Sorry, Jon Caldara: Bustang’s a Hit

BustangHiResAs the Denver Business Journal’s Cathy Proctor reported last week:

Bustang, the Colorado Department of Transportation’s foray into regular statewide bus service, had a stellar first year, according to the agency better known for road and highway construction…

The agency had forecasted Bustang’s first year ridership at 87,376.

Actual ridership was 17 percent higher, with a total of 102,577 people taking Bustang through the end of June, said Bob Wilson, a CDOT spokesman.

CDOT expected revenues from paid fares to hit $647,817 for Bustang’s first year.

Instead, the actual revenue was 57 percent higher, with $1,014,781 recorded through the end of June, Wilson said.

As the Grand Junction Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported this weekend, with the success of the system’s first year there is growing interest in expanding the Bustang service west:

The first-year success of the new state transit service called Bustang is spurring increased hopes of it one day galloping past Glenwood Springs to serve Grand Junction as well…

Wilson said the idea of extending the western service to Grand Junction is on the agency’s radar. There’s just no timetable for it occurring, and any expansion would require approval from the state Transportation Commission, whether additional funding is required or not.

“But extending it from Glenwood to Grand Junction is part of the plan,” [CDOT spokesman Bob] Wilson said. “… It’s become more likely as time has gone on because of the success of the west route.”

This story takes on added political significance because in this year’s legislative session, Republicans introduced legislation to eliminate funding for the Bustang system entirely. Even with income and ridership exceeding expectations, fares aren’t enough to cover the total budget for the Bustang service. The system is funded in part by revenues from the Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act of 2009 (FASTER) fee program. Longtime readers will recall that Republicans bitterly fought against FASTER as a violation of at least the spirit of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), suing and losing all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court–and perennially vowing revenge at the ballot box for this skewering of their most sacred cow.

Well folks, now they’d be taking something away that benefits voters. It’s easy to understand why even the conservative bastion of Grand Junction would want this additional transportation option. The practicalities run up against their rigid ideology, and ideology loses.

And with apologies to the ideologues, that’s how it should be.

Colorado Budget: Private Prisons Get Their Pound of Flesh

Kit Carson Correctional Center, Burlington.

Kit Carson Correctional Center, Burlington.

As the Pueblo Chieftain’s Peter Strescino reports, the Colorado state legislature gave final passage to the 2016 budget on Friday–but not before a last-minute request from the Governor’s office, supported by Senate Republicans, almost derailed the deal yet again:

A last-minute request by the governor to keep afloat a private prison — and help a rural economy — held up the final budget deal until the state Senate approved it Friday.

The budget, $25.8 billion, is headed for Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk, where he is expected to sign it.

Hickenlooper requested at the last minute to spend $3 million to boost payments to a private, for-profit prison company that is threatening to close the Kit Carson Correctional Center on the Eastern Plains — a move that stalled the budget bill after Senate Democrats raised complaints…

Corrections Corporation of America.

Corrections Corporation of America.

The Denver Post’s John Frank has more on the $3 million to subsidize operations at the Kit Carson Correctional Center just east of Burlington, which is operated by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America:

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, noted that the state gave Corrections Corporation of America a cash infusion four years ago to keep the facility open and now it’s back asking for more money. At the same time, other parts of the state budget are facing cuts or no new funding increases. [Pols emphasis]

Johnston said the timing of the request — just as budget negotiations finished — amounted to “blackmail.”

“It’s not in the best interest of the state of Colorado,” he said.

In the end, the $3 million for Corrections Corporation of America was not enough to blow up the long negotiations that led to this year’s budget compromises–which include hotly-contested line items like funding for the state’s groundbreaking IUD contraception program, a big win over the objections of the Senate’s far-right “Hateful Eight” caucus. But that doesn’t mean this “bailout” of an underutilized private prison was a good thing, as a statement from the state’s public employee union Colorado WINS makes very clear indeed:

According to WINS Executive Director, Tim Markham, “The for-profit prison industry is built on exploitation. They exploit our criminal justice system, they exploit their workers, they exploit the communities in which their facilities are located and they exploit Colorado taxpayers.

