Friday, March 28, 2014

The Budget on the Agenda at the Colorado State Capitol

The murals inside of the Colorado State Capitol which pay tribute to the workers who have built the state
The murals inside of the Colorado State Capitol which pay tribute to the workers who have built the state

Over the course of this week, I have been shadowing a lobbyist who lobbies the Colorado State Legislature for a number of clients. For a time, I have been interested in political science, and this venture was somewhat of a culmination of that interest. It was an invaluable experience: I gained a much better understanding of state level politics, connected with my representatives, and saw some very specific instances of needless inefficiencies that could make government much more effective.

I was in the midst of a number of important discussions. This week, the state was considering bills ranging from telecommunications reform, election reform, and most importantly the appropriations "long" bill. The first bill which I saw passed on third reading was making it harder for parents to opt out vaccinations for their children. There were passionate voices on both sides of the aisle, some stating that it is unacceptable to allow these diseases to come back, and others stating that the government should not interfere with the choice of an informed parent. In the end, 22 members out of the 65 member body voted against it, signifying a passage. This was only one of two bills that I witnessed that were not passed with a unanimous or near unanimous vote. There is a large misconception that everything is extremely deadlocked, but the only bills that really get publicized are the ones that are contentious. In fact, around 90% of votes made are not close to being contentious.

Another interesting discussion introduced me to an issue I was previously unaware of. Telecommunication rules have not kept up with technology in Colorado, as they have not been updated for 19 years, while technology with cellphones and broadband connections has changed tremendously since then. These bills would try to update rural communities to broadband, change subsidies based on settlement sizes to match new sizes, and put the state on track to move away from the use of basic copper landlines. This bill had many proponents, but the opponents were numerous and vocal. The senior lobby was greatly concerned about the cost for landlines increasing by up to 250% and losing reliable 911 services in case of emergency. They claimed not to be opposed to technology, but stated that cellphone technology was just not "there" yet to be able to replace the always reliable copper landline.

The old Supreme Court room, which is where the committee hearing on the telecommunication bills was held.
The old Supreme Court room, which is where the committee hearing on the telecommunication bills was held.



The so called Long Bill is the yearly appropriations bill, or to put it simply, the budget. The Joint Budget Committee is comprised of three Representatives and three Senators, and begins meeting in October to draft the bill that will then be proposed to the Assembly as a whole in March. It really earns its name as the long bill, being over 800 pages long: even the narrative of it is still 400 pages. It covers all topics that the state is involved with fiscally. Often, the most contentious part of the process is the amending. This year, there were nearly 50 amendments, and on average, the House stays in session until 12:00 midnight or 1:00 debating the amendments and deciding whether to approve or reject the amendments. For the period of time that I was observing, the House only passed 4 amendments to the budget within two hours.

The first thing that I was surprised by was how open the Capitol was. Any person could be in a position to lobby their representative or senator on a bill which affected an issue that was important to them. Anybody is also free to come to committee meetings to testify in support or opposition to a bill. I was really surprised by the immense amount of opportunities that a citizen and a constituent had to make an impact on lawmakers. I think most of this surprise came from the fact that few people take advantage of this, very likely because few people know about this opportunity. The most important thing is to get people engaged via voting, but if more people would interact with their state representatives on a more personal level, then I think that the state legislature could be a lot more effective in crafting legislation much more in line with the citizens interests.

Another thing which I really felt I took to heart by the end of the week was that a little civil disobedience is important, and often necessary. The House spent close to 30 minutes debating an amendment to the budget that would allocate $1 million from the trust fund for natural disasters (which is in total around $75 million) for the purposes of dealing with excessive tumbleweeds in Southeastern Colorado. Despite this being a seemingly simple topic, it quickly blew up due to an argument over semantics. A main argument against the allocation is that tumbleweeds, specifically those made from russian and Canadian thistle which plague rural Colorado, are not in some group out of Class A, B, or C noxious weeds, which technically means that those tumbleweeds are not eligible for cleanup funding. Some stated that this funding would "break the law," which is correct in the very literal sense, but in all reality is practically meaningless.

A view of the House debating the budget amendment that would allocate funds to tumbleweed cleanup
A view of the House debating the budget amendment that would allocate funds to tumbleweed cleanup


These rural communities could absolutely use any kind of help with the severe drought that they have been experiencing the past few years, and to evoke an argument over semantics on an amendment which is important to these communities greatly frustrated me. The state of Colorado has not yet been reprimanded for a significant breach of federal law with the legalization of recreational marijuana, so why is going outside a classification of noxious weeds an unacceptable instance of breaking a law? A similar issue was brought up recently in the state as well: a young girl who shaved her head in support of her friend who had cancer was not allowed to come back to school due to an outdated rule that attached shaved heads to gang symbols. I think that doing whatever is in the interest of the public good is always the best course of action, which likely means getting rid of outdated laws, rules, and regulations that are impeding meaningful progress.

Many Americans make a call for smaller government. I believe that the real call should be for simpler government. A government should not impede on our rights or our ability to act as individuals, but in modern times, a government must be able to provide services that help people without the cloud of complicated codes and loopholes.

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