Guest Columns

DUNCAN: OUR CASTRATED GENERAL ASSEMBLY

Rule by TABOR flouts the founding fathers

As we begin another legislative session, a few observations are in order.

Colorado’s General Assembly is probably the most poorly equipped of any Legislature in the country to deal with the current national economic mess as it affects our state.

Colorado’s past decisions in innumerable constitutional amendments and referenda have so severely limited our lawmakers’ ability to deal with the state’s problems that we have no right to expect them to deal effectively with our financial problems.

Ours is the only state in the nation that prohibits our lawmakers to increase taxes without a vote of the people. Forty-nine state legislatures can raise taxes on their own vote, with approval of the governor. If that wasn’t bad enough, we have so limited the opportunities for them to present tax increases to the voters that they cannot act to solve urgent problems.

We treat them like petulant children. Our attitude seems to be that, although we elected them, we have no confidence in them to deal with the state’s finances.

We have turned our representative republic on its head. We have denuded our elected representatives. What did we elect them for? To disburse their very limited allowance among the needs they perceive?

Starting with TABOR, by that very illustrious economist, Douglas Bruce, and continuing with the absurdities of Amendment 23 — along with other electorate-imposed limits — we have handcuffed our legislators to the extent that we can have no rational state budget. We cannot place any significant percentage of our tax revenues where they are really needed. Legislators are forbidden to allocate the state’s meager unrestricted funds in a way that seems most reasonable under the circumstances.

It is a ridiculous, inefficient, wasteful and — if I may say so — childish way to run a state government. If we have enough confidence to elect citizens to serve in our General Assembly, why don’t we let them do the job we elected them to do?

To begin to understand the problem, look at the money we spend in our election process. On Jan. 2, the Rocky Mountain News reported that $71.1 million was spent to pass or defeat ballot issues in the 2008 election — mostly by 527 or 501(c)4 special interest groups. In that election, the groups spent $9.5 million on the campaigns of candidates for Colorado’s General Assembly. In other words, the special interests (and I really don’t like that term) spent seven times as much telling legislators what they could or couldn’t do as they did on deciding who was the best candidate for the
Legislature.

Why spend money electing good legislators to decide rationally about the broad needs of state government if you contrive broadcast commercials and mailers to convince citizens that they should take away the Legislature’s power to make meaningful financial decisions?

Referendum O was an attempt (a futile one) last year to bring some balance to the consideration of constitutional amendments and initiated laws. The failure to do that kept the power in the hands of those who can raise enough money to tie the hands of legislators and citizens and diminish the legislative process. Legislators have no chance to move money around to solve our most pressing needs.

Term limits are another sinister part of this deprivation of citizen control over our state government. Did you ever see a term limit on lobbyists or on legislative staff? Term limits assure that no legislator can stay in the process long enough to balance his or her historical knowledge with that of lobbyists and professional legislative staff. By the time legislators get to the point that they are able to outsmart the special interests, term limits turn them out of office.

We have turned Colorado’s representative republican form of government into a direct democracy, where the voters must decide important issues. We have rejected the government model our founding fathers gave us for the federal government — and Colorado is the only state that rejects that model.

It amazes me that so many dedicated citizens continue to run for the House and Senate. They spend the whole session banging their heads against the wall, trying to figure out how to give their constituents the best state government they can. The frustration of those I have discussed it with is palpable.

We are very lucky. We have a General Assembly full of intelligent and unselfish people who are willing to give their time and energy to give us the best government they can provide under the restrictions they face.

We should all find ways to thank them for their service.

Norman Duncan is a former lobbyist and current Democrat.