Unlike our state correctional facilities and professional correctional officers, for-profit prisons are not accountable to taxpayers. And they do not provide stable, community-building jobs – these are low-wage, low-security, high-turnover positions.

Colorado WINS has long stood publicly against the for-profit prison industry. This latest bailout is just one more example of why Colorado should extricate ourselves from this predatory and morally corrupt industry.” [Pols emphasis]

“Extrication” of Colorado’s prison system from for-profit corporate interests that have little regard for the state’s actual needs, unlike state employees who could be redistributed throughout the system and–key point–are much more qualified professionals who contribute far more to their local economies than the CCA’s low-wage employees, is a debate that will have to wait for another year. But these threat-laden “requests” for infusions of cash to a for-profit corporation under threat of closing underused prisons and “killing jobs,” this being the second such request in four years, is not at all what the private prison industry promised in the early 1990s: a happy arrangement in which private capital took the risk of operating the prisons and the public benefitted from “lower costs.”

Since that logic has now been turned on its head, we’d say it’s appropriate to question the state’s whole relationship with the private prison industry.

BREAKING: TABOR Author Bruce Goes Back To Prison

Doug Bruce.

Doug Bruce.

As the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Maria St. Louis-Sanchez reports, it’s back to jail scrubs for the author of the notorious 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), former GOP Rep. Doug Bruce:

Former state Rep. Douglas Bruce was taken from a courtroom in handcuffs after he was sentenced to at least two years in prison Friday.

Bruce, 66, was convicted in 2012 of tax evasion, filing a false tax return and trying to influence a public servant. Denver District Judge Sheila A. Rappaport ruled on Jan. 19 that he violated five terms of his probation…

“The probability of success on your probation is zero,” she told Bruce. “You were manipulative, you were deceitful, you lacked transparency and you tried to make a charade of probation.”

The profound irony of the author of TABOR, a sacrosanct law for Colorado Republicans due to its effect of severely constraining the legislature’s ability to raise revenue for necessary functions of government, becoming the state of Colorado’s highest-profile felony tax evader has…well, it’s never sat well with Republicans. They take great umbrage to anyone with the temerity to point out the stupefyingly obvious irony that the mastermind of TABOR is now a convicted felon tax evader.

The principal reason for this is that it’s not ironic at all. TABOR’s complex limits on revenue, stripping of power from the legislature to raise taxes, and (especially) the stilted requirements on the ballot questions needed to raise taxes combine to create a system that doesn’t work–where raising revenues for any purpose is nearly impossible. TABOR has created a system where the only way the state can take care of basic needs like roads and schools is through license fees, accounting gimmicks and weed money. Even with revenues growing in a booming economy, TABOR forces the state to refund money while years of budget cuts go unrestored.

That this intentionally dysfunctional system created by TABOR happens to align with Republican ideological goals of “drowning government in the bathtub” does not make it any less nefarious. But at the very least, as long as one side of our politics is devoted to upholding Bruce’s handiwork, they need to acknowledge the truth about TABOR’s creator.

Because his motives have never changed.

Cadman vs. Everyone: Rogue Colorado Senate Must Abandon Destructive Budget Stonewall

Sen. Bill Cadman.

Senate President Bill Cadman.

POLS UPDATE: Continuing Senate GOP intransigence over the hospital provider fee even after GOP Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s opinion upholding the legality of the proposed reclassification of the fee to exempt it from TABOR restrictions received a ton of press coverage this morning–here’s a brief roundup starting with the Denver Post’s John Frank:

[T]he attorney general’s argument runs counter to a nonbinding memo from nonpartisan legislative lawyers that argued the measure may prove unconstitutional because it didn’t meet all the legal tests.

Top Republican lawmakers — who revealed the memo in January with great fanfare — suggested it nullified any action to reclassify the program, a move they believe would erode the foundation of TABOR and allow for unnecessary spending.

Not surprisingly, the new legal interpretation did little to shift the conversation at the Capitol. Hours after its release, Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, called it just “another opinion.”

The Durango Herald’s Peter Marcus:

The news offered a slight break from the partisanship that has plagued discussions, as Hickenlooper pursues the proposal as a means to address budget woes.

