Is there really that much disagreement about the biggest problems facing Colorado? I would argue there is not. Coloradans want a sustainable economy, good schools, efficient transportation, a fair tax system, safe communities and reasonable protection of Colorado’s quality of life.
Why then do these issues never seem to get resolved?
Because the biggest problem is politics. Political decision-making for dealing with these issues is broken, and it has been for decades.
That’s the biggest need on Colorado’s “to do” list.
Extreme partisanship, rigid ideologies and lack of respect for opposing views are blocking progress on the fundamental issues facing Colorado. Public policy debates too frequently devolve into tribal conflicts framed starkly in terms of “good” and “evil” with no political middle ground.
Lawmakers care more about their tribal ideology than what’s good for the people. And they worry too much about the potential for future political attacks from the extremes of their own party in the next election.
So the state makes little progress on critical issues.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time in Colorado, and elsewhere, even in Congress, when Republicans respected Democrats and Democrats respected Republicans even when they disagreed over policy. Sometimes they learned from each other.
There’d be fierce debates on the floor of the House and Senate, a lot of buttonholing in the lobby outside the chambers. But at night, the opponents could get together over a drink or a meal and hash things out.
In the 1980s, when I covered the General Assembly for two newspapers, complicated issues got resolved between Republicans and Democrats that are hard to imagine getting through the Legislature today.
A few examples:
• Led by Republicans, the Legislature created the Scientific and Cultural Facilities tax district. That’s right. A new tax, sponsored by Republicans. Supported by Democrats because of what the tax would pay for. And it even got support from some rural Republicans.
• A new “flat tax” to replace Colorado’s overly complicated state income tax system raised an additional $400 million in revenue. Although it was opposed initially by Democrats who wanted a graduated income tax, they eventually got on board because it raised significant new money for programs they wanted.
• Enabling legislation was adopted that eventually led to Denver’s new airport, new convention center and Coors Field. Big government, anyone?
All these things happened because elected officials believed politics really was the art of compromise. Give and take was possible because politicians possessed a basic level of respect for the opposition, though they might disagree on details. They worked it out.
But then came TABOR and other constitutional measures that put state finances on autopilot; term limits that handed more power to special interests and lobbyists; the weaponization of political ads; and the adoption of annihilation politics that attacked character rather than substance, often on exaggerated or false claims.
Today, political compromise is viewed as an act of capitulation. Of disgrace. Of weakness. The parties are largely defined as a series of inviolate principles and litmus tests from which the participants can never deviate.
Campaign finances magnify the differences, too. Republicans dare not side with Democrats lest they risk a primary challenge in the next election cycle, financed by special interests. A Democrat who sides with the Republicans faces similar risk.
We’ve retreated into tribes. It’s not the loyal opposition anymore. It’s the enemy. Less gets done.
We know what Colorado needs. Sensible TABOR reform, equitable school finance, protection of quality of life, but not at the expense of the entire oil and gas industry. A more efficient transportation system.
But we won’t get there until politicians and the political parties jettison the “win at all costs” mentality that pervades public discourse today.
Let’s try to remember we’re in the same tribe. It’s called democracy.
Neil Westergaard is former editor of the Denver Business Journal and The Denver Post.