Guest Columns


Wasting their time and our money at the Capitol — a legislative prerogative?

With the heady issues facing the state — our revenue stream and budget being foremost — you have to wonder what’s on the mind of some lawmakers when they introduce proposed legislation that doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passage.

Are they doing it as a favor to a constituent, or do they really believe they can make a change in societal behavior? Or are they doing it over a misaligned sense of self-importance and political puffery? How can they justify the waste of resources, and time?

Here’s a litmus test that could be applied to any proposed legislation:
1. In this economy, does it create private sector jobs?
2. Is this an appropriate role for government?
3. Does it immediately contribute to the health and safety of Colorado citizens?
4. Does it save Colorado citizens money?
5. Does it streamline the process of government, reduce regulation, and promote self-determination?

If the Speaker of the House or Senate President can’t find that a lawmaker’s idea meets this test, then they should flatly tell the sponsor, “This is a bad idea and I won’t allow it to be introduced.” (U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is famous for telling congresspeople, “Ain’t going to happen.”) That same standard could apply in Colorado.

The costly process to get a bill drafted in Colorado starts in the Legislative Drafting Office, where staff attorneys do the research and the wordsmithing. We’re paying them about $100 an hour for their work. Then it gets reviewed by the legislator-sponsor, perhaps re-tweaked, calendared and read into the record. Every step adds incremental cost. By the time it gets to committee, where’s it’s docketed for a hearing, the cost per bill starts adding up. Let’s hope it dies in committee, so the cost per day for staff time and legal massaging doesn’t keep rising.

We have four topical examples to illustrate this point:
House Bill 1039 — Rep. Beth McCann’s (D) ill-fated attempt to outlaw “steer tailing,” an event in Mexican-style rodeos where a cowboy attempts to control and bring down a steer by grabbing its tail. A peculiar game in rodeo, for sure, but do we really need a law against it? Rep. McCann’s a smart former prosecutor. Before introducing this, she might have talked to responsible rodeo promoters and found that this is rarely practiced, and the industry does an effective self-policing job. The committee heard that argument and killed the bill.
Senate Bill 42 — Sen. Lucia Guzman’s (D) proposal to create “presumptive organ tissue donation.” She pulled it two days after it was proposed because of the outcry. How did this bill get started? Did the Senator convene a roundtable of the transplant community and ask, “Is this bill necessary? Is it a good idea?” No, on all counts, in a state where voluntary organ and tissue donation sets national trends. Who vetted this idea before it hit the media, and even before it got to Legislative Drafting?
Senate Bill 23 — Establishing a policy on state employees using state-owned vehicles for commuting. Why do we need a nine-page state law about vehicle use, something that should be the purview of the Director of Personnel and Administration? Create common sense rules, have employees using state-owned cars certify they’ll follow the rules at the peril of losing their jobs, and skip the whole legislative rigmarole.
Senate Bill 54 — Sen. Kent Lambert’s (R) attempt to get a Colorado law mirroring Arizona’s illegal immigrant apprehension statute. It’s guaranteed to produce sound and fury, hours of anguished radio talk, demonstrations outside the capitol, pages of editorial opinions and letters to the editor, and a packed Senate hearing. To what end? Arizona’s law already faces several legal challenges. Let those play out. Let’s hear what the courts have to say, take the good, discard the bad, and then make it work for Colorado, if we need such a law at all.

As more proposals come forth, I’ll bet we can throw at least half in the nearest shredder, because they just aren’t needed. Wiser heads will find a solution, and work it out, without the need for a new law. But a lot of time, money and attention will be wasted in the meantime, all of which could have better been spent on ways to save the state from economic ruin.

Just think how efficient the legislature might be if it only dealt with those issues that made a difference in our daily lives. We’d be gratified to know that our lawmakers were paying attention to the ideas that build value in our lives, and value in our economy. And they’d go home early. I fear, as that Boehner-ism goes, “Ain’t going to happen.”

Pete Webb, former broadcast journalist and award-winning investigative reporter, owns a PR firm which bears his name. He specializes in public affairs work, often focused on the state Capitol. Appointed by Governors Dick Lamm and Roy Romer to head the one-time Colorado Film Commission, Webb is also the immediate past president of the Special District Assn. of Colorado, long-time director of two fire districts, the latest being the South Metro Fire Rescue, the fifth largest in state. He is a registered Independent voter.