“It takes it a little out of the political realm …” Hickenlooper said following the release of the formal opinion. “I can only imagine that the attorney general and her office were under a lot of pressure … I respect that she’s resisted whatever political pressure was there.”

The pause from partisan bickering was brief, as Republican Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs fired back in the afternoon…

And the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Megan Schrader:

Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, has based some of his opposition on the OLLS memo. He said Monday his attorney’s are considering the new opinion from Coffman, but there are significant hurdles to passing legislation this year that removes the hospital provider fee from the general fund.

“Voters and taxpayers are looking to be protected from people who want to take the money out of their pocket and spend it wherever they want to,” Cadman said. “We’re now the arbiters between conflicting legal opinions.”


Given that the hospital provider fee fix has the support of a large number of traditionally GOP-friendly organizations like the chambers of commerce, it’s difficult to see how Cadman can maintain this position. Indeed, the only support Cadman really has at this point is from ideological pressure groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute.

Who will Cadman listen to? The well-funded activists, or everybody else? Original post follows.


Following the release of a formal opinion from Colorado’s Republican Attorney General affirming the legality of a technical change to the state’s hospital provider fee to forestall painful budget constrictions on education and other critical funding priorities, ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s largest online progressive advocacy organization, demanded that Senate President Bill Cadman stop trying to hurt Colorado families–and get out of the way of a solution virtually everyone else in Colorado wants.

“Once again, convicted felon Doug Bruce’s so-called ‘Taxpayer Bill of Rights’ is impeding our elected legislators from carrying out their most basic responsibilities,” said ProgressNow Colorado political director Alan Franklin. “But this time, there is a simple fix that almost everyone in Colorado supports. Reclassifying the hospital provider fee to help the state fund core functions like education and transportation, while protecting the equally important gains we’ve made expanding access to health care, is what stakeholders in both parties agree is the right thing to do. The only thing stopping us now is Bill Cadman’s one-seat right wing Senate majority.”

“Bill Cadman’s budget stonewall goes against the recommendation of nonpartisan fiscal policy groups, local chambers of commerce, and bipartisan regional coalitions across the state,” said Franklin. “With the Attorney General’s definitive opinion upholding the legality of this simple change, it’s time for Cadman to let an honest debate take place in the Colorado Senate. At least one member of the Senate GOP caucus has publicly broken with Cadman and Cadman’s friends at Americans for Prosperity on the hospital provider fee, stating that he is not a ‘puppet for out-of-state billionaires.’”

“Bill Cadman’s irresponsible budget stonewall against the entire rest of Colorado must end now,” said Franklin. “If it doesn’t, the voters will sweep Cadman’s tiny Senate majority from power in November–and they’ll have richly earned their fate.”

BREAKING: AG Coffman Upholds Hospital Provider Fee Change

UPDATE #2: Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman’s hilarious response to today’s opinion–hilarious if you’ve seen Senate President Bill Cadman’s original below, that is:



UPDATE: The Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins:

Whether to reclassify the program isn’t a novel idea this year. Last year, the state’s Democratic House Speaker brought forward a bill, late in the session, and Republicans killed it.

The fight last year and this time around has oddly pitted Republicans against a near monolithic voice of the state’s business community that includes the Denver Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Associated General Contractors, the state Wheat Growers Association and chambers from Aurora to Grand Junction, and others.

Last year, when the hospital provider fee issue was being debated late in the legislative session, 307 lobbyists had signed up to work in support of reclassifying it. Only one group was opposed: Americans for Prosperity, the prime political arm of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. This year in Colorado’s legislature, AFP has made its top priority defending TABOR and keeping revenue generated by the hospital provider fee inside the economic structure that can trigger TABOR refunds. The group has asked lawmakers to sign a pledge saying they won’t vote to reclassify the program.


State Sen. Bill Cadman (R-Koch Brothers) loves the word "NO."

State Sen. Bill Cadman (R-Koch Brothers) loves the word “NO.”

Big news this Monday morning on a question that’s critical to this year’s–and future years’–Colorado budgets. Providing guidance on the question of whether the state can reclassify the 2009 hospital provider fee to exclude the revenue from caps imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, thus sparing the budget from large unnecessary cuts elsewhere, Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has released her long-awaited opinion requested by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

GOP Senate President Bill Cadman, who began this year’s legislative session by declaring any such fix a nonstarter, isn’t going to like it.

