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Public Eye



It's an old adage: the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Up in Denver, under the golden dome, there is a third reality: Political grandstanding.

Last week, state lawmakers, realizing a $1 billion shortfall in the budget, scrambled. Democrats, of course, pointed their fingers at Republicans, and guess what? Republicans had only the Democrats to blame.

The "sudden" emergency can be tracked back to 1998, when politicians approved a plan to pay for a $450 billion statewide highway project. Instead of requiring a pay-as-you-go formula that had been the norm of the past, lawmakers decided to try out a creative funding concept where they used rosy projections as a sales tool to pay later. Some will recall that Bill Owens, running for a first term as governor, campaigned heavily on the plan.

Unfortunately, those budget projections weren't as bright as the number crunchers predicted and this year it's come back to bite us all in the tush.

The lesson for politicians? Don't spend taxes before you've got the cash in hand. Unfortunately, last week the politicians instead used the budget crisis to, you guessed it, grandstand.

Namely, Denver-area Democratic Sens. Penfield Tate and Ed Perlmutter suggested that all 100 state legislators cut their salaries in half, from $30,000 to $15,000. The total annual savings: a million and a half bucks. The response was immediate and caustic. Some politicians noted that, though the Legislature only meets 120 days a year, this kind of salary slash would restrict "regular citizens" from aspiring to political office, meaning only rich people would run the show.

House Speaker Doug Dean, formerly a house painter and telemarketer in Colorado Springs until he moved to Denver and started wearing double-breasted suits and wielding screwdrivers, went ballistic.

Dean, a Republican, called the Democrats' proposal "a political and symbolic move" that wouldn't do anything to solve the budget crisis. Put in context, these comments come from a guy who claims thousands in taxpayer-subsidized reimbursements above and beyond his tax-paid salary even when the Legislature is not in session. This is a guy who spent over $300 in campaign funds on golf balls in one year alone and is unlikely to ever have to paint a house or bug people to buy something over the phone again.

But we digress. After an initial flurry of media attention, the salary slashing was quickly put to rest, chalked up as just another bad idea pushed forth by publicity hounds.

Meanwhile, the real news is, this week the Senate approved a bill that makes being a politician whose specialty is inspecting dead bodies a promising and very lucrative career path.

Though county coroners are elected to office, their salaries have in the past been set by the Board of County Commissioners. No more. Thanks to a bill that has been passed and is on the way to the Governor's office for final approval, county coroners stand to make a killing, so to speak.

El Paso County Coroner Dr. David Bowerman currently pulls in only $600 a year (he's also got a cushy deal that lets him bill the county separately for the cadavers he examines).

Under the new law, if Bowerman is reelected in 2004, he will be the beneficiary of a whopping 12,483 percent salary increase! You read that right. The coroner's new $75,500 salary is enough to make anyone severely envious. Especially in El Paso County, where commissioners now stand to make less money every year than the guy in charge of the dead bodies.

In addition, county commissioners will make less than other county office-holders, including the treasurer, clerk & recorder and assessor. Like the coroner, these politicians will, beginning next election cycle, pull in $75,500 a year. County commissioners, meanwhile, are stuck at their current salaries of $63,200.

Sen. Ron Teck, a Republican from Grand Junction who sponsored the bill, has smart reasons to set a standard for coroners' salaries -- namely, the Colorado Constitution requires them to do so.

Teck's bill also initially included a provision to boost the salary of county commissioners by 20 percent -- their second raise in two years. But other lawmakers balked at giving them another fat raise, and that proposal was dropped.

Too bad for the commissioners. But at least there's a sort-of silver lining for us taxpayers: We can rest assured, at least politically, that we'll likely be in better hands dead than we were when we were alive.

And at least then we won't have to put up with the grandstanding.


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