A proposed state budget policy mantra: ‘Leave it better’

The Fine Print,
A blog on fiscal policy

Growing up camping, hiking and exploring the wilderness, I was instilled with a basic tenet of life in the West: Leave No Trace. With Colorado’s population growing and our needs becoming more complicated, we need to adopt a new mantra: Leave It Better.

The “Native” bumper sticker is now a trapping of an increasingly exclusive club. The number of Coloradans has skyrocketed 35 percent since 1990 from 3.3 million to more than five million. Some 60 percent of current residents moved here from someplace else. All indications are that we’ll keep growing to seven million by 2030, largely because transplants will continue moving here from other states.

What’s not exclusive to those born here is the appeal of the West. Many new Coloradans were drawn by the individualist spirit and physical beauty of the place. But with the rapid growth come new economic, social and environmental challenges. We all have a vested personal interest in preserving what we can. And, while it’s impossible that our swelling population will “Leave No Trace” on our physical landscape, that traditionally Western ethic of safeguarding what’s precious about Colorado can evolve to complement the state’s changing fiscal realities.

Though the mythology of the West is rooted in rugged individualism, the history of settlement here is one of common commitments. Colorado’s constitution, like those of many western states, provides for a system of free public education. Early Coloradans invested in the future by building schools such as Mancos High School, which opened in 1910 and has been teaching kids ever since. Coloradans funded railroads, including the Moffatt Tunnel, publicly financed in 1922. And taxpayers invested in the development of highways through the Rockies in the 1970s and ‘80s. These decisions propelled development of the state.

Now, constitutional changes enacted over the past 30 years are hampering our ability to invest in our future. These constraints coincide with increasing income inequality and deterioration of the infrastructure that supported growth and prosperity not just for Coloradans, but for the country as a whole for decades

Our current state and local tax structure keeps us at a competitive disadvantage compared to our neighboring states. The constraints come from how we tax as well as how much we tax. In 2012, the taxes we paid in Colorado were the lowest among our neighboring states. Coloradans paid more than $15 less on every $1,000 of income in state taxes than the average American. Yet the challenges we have adjusting to our rapid growth are among the most significant in the country. However ruggedly individualistic we like to fancy ourselves as westerners, we cannot ignore that we’re all in this together – rural and urban, Front Range and West Slope, traditional industry and new economy businesses.

We have an obligation to live up to the sacrifices of prior generations and pass on a Colorado that can support future generations so opportunity and prosperity is available to all. Some of our priorities must be:

· Creating a first-class public education system that meets the needs of our learners and prepares them for the 21st Century economy

· Investing in a public higher education system that supports the innovation needed to creatively respond to a changing economic, social and technological environment

· Maintaining and upgrading our roads, bridges and transportation infrastructure so we don’t spend sitting in traffic than enjoying our terrific weather and landscape

· Connecting urban and rural priorities in a way that allows both to flourish

· Replacing our conflicting constitutional provisions with policies that promote accountability for elected officials to respond to changing economic circumstances

· Resisting the temptation to let partisan priorities trump preservation of this cherished state

As citizens of the West, we share the privilege and responsibilities of living in such a special place. It’s not only our tradition, but also our duty to preserve what brought our ancestors, parents and all of us here, and what continues to lure our new neighbors. As we grow, we can also preserve. True to our roots here in Colorado, however deep and long-lasting, it’s incumbent on us all to strive to leave it better.

[ Image by Frank Kehren ]