Question: Under current case law interpreting the requirement that enterprises be “government-owned businesses,” may the General Assembly establish a TABOR-exempt enterprise to collect and administer the Hospital Provider Fee?

Answer: Yes. Considering both judicial interpretations of TABOR and the General Assembly’s prior decision to classify the HPF as a fee rather than a tax, organizing the HPF as an enterprise would not contravene the three considerations that determine an entity’s status as a government-owned business: an HPF enterprise would (1) lack the power to tax, (2) provide government services in exchange for involuntary fees levied on service recipients, and (3) be financially distinct from its parent agency.

You’ll recall that Cadman blew up negotiations over the hospital provider fee at the beginning of the session by circulating an opinion from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Legal Services suggesting the fix wouldn’t pass muster under TABOR. No one is impugning the credibility of OLLS’s staffers, but the fact is that their opinion is strictly advisory and nonbinding. Cadman was on shaky ground to summarily declare the hospital provider fee fix dead on the strength of this one nonbinding opinion.

As of now, Cadman has no legal leg left to stand on.

Animosity-filled people blaming Medicaid for Colorado budget woes are wrong–again

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs.

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs’ Republican Mayor John Suthers told the Colorado Springs Gazette Tuesday that turning the hospital provider fee into a TABOR-defined enterprise would be “by far the easiest, least painful solution for the taxpayers” to address Colorado’s budget woes.

But in his interview with Schrader, Suthers repeats the misinformation that Obamacare’s expansion of Colorado’s Medicaid program, which provides health care to the poor, is eating up state money now.

Suthers: “A lot of the animosity surrounding this goes back to the fact that they are saying look if we didn’t participate in the Medicaid expansion we wouldn’t need all this money, and the provider fee was basically a means to pay for the expansion. I understand all of that, but having the provider fee in the TABOR calculation is going to create immense problems going forward. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger and if you don’t take it out I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The animosity-filled people who told Suthers that Colorado “wouldn’t need all this money” if it weren’t for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion are actually factually wrong.

Colorado’s Medicaid expansion has so far cost Colorado nothing (Here at page 26). It’s been 100 percent paid for by the federal government, which will slide down to paying 90 percent of the costs by 2020.

Next year, Colorado will contribute about $41 million toward covering Obamacare’s new Medicaid enrollees. If Colorado were paying the full 1o percent now, the state would contribute $142 million. And Suthers is correct that the Hospital Provider Fee, which is used to cover various health care services for poor people who can’t afford them, is earmarked to pay for this.

But $41 million is a fraction of the $768 million projected to be collected by the Hospital provider fee next year. Next year’s state contribution to covering Obamacare’s Medicaid enrollees, which looks to be on the order of $75 million, is still a fraction of the HPF money collected. So the HPF appears to be a solid source of funds for covering Colorado’s contibution to Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion.

The people, mentioned by Suthers, who have all the animosity about the hospital provider fee should explain how they’d fund basic health care programs for elderly, disabled, and other poor people without it. And, for that matter, how they’d pay for state government with it, if it’s not removed from the TABOR framework and $370 million in tax dollars is refunded to you and me.

CLARIFICATION: I updated this post to clarify that the HPF funds health care in Colorado, not other government programs.


Not So Fast There, “Party of No”

State Sen. Bill Cadman (R-Koch Brothers) loves the word "NO."

State Sen. Bill Cadman (R-Koch Brothers) loves the word “NO.”

As the Colorado Independent’s Corey Hutchins reports, the debate over reclassifying the state’s hospital provider fee in a way that doesn’t subject it to the arbitrary limits imposed by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), thus avoiding still more painful budget sacrifices, took an interesting twist yesterday. You’ll recall that the session began last month with the GOP-controlled Colorado Senate hardening its position against reclassifying the hospital provider fee as an “enterprise” under TABOR, resting their predisposed stonewalling on an opinion from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Legal Services.

Well, as Hutchins reports, that opinion isn’t the final word by a long shot:

As Coloradans wait for an opinion from Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman over what’s become the biggest political debate in Colorado, two former executive branch lawyers are weighing in with their own conclusion.

