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Prepare For The Ghost Of Politics Future

Election 2017 A Harbinger Of What’s To Come

The political season is in full swing. The November elections have just concluded and we are heading towards the start of our January legislative session. And, the 2018 election cycle has officially begun.

Without question, the tone for the new session and the upcoming election cycle have already been set. Denver voters surprised absolutely no one in approving the seven bond questions by a substantial margin. They also approved the voter initiated Green Roof question, over the mayor’s opposition.

Many were surprised by the abysmally low turnout this election cycle. Of 451,316 registered voters in Denver, only 142,952 turned in ballots – a 31.6 percent turnout. This was among the lowest in recent history, but with the low turnout, came the realization that the election was driven by a subset of the electorate.

In the four Denver Public School board elections, two incumbents were defeated – both of them representing different parts of Park Hill. One at-large incumbent was reelected and an open seat was filled. Of the four positions contested, two were won by candidates heavily supported by the teachers union. This was a result also reflected in Aurora, and to lesser degrees, in Jefferson and Douglas counties. This indicates that the majority of voters turning out were certainly Democratic. And, even more importantly, that the voters represented the more progressive wing of the party, supporting union candidates and expressing concern with the charter schools and “choice” options that have been de rigueur in the public school system.

This local trend appears to be reflected by national elections. Democratic candidates secured the governor’s office in Virginia, and New Jersey. In addition, Democrats obtained a majority in the Washington State Senate as well as other gains throughout the country. Once again, it would appear that the inspired voter – not only in Colorado, but on a national level – was a more left-leaning, independent minded voter. Perhaps even anti-establishment, anti-big money and maybe anti-Trump.

It will be interesting to see if this trend carries over into the 2018 election cycle.

The case of Judge Roy Moore

Concurrently another force has surfaced. It may well be driven by the same electorate that turned out in November. In Alabama, former Judge Roy Moore’s US Senate campaign has been rocked by allegations of his inappropriate behavior and relationships with teenage women dating back some 25 to 30 years. The Republican Party has been shaken by the scandal. Many Republican elected officials have encouraged Moore to drop out of the race, while his die-hard supporters have encouraged him to remain in the contest. Moore himself has strongly insisted that he will remain in the race, while appearing to admit the allegations of several of the women who have come forward (eight in total at the time this article went to press). He is insisting that his conduct was either with willing participants or was not in violation of any laws at the time.

The general revulsion towards his behavior and his apparent inability to grasp how it might offend voters of different ages, genders, and political orientations, is astounding. The national and local Republican parties are in turmoil, as Moore’s defeat would potentially shrink the U.S. Senate to a 1-vote majority for Republicans.

Similarly, Democratic Colorado State Rep. Steve Lebsock was accused in November by three female legislators and a female lobbyist of lewd, sexual and inappropriate comments and propositions, in addition to offensive and unwelcomed touching. Lebsock has admitted to most of the allegations, although he also stated that he was too inebriated to recall much of his behavior. He tendered public apologies to some of the victims but now claims he is himself a victim. The women have all expressed their belief that the apologies are not sincere.

Lebsock is also a candidate for state treasurer in 2018. It is likely a resignation from the legislature would also signal the end of his treasurer’s campaign. Many calls for his resignation have come from elected officials on both sides of the aisle. One Republican legislator has also demanded Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, resign for covering up and rewarding Lebsock’s behavior

Tip of the iceberg

It is possible that the saga of Lebsock is only the tip of the iceberg in the era of the #metoo movement. Rumors continue to swirl around the Colorado Capitol about other female legislators and lobbyists who intend to come forward with assertions of inappropriate behavior and worse by other male legislators.

Indeed, many acknowledge that this behavior has not been rare in the past, with men and women both being the aggressor and the offender. What is different is the new social environment encouraging victims to come forward and go public so that remedial and appropriate actions can be taken.

It will be both surprising and shameful to see what additional allegations surface between now and the start of the legislative session. One thing is clear, the cases of Roy Moore and Rep. Lebsock clearly signal a new day and standard for the expected behavior of elected officials and candidates for office. And it is certain to impact the ability of the Colorado General Assembly to do its work this upcoming session, which begins on Jan. 10.

The prospects for progress were dim in light of the partisan nature of the body stoked by the fact that 2018 is a general election year. The latest simply provides additional fuel to the fire.

What to expect?

Assuming some issues are introduced and addressed in the upcoming session, what might we expect to see next year? Anticipate competing proposals to address the gap in transportation funding for highways, roads, and bridges in our state. Proposals for referred measures and “citizen” initiated ballot proposals are likely.

Similarly, a proposal by the board of Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) to address the actuarial shortfall and funding of the retirement program for the state’s employees, judges, and K-12 teachers has already experienced fireworks.

Gov. Hickenlooper, in a somewhat surprising move, has criticized the PERA reform brought forward by the board and indicated that it is too generous for retirees. His calls have been for reduced benefits and additional contributions into the retirement program – which would require additional sacrifice by retirees and current state employees. Anticipate competing and varied legislation on this topic.

Many lawmakers are also talking about the need to provide additional funding for K-12 education. Indeed, the state’s recent revenue projections indicate that additional funding may be possible.

However, the availability of money is one thing, the ability to reach a consensus with the two chambers of the legislature – one controlled by Democrats, one controlled by Republicans – is quite another thing. Particularly given the financial impacts.

Strains on roads and schools

The reality is, although we live in prosperous times, Colorado has significant and unique problems. Our population has grown nearly 10 percent in the last six years. That massive growth from in-migration has resulted in strains on our public infrastructure, including our roads, public schools, and other public assets.

Colorado’s total revenues may top the $30 billion level, but it is important to keep this in mind: The general fund portion of the budget, which pays for these programs, is barely greater than the 2002-2003 recession.

Colorado does have some flexibility with its budget. Now is the time to begin to address critical infrastructure needs that will impact our quality of life in the long run.

The governor’s budget proposes to increase spending in higher education by approximately 9.7 percent, a roughly $85 million increase. However, this increased funding will not stop tuition by increasing approximately three percent over last year.

The governor’s budget also proposes increased funding for K 12 education of about 5 percent, or $70 million. Yet, many estimate the cumulative underfunding to our K-12 system is at least $750 million. Medicaid funding and its connection to the Affordable Care Act will likely take up 25-28 percent of the general fund budget.

Finally, the governor proposes an additional $77 million for the state’s reserve fund hoping to build that fund from 6.5 percent to 7 percent.

No free lunch

This may all sound like it’s raining money but the reality is our state tax policy, grounded both in statute and constitution over the last 20 years, has simply reduced the revenue available to meet all of the needs of the state and its citizens.

We have all known for years that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But that also applies to what we expect government to provide for us in the way of goods and services. We can have these things, but we have to do what is responsible and right and what we do in our household budgets, we have to pay for them.

Happy Holidays.

Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney with Kutak Rock and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003, when he resigned from the Senate to run for Mayor of Denver. Penfield’s adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and he and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood.

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