Capitol critics ignore reality of changing Colorado

In Capitol Review by Mark Hillman

Ideas inspire both philosophers and legislators, but the two jobs differ considerably thereafter.

That distinction is critical to understanding the current dust-up between the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara and several Republican lawmakers.

A thoughtful, assertive voice for liberty, Caldara is a friend and an ally.  He and the Institute advocate tirelessly for personal freedom and limited government – principles that are as dear to me now as they were when I served in the Colorado Senate.

Caldara’s job is to turn up the heat on lawmakers when they are being cajoled to compromise.  His job is not, however, to consider those same lawmakers’ prospects for re-election or to balance the competing interests that lawmakers face back home.

So, when Caldara calls for the Republican Party to purge lawmakers who, in his view, don’t sufficiently toe the line, it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and assess the realities that lawmakers must face – or ignore at their own peril.

Legislators have a responsibility to the people they represent.  They are responsible for governing, particularly when their party is empowered with a majority.

In Colorado, Republicans hold a one-vote majority in the state Senate.  Democrats hold a nine-vote margin in the state House, and they’ve held the Governor’s Mansion for more than a decade.

The reality is that Republicans cannot pass legislation without some cooperation from Democrats – and vice versa.

Two such bipartisan bills considered by the Legislature earlier this year draw Caldara’s ire because they represented compromise on existing taxpayer protections.

House Bill 1242, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, proposed to ask voters for a sales tax increase to boost transportation funding, which has flat-lined for the past 17 years.

Grantham is a straight shooter.  He didn’t break any arms, buy any votes or employ dirty tricks.  He asked his caucus to give the bill a fair hearing, and ultimately, it died in a Senate committee.

Senate Bill 267 – which became law – moved the controversial Hospital Provider Fee (HPF) outside the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) spending limit, allowing government spending to increase.  On the other hand, it lowered the TABOR spending cap by $200 million.

Caldara skewers Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) and Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs), along with Reps. Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan) and Polly Lawrence (R-Castle Rock), for advancing the bill.

If Republicans had their way, the spending cap would have been reduced by more than $500 million.  Conversely, Democrats wouldn’t have reduced the cap whatsoever, except that they had to placate Republicans.

Important to rural lawmakers, the bill threw a lifeline to several smalltown hospitals that were faced with shutdown.  That may not mean much to residents of the Front Range where hospitals are ubiquitous.  However, closing the only hospital in an entire county is the difference between life and death for some victims of severe accidents or acute illness.  Worse still, a community that loses its hospital faces a bleak future, with closure of businesses and schools looming.

Sonnenberg and Becker cut the best deal they could to protect the interests of the rural communities they represent and to prevent taxpayers from being fleeced.

With perfect hindsight, let’s compare this compromise to a missed opportunity several years ago when Republicans considered a bill expanding rights for gays and lesbians while protecting freedom of conscience of individuals and organizations whose faith holds that marriage is the domain of opposite-sex couples.

Republicans killed that bill and, in the next election, lost their majority in the state House.  The next year, Democrats passed the same bill minus protections for religious liberty.

Like it or not, progress in a split legislature involves give-and-take.  That doesn’t sell well in a white paper, but it’s the reality that our lawmakers must confront.  After all, what good is a pristine voting record if you’ve done nothing to make life better for the people who elected you.