At issue is whether it would be constitutional to reclassify a billion dollar hospital program so money generated from it will not push general fund revenue over mandated limits under the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and many Democrats in the legislature want a program called the hospital provider fee redesignated so there’s more money in the budget to fund roads, education and other programs.

In a legal review released today by former attorneys for past governors Bill Ritter, a Democrat, and Bill Owens, a Republican, they say the Hickenlooper plan would be “legally sound and fiscally responsible.”

The opinion from OLLS that Cadman made a flamboyant display of at the beginning of the session was not binding. No one is impugning the motives of the General Assembly’s nonpartisan legal staff, but the fact is that they are sometimes demonstrated wrong in terms of how these questions actually play out in litigation. As the Denver Business Journal reports, this bipartisan legal opinion disagreeing with OLLS’s conclusion carries no less weight in the real world:

Trey Rogers and Jon Anderson — who served as legal counsels for former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and former Republican Gov. Bill Owens, respectively — wrote that the OLLS was incorrect in its conclusions about the ability to categorize the money as an enterprise fund. The provider-fee fund would offer the service of helping hospitals defray the cost of providing care to patients and should not be considered as general revenue that can be used, like other pots in the general fund, for any service the state offers, Anderson said.

“Our courts have said that statutes enacted by the General Assembly enjoy a strong presumption of constitutionality and will not be overturned unless the statute is unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt,” Rogers added. “It is hard to imagine a court would find a provider fee enterprise to be unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In addition, former Attorney General John Suthers, now the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs, agrees that reclassifying the hospital fee revenue is legally workable:

“The way hospital provider fees are accounted in the state budget has created a serious problem,” Suthers said in a statement. “If this situation is not addressed soon, important state programs will be cut that negatively impact Colorado Springs and every other local community in Colorado. Transportation funding, in particular, will continue to suffer. Based on my experience, I believe that some form of a hospital provider enterprise could be designed to be constitutional under state law.” [Pols emphasis]

By sanctifying a nonbinding OLLS opinion that just happens to match with their political goals, Senate Republicans are trying to use the hospital provider fee situation as leverage to force cuts elsewhere–consistent with the party line this year that “entitlements,” in particular the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, are choking out various other priorities like roads and K-12 education. But as our friend Jason Salzman has explored in able writeups this week, that’s a false argument–Medicaid is not busting the budget.

The threat here is the arbitrary limit imposed by TABOR. Period.

The short version of all of this is that Senate Republicans are playing political games, in pursuit of their unwavering goal of cutting “the size of government”–reducing government, as right-wing anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist so famously said, to a size where you can “drown it in a bathtub.” A realistic assessment of need is not what is driving their agenda, but an ideological conviction that government is “too large.” Just as we’ve seen in Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback’s ideological slashing of public revenues, the end stage of this agenda has no regard whatsoever for the damage done to critical functions of government we all rely on.

If cooler heads are to prevail, thus preventing millions in cuts that don’t have to happen, it’s Cadman, or at least someone in his one-seat conservative majority who must relent. If he doesn’t, it’s going to hurt things that people actually do care about. That’s not something we’d recommend in an election year, but it would be better for everyone–including Senate Republicans–to not inflict the pain to begin with.

The High Price of Bill Cadman’s Senate Majority

Senate President Bill Cadman.

Senate President Bill Cadman.

As the Denver Post’s John Frank reports–the hard-right faction in narrow control of the Colorado Senate, working closely with well-funded conservative action group Americans For Prosperity, are on the verge of scuttling a critical bipartisan agreement on a fiscal matter that’s been the subject of a year of negotiations:

The political arm of the Koch brothers’ conservative network is asking Colorado lawmakers to sign a pledge to protect TABOR, an effort designed to block Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s top legislative priority.

The Americans for Prosperity petition intensifies the political battle on a major budget issue before the 2016 legislative session and helps explain why Republicans are shifting their tone on the discussion about the hospital provider fee.

