The Colorado Punditocracy has been nearly unanimous in its advice to our soon-to-arrive Democratic majorities at the Colorado Legislature: don’t overreach! Stay in the middle of the damned road, where, as Beto O’Rourke observed during his recent campaign, you find nothing other than yellow lines and dead armadillos (he is a Texan, after all). Pundits have opined that the previous Democratic majority recklessly cost three Colorado senators their seats with overreaching gun control bills following the Aurora theater massacre. Oddly enough, not one of these senators has confessed to making a mistake. Then-Senate President John Morse, narrowly removed by El Paso County voters, makes it clear at every opportunity that he is proud of the votes he cast. It may only be a coincidence, but since Colorado adopted universal background checks and magazine restrictions, it hasn’t experienced yet another slaughter.
Permit me a few moments to assume the mantle of contrarian. Let's visit appeals court judge Learned Hand’s 1932 opinion in the New State Ice Company vs. Liebmann case. “Denial of the right to experiment may be fraught with serious consequences to the nation. It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” he wrote.
He went on to note that while his colleagues had the right to overturn such initiatives, “…we must be ever on guard lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles.” Apparently Colorado voters agreed with Judge Hand when they approved the recreational use of marijuana against angry dissents from the bulk of elected officials in both parties.
As our politics have grown increasingly polarized, the chances of reaching bi-partisan agreement on the time of day has become increasingly difficult at the Capitol. Upon inspection, the “remain in the middle of the road” chorus appears profoundly conservative. God forbid that Democrats should attempt something “novel.” Divided government has failed to address the big issues: transportation funding, a TABOR fix, health care access for all citizens, runaway tuition, affordable housing, water management and economic development equity. But, by God, they are skilled at creating specialty license plates.
So, why not give Democrats a green light to tackle the state’s real challenges as they see fit? Many of their proposals will work out and others will fail. If the policy failures outweigh their successes, voters will give Republicans another shot. But, at least there will be change. Democrats didn’t run on a platform promising to make everyone happy. Neither did Republicans. The 10th Amendment in the Bill of Rights leaves all powers not assigned to the federal government with the states. It is time for Colorado to exercise those powers. If Gov. Polis has a plan for extending health coverage to all Coloradans, and he indicated he does, then he should ask the Legislature to launch that solution before the 2020 elections.
We are living in tumultuous times. No majority is a certain thing. Admonitions to exercise caution are an endorsement of paralysis, indistinguishable from gridlock. One-party rule may prove risky, but it is hard to imagine it can be any riskier than the legislative stalemate that has afflicted Colorado for most of the past two decades. The National Conference of State Legislatures, even ALEC, like to trot out the “laboratories of democracy” concept although they rarely mention that Justice Hand was in the minority on the New State Ice case.
Whatever the issues we face, there are thoughtful proposals to consider. It’s time we broke out the lab coats. And, yes, we will need to send some propositions to the voters for their approval. Better to have the Legislature taking the lead than special interests, even if it is just the Democrats. If we get lucky, some Republicans may prefer to be part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former state legislator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.