smoke pot on a porch, which might qualify it as a club.

Neville said he expects a compromise on pot clubs before the next session begins in January,

But hemp, the non-intoxicating stalk, was a big bipartisan winner this year.

And Sen. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, is getting in on the hemp game.

He told me at the State Fair that he has 10 acres in hemp, and he’s putting in a processing facility. That’s putting your money where your bipartisanship is.

He named his operation Paradox Ventures, and Coram hopes to be a Colorado pioneer.

“The voters approved it,” Coram said. “Who am I to override that?”

Neither Neville nor Coram are worried about Sessions’s saber-rattling on cannabis with federal laws that still criminalize marijuana.

“I’m really not concerned,” Coram said at the carnival.

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Peter MarcusMay 12, 20176min1801

The Colorado House on Wednesday – the last day of the legislative session – had perhaps the most “Colorado” marijuana legislative debate ever. But it got weird.

An effort to define the prohibition on “open and public” marijuana consumption devolved into a bizarre debate over whether people could smoke pot on their front porches.

“People have asked, ‘How does this impact my edible consumption? I like to put trays and buffets of edibles all around my front porch and consume to my heart’s content. How will this affect that practice?’ The answer is it won’t have any impact at all, because this only has to do with lighting up a joint or smoking a bong,” said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who led the charge in the House.

“Someone else said, ‘What about my vaporizer pen? Sometimes I walk into the Capitol and I have my vaporizer pen. Will this impact my use of the vaporizer pen?’ The answer is ‘no.’ This will have no impact on using your vaporizer pen. You can have 100 people on the front porch; 1,000 if your front porch is that big.”

And Pabon was the rationale one. The debate got as loopy as an edible gone wrong, spurring a competition between the 1990s television sitcoms “Friends” and “Martin.”

“Oh. My. God.”

No, I’m not making this up. It seemed like the whole legislature was high.

The legislation, which was focused on the “open and public” issue, was amended to address porch smoking. A compromise would have allowed porch smoking as long as it involved only five people other than the residents of the home, what lawmakers referred to as a “party of five” rule, also triggering memories of ’90s.

Lawmakers met twice in negotiations to discuss the front porch issue. But the House couldn’t come to agreement, rejecting the compromise, meaning the two chambers couldn’t reach a deal.

While that debate on those discussions went on, critical bills remained on the calendar. One of those measures would have fully funded the Colorado Energy Office. That bill failed, meaning staff members might lose their jobs at the Energy Office. Some say a compromise could have been reached on that. Who knows? What’s for sure is that lawmakers sure spent a lot of time talking “chronic” on the front porch.

“Smelly cat, smelly cat, it’s not your fault.”

I asked Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, what he thought about having a marijuana “party of five” on his front porch. “My porch?” he laughed, before getting serious. “I have a 14-year-old son. There will be no pot anywhere remotely close to my porch.”

So, how the heck did “Friends” and “Martin” get dragged into this pretty absurd debate? An image of the cast of “Friends” was displayed to lawmakers to demonstrate which of them could get high on the porch and which couldn’t. Apparently Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, is not a fan of the show.

“I didn’t watch a lot of ‘Friends,’ I watched ‘Martin,’ and Martin was the only one who lived in his building, so it would be okay for Martin and Gina and Pam and Cole to smoke, but if Bruh-Man and Sheneneh came over, then one of them’s got to sit out,” Melton said.

“You so crazy!”

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, accused his colleagues of attempting to ban getting drunk on your front porch also.

“You guys can’t throw parties in your house anymore with alcohol because marijuana is supposed to be regulated the same way,” he claimed.

Things fell so far down the pothole that at one point the debate turned to ashing out a pipe, which Urban Dictionary defines as, “The state of completion of a pipe or other smoking device reaches once all the substance within it is reduced to ash.”

Melton referred to the proposal as “limitations that literally say that you can smoke and you can have five friends that smoke, but if your neighbor comes over then somebody’s got to ash it out, or somebody’s got to sit and watch.”

“Yes, we’re talking about ash now,” Melton laughed, as an obstreperous and often distracted chamber occasionally listened in.

I don’t know if it gets anymore Colorado than what happened in the legislature on Wednesday. I’m also not sure I’ve seen it any weirder. I’m just sad they didn’t settle the debate over whether “Friends” or “Martin” is the better show.


