It appears as though an important political-cultural wall has crumbled in Colorado. Provocative conservative talk-radio host Amy Oliver is offering testimony in an official capacity on state budget and funding priorities.
Such a contentious body may not seem to be the most productive place to discuss budgetary policymaking, but state lawmakers agree the commission’s surprising and sometimes-polarized makeup is a good thing.
Faced with a projected $873 million budget shortfall through the 2010-11 fiscal year, the Colorado General Assembly created the commission to develop a roadmap to guide the state through the nation’s current economic storm.
The mission is daunting. The panel is specifically tasked with “examining solutions for higher education and transportation funding, affordable access to health care, kindergarten through 12th-grade education, state-owned assets and the creation and adequate funding of a state rainy day fund.” It is also asked to “develop a strategic plan for state fiscal stability” and to “consider other issues as needed.” The commission began its work July 8 and will run through Nov. 5.
The 16-member commission includes Oliver as well as conservatives Jonathan Coors and Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican from Yuma County who voted against the creation of the commission altogether, seeing it as deigned to attack Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“There are no particular qualifications [called for] in the law,” said House Minority Leader Mike May, referring to the resolution that created the Commission. May, a Republican from Parker in Douglas County, said it was purposefully drafted to allow lawmakers to choose widely in filling the commission’s committees in order to secure a broad range of opinions. The resolution directs the four leaders of the legislature — the Senate president, the House speaker and the minority leaders in both chambers — to together appoint six members of the legislature and 10 “other members” to the commission. It does not detail a process or provide qualification guidelines for the appointments.
On the right
Charged with making three appointments — one legislator and two non-lawmaker “additional members” — May said that concern about the likely effectiveness of the commission steered his selections. Like Brophy, May didn’t vote in favor of the commission in the first place.
“I do not like these commissions. Their recommendations are simply filed and we make another one next year.”
Once he started working on filling the commission, however, his course of action became clear. May said he saw “too many groups [being selected who were] involved in government” and that he “wanted more citizen activists.”
He found his kind of activists at the Independence Institute, the celebrated and decried free-market think tank run by Jon Caldara, and at the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, a small-government organization.
“I knew that there was no way in the world my counterparts were going to appoint someone from the Colorado Union of Taxpayers nor from the Independence Institute [people] who would provide some real voice around the table,” May said. “So I made a few calls about who was qualified from those organizations.”
May appointed CUT chairman Marty Neilson. He also appointed Oliver, who in addition to hosting her radio program, is operations manager for the Independence Institute. May said he thought she would provide balance against representatives of the liberal Bell Policy Center, who he thought were sure to be appointed by his Democratic counterparts.
“Amy Oliver has been involved in fiscal policy for a very long time. I thought she would be a very good counterpart to Bell…”
From the legislature, May chose Rep. Don Marostica, a Republican from Loveland whom he thought would round out his more dramatically conservative choices. Marostica shook up the GOP at the Capitol this session by co-sponsoring Senate Bill 228, which repealed the so-called 6 percent cap on the General Fund. His sponsoring the bill caused an uproar among the Republican caucus and free-market activist groups. Oliver and Neilson publicly criticized Marostica for the move. Neilson, in an open letter, called for the Republican Party to “rein in Marostica.”
Marostica ended up calling Independent Institute President Caldara a “has been.”
“Sometimes the only people asked to the table are those who already agree. I didn’t want to see that happen. Even in my own appointments,” said May. “I brought in Rep. Marostica. As chair of the [Joint Budget Committee], he seemed like the logical choice.”
On the left
Senate President Brandon Shaffer said that in his selections, he “was not greatly influenced by the appointments of the minority party.” Shaffer, a Democrat from Longmont, agreed with House Speaker Terrance Carroll to make certain that their appointments complimented each other.
From the legislature, Shaffer chose two of his Senate Democratic colleagues, Rollie Heath of Boulder and John Morse of Colorado Springs.
“Heath expressed an interest… from the very beginning.”
Heath helped draft the legislation that established the commission and Shaffer appointed him commission chairman. Shaffer cited Heath’s work on the highly partisan education committee as evidence of his skills. “[He can] facilitate [discussion] even when you have broadly divergent views on an issue.”
Shaffer said Sen. Morse “was a leader with … the 6 percent limit dialogue we had down here. He spoke a lot about shortfall changes and making sure that we had a plan for the future,” Shaffer said. “I felt that he was a real natural fit as well.”
Shaffer’s “other member” appointments include Donna Lynn, an executive with health care giant Kaiser Permanente. “I know that she is very well respected in the business community, and [the appointment] brings a health care perspective to the dialogue.
“She has a strong relationship with Rollie Heath. They have gone back as friends and business acquaintances for several years. I thought that there was significant synergy there.”
Renny Fagan, another Shaffer pick, was recently state director for then-U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and has served in numerous positions under Democrats throughout his career, including as the Department of Revenue director.
“Fagan has quite a reputation down here as just a straight shooter and somebody who has experience dealing with the state budget. Of course, now he is in charge of the Non-Profit Association of the State. So he brings a perspective of non-profit organizations their view on the state budgeting process.”
Last, Shaffer chose Tim Hume. “If you look at all of the above, you see a lot of folks who are from the metro Denver area. I wanted to make sure that we had some geographic distribution on the committee. Tim Hume coming from Walsh, Colo., gives that distribution. He’s a rural legislator,” referring to Hume’s base in far southeastern Colorado, near the Oklahoma and Kansas border.
Satisfied in the scrum
Shaffer and May agreed that the loose guidelines to the selection process worked. May said he thought the diverse composition of the commission would lead to a spirited and full debate. Shaffer agreed.
“I wanted to make sure that we had a wide range of perspectives and I think that we have that.”
May explained that in some cases more stringent qualification guidelines for committee membership are essential, he does not feel that an overarching system is the best for Colorado. “Those guidelines sometimes exclude voices. I don’t think that there should be some master plan.”
“Each of the committees that we form down here has a different purpose and we have to evaluate each committee to see what is appropriate,” Shaffer said.
Colorado Ethics Watch senior counsel Louis Toro said the selection process is fine. In fact, he said, in order to have any lasting effect, any recommendation made by the commission must in the end result legislation. Then it will undergo scrutiny in the public arena.
House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver:
Vice Chair Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Joint Budget Committee member.
Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver.
Carol Boigon, at-large member of the Denver City Council.
Cris A. White, COO of the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority and a member of the executive committee of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.
Kirvin Knox, a former vice provost and dean at Colorado State University.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction :
Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.
Sean Conway, current Weld County commissioner, former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard.
Jonathan Coors, government relations director for CoorsTek.