Send in the clowns 

Last week: the problem. This week: the solution.

The problem, as some may recall, is that the fundamental law of the state, the Colorado Constitution, is a mess.

Endlessly amended by special interest groups, it's about the size of the Grand Junction phonebook. Thanks to the Constitution, legislators are effectively barred from solving the state's problems.

Tax revenue may be down, but Amendment 23 mandates ever-increasing K-12 spending. Yet local school districts still take it in the shorts, because residential property taxes decline every year, thanks to the Gallagher Amendment. And even if the economy rebounds, the state won't be able to use the increased revenue, thanks to the revenue caps in the TABOR Amendment.

And how did this come to pass? It's simple; since we're a state that permits citizen initiatives, lawmakers simply passed the buck. In the '80s, they refused to craft a simple tax limitation bill; as a result, they got Doug Bruce and TABOR.

Thanks to legislative inaction, citizens mounted initiatives that mandated generous funding for open space, historic preservation and public education.

So here's the dilemma: We're in a recession. The state is facing a deficit of close to a billion dollars. Legislators can neither increase taxes, nor reform the tax system to achieve greater fairness, without a public vote. And, thanks to yet another amendment limiting initiatives/referenda to a single subject, any attempt to reform, say, TABOR, would take 10 or 12 separate proposals. Good luck!

Any meaningful reform involves giving back power to the Legislature that the voters have, over the last 25 years or so, taken away from that body.

Think about it: Whatever our problems, do we really want to give those clowns more power?

No. Of course we don't. And maybe that's because as the Legislature has lost power and influence, the legislators themselves have become visibly less competent.

Republicans have ruled the roost for most of the last quarter-century, and in that time we've gone from the imposing Chuck Berry, Tilman Bishop and Ray Powers to the, well, let's just throw out some names: Ed Jones, Dave Schultheis, Debbie Stafford.

It's as if Colin Powell had been replaced by Ollie North -- we've moved from smart, serious heavyweights to scatterbrained ideologues. And thanks to constitutionally mandated term limits, the entire legislation turns over every few years. The solid, unspectacular citizens who served multiple terms are gone, and with them the Legislature's institutional memory.

Maybe the answer is to reform the Legislature. We need an elected body composed of thoughtful, competent folks, whom the voters in the moderate center can trust and respect.

But our present system, in which a few hundred partisan activists control who gets nominated in any given district, gives us what we've got -- zealous nincompoops, mainly concerned with guns, gays, God and abortion.

We're not the only state with this problem. Jesse Ventura, the unaffiliated maverick who served as Minnesota's governor, tried to amend that state's constitution to provide for nonpartisan elections.

Minnesota's ruling party (the Dems!) killed that idea in a hurry, for the same reason that our GOPsters would fight such a reform in Colorado. Absent the "R" label, candidates will be judged on their own merits, and you can bet that the hack incumbents won't stand a chance.

If you want to know what nonpartisan campaigns might look like, consider our own City Council/mayoral elections. Compared to most of our legislators (e.g., Ed Jones), the four leading mayoral candidates -- Sallie Clark, Ted Eastburn, Lionel Rivera and Jim Null -- are extraordinarily well qualified. Look at their rsums: small-business owner, cardiologist, financial consultant, professor.

I've had the pleasure of spending time with all of them; any of the four would make a good mayor.

And none of them -- Republicans all! -- could ever get nominated for partisan office. They're just too independent and too smart to spend years sucking up to nutcase Republican activists.

And look at our Council candidates (all 28 of 'em!). They range from a guy who bootstrapped himself up from utter poverty (Tom Gallagher) to a smart, capable woman with a degree from Stanford Law School (Lauren Arnest). There are Dems, Republicans and Independents -- all running on their own merits. We, the voters, get to pick and choose.

I'll bet that we do a pretty good job. And I'll bet that a Legislature chosen in like nonpartisan elections would look a lot like our City Council: devoid of ideological posturing, more interested in solving problems than assigning blame. And once we get a decent Legislature ... who knows?

We might actually give 'em the power to solve problems.


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