Amber McReynolds

Former Denver director of elections Amber McReynolds accepts her Public Official of the Year Award in Washington, D.C., alongside her 7-year-old daughter, Klara.

My friend Patty Calhoun, the editor of Westword, put the right words to what's been on my mind lately during a chat on Colorado Inside Out, KBDI-Colorado Public Television's current-affairs discussion show.

In a two-part taping for the Dec. 7 and Dec. 21 episodes, we talked about Denver proposing to waive minor pot possession convictions from before weed was legalized, following Boulder's lead. Denver also is trying to become the first U.S. city to set up medically supervised drug injection sites for addicts, to reduce deaths.

Patty also noted that starting Jan. 1, the Denver Public Library is eliminating late fees and uncollected fines to help get readers back in the door, joining a very small collection of cities giving amnesty and the honor system a try on overdue books.

Colorado finds ways to be the "cool floor of the dorm," she told our host, Dominic Dezzutti.

It's true. Said another way, Colorado might not always be the alpha dog, but we typically run near the front of the pack.

Other states that legalize marijuana will look to Colorado as a template, no doubt. In 2016 we became one of the first few states to legalize medical aid in dying for the terminally ill. And in November, voters added Colorado to the small fraternity of states trying hardest to end political gerrymandering on congressional and legislative districts.

It's partly in our regional DNA. After all, 27 years before Congress passed the 19th Amendment, Colorado men voted to give women the right to vote in 1893. The next year Clara Cressingham of Denver, Carrie Clyde Holly of Pueblo and Denverite Frances S. Klock, who represented Arapahoe County (which then included Denver), were the first  women elected to any legislature in the nation. All three were Republicans.

People who come west have typically been mavericks. It's that Wild West mentality to throw caution to the prairie winds, suggested another of my political and spiritual advisers, Paul Teske, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver.

"To be bold about creating new things," he said, "is all about the frontier mentality."

We spoke a few days after Governing magazine honored America's best public servants at a swanky event in Washington, D.C. Of 10 categories, three were filled by Coloradans: former Denver elections director Amber McReynolds, state prisons chief Rick Raemisch and state legislator Faith Winter.

> Coloradans lead Governing's list of top public officials

McReynolds was lauded because her fresh ideas and brain power on technology set the standard for municipal elections, the magazine said. Raemisch took a hard look at the effects of solitary confinement and made meaningful changes based on what he saw.

Winter, a state representative elected to the Senate last month, led the #MeToo movement through the legislature last year, which led to the first lawmaker to expelled from the Colorado General Assembly in more than a century.

When the next session convenes in a few weeks, there will be new standards of conduct, avenues for victims to report offenses and a better way to determine who is telling the truth. As painful as 2018 was for Winter, other accusers and the accused, progress is being made here, while other states continue to the look the other way.

On Colorado Inside Out, we also talked about the effects of the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, two measures passed by voters to retain control over how much they pay in taxes.

It'll take another vote of the people to take away the public's stingy right to decide on taxes. In most states, politicians do that for you, so you don't have to worry about it, just pay up.

But their opponents, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, tell you TABOR and Gallagher feed a fiscal thicket that makes it hard for the state to keep up with growth. 

But those constraints also squeeze out creative and sustainable solutions, too.

"I don't generally think TABOR and Gallagher are a good way to run the state, and if I was in charge and could change that I would," Teske told me. "But I do think it does spur the state's entrepreneurial thinking, because you're kind of forced to put all the ideas on the table to find something that works and doesn't cost a lot."

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver, led the passage of a city sales tax for mental health and drug addiction services in November. She will carry a bill next session to allow Denver and others in Colorado that could quality to set up a pilot program, to see if the injection sites save lives and get more people into treatment.

Politics have to go to where the people are, she said, and most people in Colorado aren't on the extreme right or left.

"Most of the solutions we can pass have to be bipartisan," she said of a statehouse that will be controlled solely by Democrats come January. "Sometimes, that produces the best result. You need to have a lot difference voices at the table, and that table needs to be open to everyone." 

Gripe all you want about how things could be better in this state.

I certainly do, from parking in Denver  to traffic jams on the freeways, from crop prices on the plains to costly lift tickets in the high country, from teachers earning too little to college costing too much, while the poor never seem to get richer.

When it comes to getting ahead of the curve on problems and ideas, however, we tower over most states. It's the season of joy and hope, so look on the bright side.

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