As the Denver Business Journal’s Ed Sealover continues, the sudden intransigence from Senate Republicans on reclassifying the hospital provider fee in a way that exempts it from the revenue caps imposed by the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, thus preventing millions of dollars in harmful budget cuts to a range of important programs and services, is infuriating traditional Republican allies in the business community:

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Metro Denver Chamber…delivered an especially strong message on the hospital provider fee: Re-enacting it does not, she said, play games with the state’s money but does allow room in the budget to invest more in higher-education. It also would allow general taxpayer fund dollars to continue to go to roads after that monetary transfer happened just in this budget year for the first time since before the Great Recession.

“We can not afford to be the only state in the union who doesn’t use general-fund dollars to maintain our roads and bridges,” Brough said. “We’re a laughingstock, and we will lose our competitive position because of it.” [Pols emphasis]

Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst echoes the anger from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in a statement late yesterday:

“We have a challenging session ahead of us to address Colorado’s critical priorities like roads and schools, and that is my focus. I and Coloradans across the state are acutely aware of the terrible budget cuts we are having to contemplate if we don’t find a solution. As we begin the 2016 session I will continue to work with members from both chambers and parties to solve these problems.

“Lots of lawyers will have lots of different opinions, but most importantly the legislature is the lawmaking body in this state, so that we can address problems just like these.

“We are focused on finding solutions for the people of Colorado, not on finding excuses for why we are failing them.”

What we’re talking about here is a change in the technical status of the entity administering the 2009 fee charged to hospitals to create Medicaid revenue which is then matched by the federal government. Right now, these revenues risk exceeding the TABOR-imposed revenue growth caps, which would force the state to make cuts even while sending out token refund checks. The business and community interests groups in support of this fix are not trying to unmake TABOR–this is about moving a purpose-specific funding mechanism out from under TABOR’s arbitrary limits so funding remains available for everything else.

And it might not happen now. Cadman is now reportedly hiding behind a nonbinding opinion memo against the proposal, the same kind of legislative advisory opinion that has been proven right and wrong in recent years–the courts decide these things, not memos. Despite that, it’s entirely possible that Cadman will succeed on the strength of that opinion in locking down the Senate Republican majority, denying a broad bipartisan coalition the single Senate Republican vote needed to pass this fix.

A single vote, folks. You can’t separate the frustration over the intransigence of the GOP Senate majority from the extremely narrow control Cadman wields over his chamber. One Senate seat, won in 2014 by well under 1,000 votes, gives Cadman the power to thwart the consensus of the entire rest of the state. Republicans and Democrats alike are outraged, but in the end there’s nothing they can do if Cadman and his hard-right majority refuse to engage in good faith.

When we say elections matter, and every vote in every election matters, this looming disaster shows why.

Adams County Assessor Draws Ethics Complaint

Patsy Melonakis (L) with 2014 gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez and running mate Jill Repella.

Patsy Melonakis (L) with 2014 gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez and running mate Jill Repella.

We’re hearing word of fresh controversy in Adams County, this time involving the county’s elected Assessor Patsy Melonakis (R)–spouse of longtime local judge Chris Melonakis. The story as we understand it is that Patsy Melonakis is refusing a routine annual internal audit of her office–a normal and necessary exercise that all other offices of Adams County government have already either completed or scheduled.

Obviously, this invites big questions about her transparency. But even more curious is that GOP Adams County Commissioner Erik Hansen is reportedly running cover for her as questions grow about the situation. In particular, Adams County Commissioners Eva Henry and Chaz Tedesco are questioning Melonakis’ decision to allocate over $150,000 of her budget to remodel her own office:

“Every other county office has agreed we need transparency. Some are headed up by Democrats, some Republicans, but all of these offices are here to serve the public. The County Assessor not allowing an internal audit of the assessor’s office is troubling, especially at a time when she wants to spend tax payer dollars on a cosmetic remodel of their office,” says Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry.

Tedesco similarly questions her motivations:

“Elected officials in other Adams County offices have allowed for an annual audit with the County Commissioners as part of the process. The Assessor’s office has not. Why? This doesn’t make sense.”

Commissioners reportedly became wary of Patsy Melonakis’ judgment when she told them she was “learning on the job” during a public meeting.

By all accounts the budget request to remodel Melonakis’ office is superfluous, but the failure to even attempt to justify could be considered incompetent, arrogant, or simply brazen. An ethics inquiry was filed 3 weeks ago. We don’t have the latest word on the status of that complaint, but we expect to hear something more in the near future.