Joey BunchJoey BunchMay 7, 20177min1340

Wednesday’s end of the Colorado legislative session feels a little like Christmas, but with liquor and bitterness instead of the milk of human kindness. It’s not going to be a happy new year.

Lawmakers knew they had to get  big things done before May 10, because that’s 120 days from when they started, just like Christmas follows Thanksgiving.

The session opened on Jan. 10 full of promises about finding bipartisanship: They would find billions of dollars for transportation. They would bury talks of restructuring a fee that means critical federal matching dollars for rural hospitals. They would rally around the common cause of education.

Now 117 days later, none of those things are yet true.

House Bill 1242, the months-in-the-making transportation compromise to address traffic jams, died in a political street fight in the Senate. Simmering inner-party tensions among Republicans over asking voters to approve a sales tax in November was the fuse. “The knives are out,” a Senate Republican told me of his caucus as the bill Senate President Kevin Grantham signed his name to was being killed in front of him.

The School Finance Act — legislation that must pass to fund schools each year — is in utter turmoil. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, inserted language to give charter schools an equal share of tax dollars that normally favor traditional public schools.

That was the ghost of legislation not-past, Senate Bill 61. Hill’s bipartisan effort to accomplish the same thing passed the Senate on March 14 and has been waiting in the House ever since. It’s on the Monday House Education Committee calendar, but doubtful it will survive.

Hill has played a gambit with the School Finance Act, but that’s a bill where deals will have to get done in a hurry as the session slips away, or else 178 school districts across the state are going to be in a world of hurt and lawmakers will be coming back for a special session.

Then there’s reclassifying the Hospital Provider Fee, the thing we were told was never going to happen. In January, House Speaker Crisanta Duran all but laid a wreath on the idea Democrats had pushed for two sessions. The idea was to reclassify the state’s Hospital Provider Fee, paid on using a hospital bed, to an enterprise fund. That would move it out from under a revenue cap that triggers refunds under the state Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

That had been a non-starter for Republicans. This session it’s been embraced by some on the right, but not all, thanks to plums Democrats have put into the conservative pudding: a $20 million tax break for businesses, tapping marijuana for more money, doubling Medicaid co-pays and reducing the TABOR spending cap by $200 million.

If they’re selling out TABOR, as they’ve characterized fiddling with the Hospital Provider Fee in the past, the GOP dealmakers got a very good price.

The deal would put $1.9 billion over 20 years into transportation, while keeping $528 million for hospitals and providing aid to schools.

Supporters say they have the votes to pass it in both chambers. They better be sure, because the clock is against them. The Senate gave preliminary approval to the bill Friday. It still has to pass on a roll call vote in the upper chamber.

When it bounces quickly to the House, it has to pass at least one committee then twice on the floor with no amendments. Just one amendment lands it in a House-and-Senate conference committee to work out a compromise, then both chambers have to pass it. This is making me dizzy.

In its favor is the fact that lawmakers are within days of having to explain what they accomplished this session, and nothing breeds bipartisanship like shared desperation.

Meanwhile, those most engaged on the state’s transportation say the bill doesn’t do what voters are expecting to relieve interstate traffic. Both transportation bills, they contend, steer way too much money off the interstates and into transit, bike trails and communities more familiar with cattle crossings than rush hours.

The truest quote I’ve heard this session was said Friday by Sen. Lois Court, the college government instructor and Denver Democrat who schools me and the Republicans often about the Constitution.

“I tell my students all the time that the most important letter in the word democracy is not the d,” she said in support of the Hospital Provider Fee deal. “It’s the two c’s, for complex and compromise. If you don’t acknowledge the complexities of the issues that face our state and aren’t willing to compromise to address them, nothing’s going to get done.”

That can still happen. Last year the biggest change to state liquor laws since Prohibition went down to the wire. ‘Tis the season.

Year after year this happens. And year after year, the legislature delivers more tube socks than model trains.

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Peter MarcusApril 21, 20177min95
The legislature experienced a meltdown on Thursday. At around 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night, the Capitol press corps was summoned to Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham’s office for an 8 a.m. meeting on Thursday. Republicans were super secretive about it. “Senate President Kevin Grantham will meet with the professional press at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, April 20, […]

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