EIGHT YEARS IN THE SENATE: A BLINK OF AN EYE
The 2016 legislative session adjourned on Wednesday, May 11, and this was my final session due to term limits. It was a bittersweet day, as I remembered with fondness and pride the high points of my time in office, but also felt sadness in seeing it come to an end. I'd like to start this letter by once again saying what a privilege and pleasure it has been to serve as your Senator, and I hope you will indulge me as I go back through some of the significant political events of the past eight years.
Outgoing Democratic Senators (from left) Michael Johnston, Rollie Heath, Linda Newell, Morgan Carroll, Jessie Ulibarri, Pat Steadman, and Mary Hodge.
I will be writing about my own career today, but please know that I couldn't have accomplished anything here by myself. At the Capitol, we use a common phrase "33-18-1," which means you need at least 33 votes in the House, 18 in the Senate, and the Governor's signature before a bill becomes law. On top of that, many of the ideas for bills or amendments came from you, my constituents. In addition, we have incredible staff throughout the Colorado government that helped greatly with research and other forms of support.
Of course, there were disappointments - from my point of view, partially because we went through periods of split legislatures. Democrats held majorities in the Senate and House for four of my eight years here, while Republicans had the majority in the House for two years and the Senate majority for two years. This is not meant to criticize Republicans, but only to point out that there are deep philosophical divides between the parties. It's tough to reach a solution when you can't agree on the problem, and, unfortunately, we couldn't reach agreements on many key issues due to this divide.
But let's focus mostly on the positive. So much has happened over the course of eight years that I decided to write to you in three installments, one each day for the next three days. Here goes!
The Economic Crash, and Our Response
I was elected for my first term in the November 2008 election, and at that time, we were in the middle of the worst financial collapse most of us have ever experienced. The so-called Great Recession sent unemployment skyrocketing, wiped out gigantic amounts of net worth, and damaged peoples' confidence in our economic future. This called for action.
I did lots of business tours to meet Coloradans and learn more about their successes and challenges.
In Colorado, we formed a Joint Select Committee on Job Growth and Economic Development, and I started serving on it before I was sworn in as a Senator. We started by holding public hearings so we could learn what was happening from the people of Colorado, and we heard hours of testimony from all segments of our economy - business, labor, education, traditional and alternative energy, nonprofits, and many more. Committee members then proposed 24 bills for the 2009 session, and 18 of them were signed into law - six of which I sponsored.
The crash made it tougher for businesses to get loans, but a bill I sponsored (SB 09-067) re-established the Colorado Credit Reserve program, which provided credit to qualifying small businesses. We needed jobs badly, so HB 09-1001 established a Job Growth Tax Credit for companies creating at least 20 new jobs in Colorado, or five in rural areas. Many Coloradans needed help just paying monthly bills, so SB 09-178 extended the availability of job-attached unemployment benefits. We also passed bills to complement Gov. Bill Ritter's "New Energy Economy" clean-energy initiative, and to foster job training so more Coloradans could qualify for good jobs once the economy improved.
No single bill or program from 2009 would have lifted us out of the recession, but the topic of getting our economy back on track was foremost on every legislator's mind - and we continued running economic bills in the years to come. Unfortunately, this crash was so severe that Colorado's unemployment rate hit its high point of 8.9 percent in both September and October of 2010, before it finally started turning around.
By 2016, our rate actually dipped below 3 percent for a time, and now stands at 3.1 percent. We've added several hundred thousand jobs since our low point in 2010, and we've attracted major new companies and encouraged existing firms to expand. It took a real team effort to make Colorado one of the most highly regarded states in which to do business today. I'd like to thank Gov. Ritter and Gov. John Hickenlooper, the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade, our private sector (both for-profit and not-for-profit), our colleges and universities, legislators from both parties, and everyone else who played a role. We were in real trouble in 2008, but we joined hands and steered the ship into more favorable waters.
Many of you know I ran for Governor of Colorado in 2002, and even then I realized that our fiscal structure needed a major overhaul. Basically, the combination of the Gallagher Amendment (passed in 1982), the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR, 1992), and Amendment 23 (2000) all worked together to create a system of conflicting provisions that we couldn't adjust when needed. All three were Constitutional amendments, so we couldn't even make minor amendments without a statewide vote of the people.
In 2009, I chaired a state Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission, formed during the recession with a goal of making sure we could weather the inevitable fiscal storms of the future. We held 11 eight-hour sessions, examining our Constitutional structure and our state governmental departments. For me, this process reinforced the notion that some of our departments (for example, Transportation and Education) are severely underfunded, while the more conservative members of the commission suggested we could do a better job funding certain services by cutting back elsewhere. This commission provided a great illustration of the differences between political philosophies.
We heard many challenging bills and resolutions when I chaired the Senate State Affairs Committee.
In 2010, I sponsored a resolution (SJR 10-002) calling for Colorado's first comprehensive tax study in decades. It passed, and the University of Denver completed a study showing that, without change, the state's General Fund might only be able to pay for K-12 education, Medicaid, and corrections within just more than a decade. I also sponsored another resolution (SCR 10-001) which would have called for a limited state Constitutional Commission devoted to fiscal issues. The members were to study the issues and hold a series of statewide public meetings, to help formulate possible Constitutional amendments for statewide ballot measures. Regrettably, this resolution did not get the 2/3 majority vote in the Senate it required to move forward.
During the recession, we didn't have to worry about providing TABOR refunds because state revenues were so far beneath the TABOR cap. But as the economy recovered, it became apparent that we might need to plan for refunds in the years to come, which was frustrating because we were still underfunding transportation, education, health care, mental health, services for the developmentally disabled, and more.
In 2016, state voters will probably have a chance to "de-Bruce," or let the state retain the tax revenue it collected, to better fund key services without raising tax rates. But I still believe we need to seek a more comprehensive fix to a revenue formula that was cobbled together based on political climates of the past, and doesn't work well for us in modern times.
Education Funding Challenges
Education is one of the most fundamental core responsibilities of government, since it's a foundation for the future success of individuals and our society as a whole. But the economic collapse cost our state so much that we couldn't avoid touching education as we cut our budgets. In 2009, the School Finance Act was altered to include what we now call the "negative factor," allowing for significant cuts to our K-12 budgets. Also, higher education in Colorado does not enjoy any funding guarantees or safeguards, so our institutions suffered through years of inadequate state support.
By 2011, I had seen enough. I decided to run a statewide citizen's initiative to better fund public education in Colorado. Proposition 103 would have simply restored the state's sales and income tax rates to what they were in the year 2000, with the money being used to fund K-12 and higher education. Gov. Bill Owens cut the tax rates during better economic times, but thanks to TABOR, we can't restore tax cuts without a vote of the people. Prop. 103 was defeated by about 64-36%, but I felt good about running this campaign because it got Coloradans talking about the consequences of poor education funding.
We gathered about 142,000 petition signatures for Proposition 103, and had this great rally on the Capitol steps.
We tried again in 2013. First, we passed a major rewrite of the School Finance Act with a bill (SB 13-213) which would have, in part, provided greater funding for school districts with larger percentages of poor families or students for which English is a new language. However, the bill depended on raising taxes through a statewide ballot measure, and Amendment 66 was defeated by about the same proportion as Prop. 103.
The economy was starting to recover, and we boosted education funding to the best of our ability through the yearly budget process. Still, the negative factor has kept us about $830 million per year below full K-12 funding, and state support for higher education remains near last among states in the nation. Our inability to adequately fund education is one of the great disappointments of my time in the General Assembly, but I hope others will carry the torch forward so we can get it right someday.