Blogger's Note: This is from the latest edition of my e-newsletter, From Just Outside the Roundhouse
I couldn’t help but think of our departed David Bowie this winter as I watched the legislature from just outside the roundhouse. It’s been four years since I’ve been out of that fray, and it looks, like Major Tom, untethered, disconnected and headed for parts unknown—in spite of the false display of accomplishment and good feelings on the final day. I feel the same way about the national political scene, where each party seems to be in denial that its grassroots are demanding an overhaul.
Is it just me or do you find these items disconcerting?
Item #1 The lack of meaningful action on the elephant in the room, i.e. an economy that continues to tank, making us first in unemployment, last in job creation. It’s fueling an exodus to neighboring states and leaving boarded-up buildings and For Rent signs in once thriving commercial centers like Nob Hill. The tired tools—smokestack chasing, tax breaks-- are not working. It’s obvious, but we’re stuck in political gridlock. Both the Governor and the divided legislature are to blame. Alan Weber had it right. The solutions are at hand: cellular phone service and high speed internet for the whole state; more flights at the Alb. Airport; diversification away from oil and gas to renewable energy; legalization and taxation of marijuana; investments in infrastructure and education; the use of unspent state funds identified by Auditor Tim Keller in his recent report.
Instead, the legis killed a measure that would have extended a tax credit for rooftop solar, dismissing an industry that is one of the few bright spots in the economy. And it made sure the voters would not have the opportunity to weigh in on legalizing (and taxing) marijuana, a proposition that brought $70 million into Colorado’s tax coffers last year.
Item # 2 In the wake of a major scandal involving the state’s chief ethics officer, the Secretary of State, the legislature, once again stuck its head in the sand and said the details weren’t quite right yet on the Ethics Commission, or on making lobbyist expenditures or independent PAC donors public. Really? Don’t we have a right to know? Shouldn’t lobbyists and elected officials be held accountable? Members of the Senate Rules Committee have had ten years to deliberate on this one, as bill after bill has come before them (I know, I was there), and their excuses are wearing thin. Many of the veterans are all for transparency—except when it applies to them. Then, as Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino said, a certain “paranoia” takes over that the elected officials will be victimized by the media or political opponents—and that-- with very few exceptions-- trumps the public’s right to know.
Almost all of the ethics initiatives were victims of a short session—and political moves designed to kill them. The Governor didn’t give messages or gave them too late, and House members got to vote for measures they knew would never make it through the Senate. Such is life in a divided body. The legislature, may be able to save itself at the 11th hour from Real ID, but can’t enact systemic reform to address deep-seated problems like declining public trust or economic stagnation.
Item #3 The unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The way we have constructed the primary system has magnified the extreme wings of each party…. but, whoa, is there some realignment going on here? Some of the polls say that there’s crossover between Sanders and Trump supporters. They’re so disaffected that they’re for anyone who’s against the “establishment.” Think of what would happen if they somehow united. There are lots of institutional barriers of course, but… just saying. Our two-party system has created stability, but change is very difficult, especially without the reforms that would open it up. It’s gratifying to hear Bernie rail vs. Citizens United and dark money, just as it is to hear Trump tell a few truths about the power of moneyed donors on the Republican side. Without reform in this area, there’s going to be even more frustration from the shrinking middle class and… who knows, maybe even a push for deeper changes like independent redistricting (killed by the leg), ability for independents to vote in primaries (also killed) and even…. perish the thought, term limits or statewide voter initiatives.