In the meantime, it looks like Adams County’s legendary bad local politics press has another chapter yet to be written.

Longtime Local Political Fixture Katy Atkinson Dies

2010katySad news today from Lynn Bartels, blogging from the Secretary of State’s office:

Political consultant Katy Atkinson, who started out working for Republicans and eventually handled high-profile nonpartisan ballot measures, died today.

Atkinson was a sought-after spokesperson by reporters because she knew Colorado politics and she quickly returned phone calls.

“Katy Atkinson was smart and witty and just a delight to be around,” said Dick Wadhams, the former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and a veteran political consultant. “That’s what made her just a great person to work with in politics. In the most intense situation, she could laugh.”

Atkinson had a long career in supporting roles for innumerable local political campaigns and stories. Generally associated with Republicans, Atkinson was a key part of a moment of bipartisan common sense in 2005 that culminated in the passage of Referendum C–a five-year timeout from the worst impacts of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) that helped the state recover from the post-9/11 economic downturn. Atkinson also helped a bipartisan coalition successfully fight the so-called “Bad Three” Doug Bruce-backed anti-tax ballot measures in 2010, Amendments 60, 61, and Proposition 101.

She’ll be missed on both sides of the aisle.

Facing pot holes and dilapidation in CO Springs, Suthers campaigns against TABOR refund

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs.

Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs.

John Suthers is rocking the GOP boat in pot-hole ridden Colorado Springs.

The Republican mayor is calling for a sales tax to fix pot holes, but more significantly, he’s backing a ballot initiative allowing the city to keep funds that otherwise would have been returned to taxpayers under TABOR.

Suthers sounded the alarm yesterday, saying in his state of the city speech, as reported by KKTV:

Suthers: “When companies are looking around, they’re looking for the level of investment the community is making for infrastructure and we need to show them that investment.”

Suthers says the sales tax would cost the average household about $100 per year.

And on KVOR radio over the weekend, here’s how Suthers explained his support for the TABOR ballot initiative:

Suthers: Now, as to the issue that is on the ballot, let me explain what that is. In 2014, the city, as total revenue, took in $2.1 million more than it was allowed to take in under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights—the cap. Well, how did that happen? It happened because in 2014 the city got a number of state grants to deal with fire and flood disasters that occurred in the previous couple of years. And that revenue has to be counted against your TABOR cap. And that —those grants — took us over the TABOR cap for 2014. So the question is: Do we refund it to the voters at approximately $11 per household, or do we retain it?

Listen here to Suthers on KVOR 9.9.15

Sounds a lot like the argument Hickenlooper has been making for changing the definition of the “hospital provider fee” under TABOR, a move that would free up over $150 million for transportation and other projects.

Suthers wants to keep taxes for stuff people want, like trails and parks! He’s touting a poll showing he’s got the support of the people–even if Americans for Prosperity is pissed.

Like the Republicans who backed Referendum C, Suthers is showing, however faintly, that anti-tax ideology doesn’t work when you have to govern. Maybe it’s a sign that our state’s tax crisis can actually be solved through a combination of compromise and necessity.

Doug Bruce Sues Top Defense Attorney, Epic Hilarity Ensues

Doug Bruce.

Doug Bruce.

As the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Megan Schrader reports, convicted felon tax evader and author of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Douglas Bruce is going back to court–this time to sue his former defense attorney, the renowned David Lane of Denver, for not moving Bruce’s appeal of his convictions fast enough through the courts:

Douglas Bruce has filed a civil suit against his former attorney David Lane seeking $165,000 in damages for misconduct in handling Bruce’s appeal of his 2012 felony convictions.

Bruce, a Colorado Springs anti-tax crusader, hired Lane in 2012 to represent him at the sentencing of a tax evasion trial with a $75,000 retainer to handle the appeal of three guilty convictions. Bruce said Lane delayed filing the opening brief of his appeal for almost two years, then refused to refund his money when Bruce lost patience and hired a different attorney. The case was filed in Denver District Court in early July…

Lane’s response to Bruce could be one of the greatest smackdowns of Colorado’s least-ingratiating anti-tax activists ever recorded.

