Most Coloradans would probably assume that all state spending is approved by the General Assembly. We all learned early on in school about “checks and balances” – and how the legislative branch has the “power of the purse.” And even if executive branch slush funds occur in other states, or at the federal level, surely Colorado is more transparent and accountable when it comes to state funds.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Amendment 78 on ballots arriving in mailboxes soon, however, would help fix this problem. It would require all state expenditures to 1) have a public hearing, and 2) allow representatives from across the state to weigh in on how state money should be spent. In short, it would end executive branch slush funds.
These slush funds come in the form of “custodial” money. These are funds that originated from a source other than the state of Colorado and are provided for a particular purpose.
The most notable recently example was when Governor Polis allocated $1.6 billion in Cares Act money completely on his own. Regardless of what you think about how that COVID relief money was doled out, the process itself was troubling. Instead of collaborating with legislators, they got totally shut out. At the time, State Senator Bob Rankin said that the Governor allocating these funds without the legislature “eliminated the people’s voice over how their money is spent.”
Federal funds, however, are not the only bucket of custodial money. The state also receives money from various legal settlements. The latest one was a $400 million opioid-related settlement with drug companies. While most settlements have specific directions for where that money needs to go, the leftover money - or interest - can be spent by the Attorney General. This could be millions of dollars that currently go into a slush fund instead of sent to the General Fund to help pay for priorities like education, health care, or transportation.
Another big category of custodial funds are gifts and grants. Last year, the Colorado Sun and CBS4 broke a story about how Governor Polis was funding staffers in his office with over $1 million coming directly from “wealthy donors and major advocacy organizations.” The story said that there was no public disclosure until the media investigated it – and that the Governor did it this way because “it comes without the scrutiny of Colorado lawmakers through the state budget process.”
This current system is ripe for cronyism, where position and contracts could be given to donors or people with political connections instead of through a fair process. To be clear, this isn’t Republican Party or Democratic Party issue. It’s a transparency issue.
One criticism of this measure is that the government will be slowed down when it comes to allocating emergency funds – or federal funds in general. This is totally untrue. All our measure does is resets the system of checks and balances. Nothing is more important than making sure emergency funds can be spent quickly and efficiently, and the legislature will have complete flexibility to make sure that happens.
Amendment 78 allows the legislature to work with the executive branch to plan ahead. Legislators can look at what is working well now and make sure those processes continue. They can choose to do continual appropriations to make sure funds are allocated in a timely manner, if they want. Besides, a vast majority of state money already goes through the budget process.
Amendment 78 is a long overdue, common-sense proposal. One person shouldn’t decide how millions of dollars are spent without any input or oversight. It’s time to end executive branch slush funds.
Vote for more transparency and accountability. Vote for Amendment 78.
Michael Fields is the executive director of Colorado Rising State Action.