Columns » Outsider


The 'fun' in dysfunctional


Just in case you didn't notice, the Colorado Legislature began its annual 120-day session yesterday. Yes, it's important because, as Mark Twain once said, "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session." But, no, you don't have to pay attention, because there's no way you can affect the process.

Consider the Legislature. There are 100 legislators (35 senators, 65 representatives) sitting fatly under the golden dome. Each will introduce five bills during the session.

Some of these bills -- whether significant, obscure, stupid or merely the product of vicious political maneuvering -- slowly will wend their way through committees, through amendments, through withdrawals, through tabling, through scores of lobbyists and special interests and actually come to a vote. Of those, a few will pass, and will be sent to the governor to be signed into law.

And which will these be? At this point, it's like predicting which sperm will make it to the egg. The only thing our elected officials actually have to do is produce a budget for the next fiscal year. After that, it's all inside baseball.

What that means is that your opinion doesn't count. Unless you're a lobbyist, a lawmaker or a player of some kind, you'd best forget about it. The important bills already have been written, not necessarily by legislative staff, but by lobbyists and special interest groups. And even if you're vitally interested in the outcome of a particular bill, you'll have to spend most of the next four months at the Capitol just to keep tabs on it.

That's because the legislative process is obscure, opaque and often unpredictable, particularly compared with that of, say, our City Council. Here, Council members meet at regularly scheduled times twice a month, follow a published agenda, allow public comment on all matters before them, and then vote. It's representative government at its best -- transparent and accountable.

But up in Denver, it's a stridently partisan hall of mirrors where nothing is as it seems, a useful training ground for those legislators sufficiently lucky and cunning to get themselves elected to national office.

Go to a committee hearing, for example, and listen to a passionate advocate for the disabled attack a bill that she claims would make prescription medications unaffordable for handicapped citizens. And then listen to the gossip among cynical insiders. They'll tell you that her "nonprofit" is funded mostly by the pharmaceutical industry, which is using her to protect profits. So what's going on? Dunno -- we're in Rashomon territory now.

For legislators, staffers, party officials and lobbyists, things are just fine as they are. The session is no place for amateurs, or the public, and, simply put, that creates lots of opportunities to make money. Good lobbyists make as much as good corporate lawyers, or good surgeons, and don't have to go to law school or dissect corpses to qualify. Being a legislator isn't too bad, either -- you get about 40 grand for four months of work, never have to buy a meal, get sucked up to by the powerful, and have fun in the big city.

The Legislature may be dysfunctional, but, like the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union, it works for insiders.

Want to fix it? Easy. Just initiate a constitutional amendment that would fundamentally change the nature of the Legislature. Why 100 legislators? Why partisan elections? Maybe all of that made sense 130 years ago, but it sure doesn't today. Imagine a much smaller Legislature, chosen in nonpartisan elections.

You'd know who represented you, and a nonpartisan Legislature of, say, 40 members would be vastly different from today's partisan zoo. You could say goodbye to the crazies of right and left, and goodbye to the endless maneuvering for political advantage. Legislators would be chosen on their own merits, not because they had an "R" or a "D" after their names. It'd be a different place -- less colorful, less fun (remember, you can't spell dysfunctional without "fun") and less profitable for the lobbyist community but that's the price of progress.

Meanwhile, just try not to think about state government. It'll all be over in four months.


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