How'd you like to be an elected official of such power and weight that you had a research staff numbering in the hundreds, able to give you sophisticated policy analyses of any issue in a couple of days?
If you were a member of the Colorado Springs City Council -- as I once was -- you'd be able to do just that.
A few years ago, when the city was in the middle of one of its periodic money crunches, it occurred to me that, when it came to transportation money from the state, maybe we were getting shortchanged. So I asked the city's transportation department to research the matter, and within a few days I had the answers.
It made for discouraging reading. Compared to Metro Denver, El Paso County residents paid out a lot more in tax dollars than we got back in transportation funding. And this wasn't just a one-year anomaly -- it was a pattern that had persisted for a decade or more.
No matter how you sliced and diced the numbers -- funding per capita, funding per lane-mile, tax revenues per capita, tax revenues by region -- we were getting screwed.
And not just a little bit -- our cumulative revenue shortfall amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some of the stats were truly appalling; for example, of the major metropolitan areas in the United States, which one ranks dead last in Interstate Highway mileage per capita? As of a few years ago, we did. And I suspect that we still do.
What to do? Seemed obvious enough at the time: Let's figure out who makes the funding decisions, and change the way the money's allocated. After all, the Republicans controlled the Legislature and the 100 percent-Republican delegation from El Paso County included in its number some extraordinarily canny, even ruthless, politicians.
House Speaker Chuck Berry, Senate President Ray Powers, Ronnie "Ten-Lane" May -- they could fix the problem, right?
Wrong. And here's why: Twenty-five years ago, the Legislature and the governor, weary of continuous bickering over the allocation of transportation funding, removed themselves from the process.
Instead, they agreed they would simply decide upon the aggregate amount of dollars available. A Transportation Commission, consisting of 11 governor-appointed members each representing a particular geographical district, would then decide how the money would be dispersed.
Such an arrangement, it was thought, would remove politics from the equation and allow for long-term, nonpartisan planning that would benefit the entire state.
On paper, it's a good concept. And in practice, it has worked well for everyone in the state except Colorado Springs.
That's because when you analyze the various districts, you quickly see that five of those 11 commissioners are either part of the Denver Metro area or share common needs: i.e., the districts that include Douglas County, Aurora, Boulder, Greeley, Fort Collins, and the I-70 corridor to the ski resorts. Those five districts that need and support massive funding for their contiguous highway network can easily pick up two more votes from rural/western slope districts to get their projects funded.
By contrast, Colorado Springs is S.O.L. With only a single vote at the table, it's hard to build alliances and make deals. And it doesn't matter much who represents us -- you can bet that the other commissioners are fiercely loyal to their districts and a lot smarter than you might think.
Look at the picture above of the 11 current commissioners, plus C-DOT director Tom Norton. All are guys -- the woman is the secretary! Do they look like a bunch of sleepy-eyed hicks? Not to me -- they look a lot like the finalists at the World Series of Poker.
One of them looks a little out of place -- the guy with the mustache seated at the far left. That's El Paso County's representative, Dan Stuart. And even if he knows they're dealing off the bottom of the deck, there's nothing he can do about it.
The aces have already been dealt, and you're not gonna win many pots with a pair of deuces.