Columns » Public Eye

The winter of our discontent



The weather's sure been terrific lately -- balmy, blue skies. Yessirree, you would think that things are fanciful as springtime here in Colorado.

Except that reality is much, much bleaker. First of all, it's actually, um, winter. As of press time, it hasn't snowed or rained around here in more than a month. And just what are our elected leaders doing to plan for and deal with the continuing drought? Locally, other than adopting a "reform" encouraging developers to continue to plant thirsty bluegrass, not much of anything.

And at the state level, our leaders seem to be more interested in padding developers' wallets and harassing abortion providers than considering anything as meaningful as real solutions to water shortages, reviving the economy and, yes, reining in continuing sprawl (remember that?).

As we have detailed over the past several weeks, Colorado has dropped to 50th (out of 50 states) in funding for the arts. Last year we lost more jobs in Colorado than nearly every other state. We pay among the highest insurance rates in the country. We are also dead last, nationally, in money spent on substance abuse treatment programs.

Until a couple of years ago, we were also 50th in the nation for education funding. This was due in part because the state -- under a Democratic and then a Republican governor -- refused to fully fund its own School Finance Act that was devised in 1988 to equalize education funding statewide.

Two years ago, voters were sick of it. They approved Amendment 23 to mandate per pupil funding. As a result, we are currently ranked 43rd in the nation in the money we spend on educating children. Not great, but an improvement.

Unfortunately, many Republican lawmakers and the governor just loathe this mandate. They harp about the need to pay for highway projects (mostly in Denver) and build more prisons.

It's hard to imagine anyone would actually admit to being against educating children -- especially when voters mandated the funding in the first place.

It used to be that lawmakers at least pretended to respect the wishes of the voters. After the Douglas Bruce-sponsored TABOR amendment that caps taxing and spending passed in 1992, politicians of all stripes were aghast at the restrictions it placed on them. Republicans and Democrats alike initially moaned and wailed and gnashed their teeth.

But Republicans soon convinced themselves that being anti-TABOR amounted to being anti-fiscally conservative, and nowadays they walk around boasting about their love affair with the amendment, vowing their duty to protect its integrity.

You would think that these leaders would consistently extend that kind of respect for the wishes of the majority.

Think again. This week, House Majority Leader Keith King -- who is from Colorado Springs -- claimed that he believes the Legislature doesn't have to abide by Amendment 23. Beginning in a couple years, he insists, lawmakers can start dipping into that cookie jar again and use the money that voters explicitly designated for education for other things.

His words struck a bad chord.

"It is disturbing that lawmakers would consider such a flagrant violation of the will of the people, said House Minority Leader Jennifer Viega, a Democrat from Denver. "Coloradans should be insulted that Rep. King and his Republican colleagues are using legal mumbo jumbo to try to undermine the will of the people."

Likewise this week, rookie state Sen. Ed Jones -- who is also from Colorado Springs and not exactly considered the brain trust of our 13-member legislative delegation -- introduced a bill to bring on school vouchers.

Jones' bill is not surprising, given that the main man behind his candidacy was Steve Schuck, a Colorado Springs developer and arguably the most ardent voucher supporter in the state.

It seems a little redundant to have to point this out, but voters have at least twice rejected efforts to approve school vouchers in Colorado.

Somebody needs to ask these TABOR-loving lawmakers what part of "no" they don't seem to understand.

My boss sometimes tells me that I should try to look on the bright side of things. In that vein, let me offer up two other interesting factoids about the current state of Colorado: We're the skinniest state in the nation, and we smoke the most dope per capita.

That should be cause enough for us to raise our arms in victory and chant, altogether now:

"We're not the worst! We're not the worst!"


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