This is Advent season, the four-week period leading up to Christmas which marks the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. It is, at the individual level, an anticipatory time for the faithful in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. The Catholic Church, my priests inform me, teaches that, on a grander scale, the four weeks symbolize the centuries preceding that epochal event, an anticipatory time for humanity to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah and a new era.
On a secular (and far, far less grand) scale, the season happens to coincide with the anticipation of the legislative session commencing each January. At risk of breaching the church-state wall, one could say that the weeks interceding between election night and the first day of session is something akin to the political equivalent of Advent.
It is kind of a fun time for those intimately involved in the state’s political processes, especially if one’s definition of “fun” is rather more distorted than the norm. It is the time when the various legislative puzzle pieces start coming together, and a more completely developed snapshot of the upcoming session can be seen. Sort of like a drawn-out trailer, revealed piecemeal, for a movie no one really wants to watch but will do so anyway.
Among the more important puzzle pieces are the formations of legislative committees and announcements of committee assignments. To the uninitiated this may appear to be rather dry procedural necessity, but the committees are where the bulk of the work is done. Any given bill’s ultimate fate depends a great deal on which committee it is assigned to, and the dispositions of those chairing and sitting on that committee.
The most exciting news to flower from this part of the process was the reorganization of some of the committees in the state house, the most interesting being the dissolution of the Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee into the “Rural Affairs” Committee and the formation of a new “Energy and Environment” Committee.
Naturally, speculation abounds as to why this was done. There is no question that politically the Democrats have something of a rural problem – which, let’s face it, is much less of an electoral liability than having an urban problem, the millstone borne by the Republicans. Nevertheless, it makes for some uncomfortable optics, and the Democratic house leadership is comprised of some very talented and savvy people. It is therefore not entirely beyond reason to believe that the formation of a Rural Affairs committee was done as an honest, good-faith effort to provide a dedicated forum for considering issues of concern to the forbidding hinterlands that expand ominously from either side of the interstate beyond the last McDonalds demarking the furthest outpost of suburbia.
On the other hand, politics wouldn’t be what it is without a thread of suspicion weaving among everything, warning of darker motivations. And in that spirit there has been here and there some mutterings of concern, especially among denizens of those hinterlands, that the restructuring may be cause for worry. A significant point of contention is the apparent dilution of the committee’s areas of oversight. The discarded title of “Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources” buttoned up around some pretty important and heavy legislative responsibilities – agriculture and all that relates to it, water, energy, and so forth. It was, in fact, once considered one of the most powerful House committees, next only to the Joint Budget Committee. “Rural Affairs” is much vaguer, and vagueness invites interpretation. Will the new committee hold the same sort of clout? Or will the dispersal of responsibility result in the items most critical to rural Colorado – water, energy, agricultural issues etc. – being routed elsewhere, leaving Rural Affairs to address only such topics as rural broadband and rural development grants?
That breeds the question of to where such big-ticket items may be routed. The most obvious answer would seem to be the newly christened Energy and Environment Committee, to which some of the Democratic Party’s most fervent environmentalists have been assigned. It is probably safe to surmise that the Energy and Environment Committee was specifically designed to effect an offensive on the oil and gas industry, a long-standing and long-frustrated Democratic priority.
Well, elections dohave consequences, and it would be foolish to expect the Democrats to not take advantage of the breadth of their victory last November. The Republican Party does it when given the opportunity; it’s how our system works. The question lingers though of what exactly that will mean for rural Colorado, a question to which the committee allocations beginning a few weeks hence will offer an answer.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and recovering journalist based in Denver. He is also an energy and environmental policy fellow at Centennial Institute.