Whether unaffiliated, Democrat or Republican, Colorado voters have much to feel good about when they consider their legislature’s performance as it navigated the COVID years. There may be little but rancor and stalemate on offer in Washington, redounding in favor of no one, but under the Gold Dome in Denver partisanship was set aside, for the most part, in favor of preserving lives and propping up the economy. This ride hasn’t proven entirely smooth and a return to normality remains more a hope than a promise, but it is instructive to examine a pair of issues that routinely confounds Congress but were peacefully resolved in Colorado.
A strategy to rationalize voting processes originated nearly a decade ago. Both Democrats and Republicans in Colorado had been badly burned in both primary and general elections when fringe zealots muscled their preferred candidates onto the ballot. Universal mail voting entailed real risks, but existing practices were starting to produce alarming results. Rather than tailoring the electorate with restrictions that would function to suppress votes cast by undeserving citizens, Republicans and Democrats determined the better path was to compete for a majority while also encouraging maximum turnout. Voters agreed.
In recent elections it may appear this change favors Colorado Democrats. Republicans, for several reasons, have been unable to corral their candidates into the middle of the road. In a considerable irony, it was Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams who largely perfected the mail voting safeguards that make our state a national model for ballot security and a pacesetter for participation. Bipartisan agreement exists that our democracy functions best and adheres to constitutional principles when all citizens vote.
The jury remains out on whether reapportionment and redistricting reforms that assign these tasks to citizen panels will succeed. Any judgment will be complicated by the delay in completing the 2020 census. There is reason to suspect, however, that appointees will attempt to draw as many competitive districts as possible. This is best for voters since it forces both parties to recruit their most capable candidates. Overwhelmingly partisan districts tend to reward the faithful rather than the innovative or thoughtful. Candidates will have to win seats rather than simply having them awarded. With any luck, better governance may lie ahead of us.
Once it became apparent COVID-19 was about to disrupt our lives, legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle recognized their past behavior would no longer serve as a productive guide for protecting Colorado residents. Political bickering became a luxury best tossed overboard, and so it was. Democrats agreed to scuttle most of their bills in 2020, including favorites like the public option, which they hoped to propel through the legislature relying on their control of both chambers. Republicans backed away from their usual bellyaching about the budget. The challenge was no longer what new programs could be funded, but which existing programs would have to be curtailed.
Legislators adjourned to a date unknown and handed over day-to-day management of the state to the governor. House Minority Leader Patrick Neville soon joined protests against masking and business lockdowns anyway. It can’t be a coincidence that he stepped aside for Hugh McKean in 2021. Senate President Chris Holbert has repeatedly insisted that Colorado’s COVID response remain a team effort. He has been quick to acknowledge that the ogvernor and legislative leadership are making decisions as they arise and expresses confidence that Jared Polis is doing the best he can under trying circumstances.
Holbert reportedly deserves most of the credit for engineering a bi-partisan disposition of the billion-dollar Colorado Recovery Plan unveiled earlier this session and the additional $700 million in stimulus dollars soon to arrive. House Speaker Alec Garnett has dubbed this the "Colorado Comeback" package co-sponsored with Republican support. Whether this legislative comity will carry over to the recently introduced transportation funding scheme, reliant on a grab bag of fees, remains to be seen. Democrats have the votes to ram them through, but they constitute yet another Balkanization of the budget process in order to evade TABOR strictures. The need for infrastructure investment is real, but each Rube Goldberg fiscal solution only complicates tax policy when we face the next fiscal crisis.
Nothing that has transpired at the legislature during the past year smells like socialism. Better yet, it appears that Democrats and Republicans have concluded that in heavy seas the entire crew must pull together. That’s good news. I’m sure members will return to beating each other over the head during next year’s legislative campaigns, but district boundaries will have been re-drawn, and candidates may not be able to embrace partisan pandering. We have a tourism industry that has to be revived, fire threats that have to be managed and water projects that require funding. Little of this sounds partisan to me.