“That’s not a particularly long time,” Lane said of the delay for the opening brief. “We met every single deadline imposed upon us by the Colorado Court of Appeals. The fact that the court doesn’t move as fast as Douglas Bruce wants it to is probably because there are not enough dollars to adequately staff the Colorado Court of Appeals due to the TABOR Amendment.” [Pols emphasis]

Wham! But seriously, Lane continues,

“It was very difficult dealing with Douglas Bruce because I believe him to have a mental illness,” Lane said.

That’s not a sentiment we expect anyone with an interest in defending Bruce’s “gift” to our state, TABOR, will want to see repeated. But the fact is, Bruce’s personal conduct, from his bizarre violent outbursts to his felony conviction for tax evasion, have done almost as much to discredit TABOR as the deleterious effects of the law itself. TABOR’s labyrinthine provisions, not just requiring votes on tax increases but tightly regulating every aspect of the process to ensure such proposals are almost impossible to pass, make a great deal more sense in the context of their authorship by a tax cheat. TABOR is supported by conservatives not because it requires citizen participation in the decision, but because it skews the process to make a no vote the most likely outcome.

At one time, we would have described TABOR as the product of an evil genius. But seeing what has become of Douglas “Mr. TABOR” Bruce in recent years, “genius” is not a word we would use to describe either Bruce or his handiwork.

Hickenlooper Steps Up To Sell TABOR “Baby Step”

UPDATE: Although the Denver Post story this weekend represents this proposal as a “revamp” or “fix” to the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, commenters note correctly that this is merely a proposed exemption of revenues from the 2009 hospital provider fee from TABOR. The proposal would prevent the fee from busting TABOR’s revenue caps, allowing the state to keep the money.

Not that TABOR’s zealous defenders will like it any better, of course.


Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Gov. John Hickenlooper.

As the Denver Post’s John Frank reports, Gov. John Hickenlooper is putting his money where his mouth his–or is it putting his mouth where he wants your money to be?–by proposing a small “tweak” to the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) that would allow the state to retain several hundred million dollars to fund needed projects:

On the first day of a new statewide tour, Gov. John Hickenlooper found an appropriate venue in this high mountain town for his push to revamp how the state spends money.

The Democrat stood on stage at the historic Tabor Opera House in Leadville and made a lengthy pitch for an overhaul to TABOR — the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Hickenlooper wants to exempt the hospital provider fee from state revenue collections under TABOR because it pushes Colorado over the constitutional cap, prompting taxpayer refunds next year even as the state struggles to adequately fund priority areas.

If the fee were removed from TABOR, Colorado’s revenues would fall under the cap and the state would have $200 million more to spend on road projects and classrooms, the governor said.

To be clear, this is not the “grand bargain” that would undo the fiscal chokehold of the combination of TABOR with other constitutional spending caps and mandates to let our elected officials do their jobs as prescribed by the same state (not to mention federal) constitution. The hospital provider fee was passed in 2009 under Gov. Bill Ritter in order to qualify for additional federal matching funds for Medicaid. The program has been very successful, but that success has come with the side effect of pushing the state beyond TABOR’s dreaded revenue caps.

Despite a backlog of funding priorities and money cover them, it’s necessary to hold a statewide vote to simply allow those funds to be retained and used by the state. For citizens who don’t understand TABOR, there’s a widespread assumption that our better economy means more revenue that the state can then use to pay for all the stuff we depend on every day–roads, schools, health care.

But in Colorado, that’s just not the way it works.

“I think giving people the real facts is half the battle,” he said after the first events. “To make sure they understand that … it’s going to crowd out, over the next few years, hundreds of millions of dollars from the things all these people want from their state government.”

We’ve heard some grumbling that Hickenlooper “squandering” an opportunity for a much more comprehensive solution for a smaller-scale proposal like this might make it harder down the road for such a “big fix” to pass muster. But we honestly think that the battle to unwind TABOR’s deviously complex restrictions on raising revenue in our state is a longer-term problem than Hickenlooper or anyone else can solve by 2016. The political backing doesn’t yet exist to make a wholesale repeal viable, and the projections of looming and persistent shortfalls in the future aren’t close enough yet to be real to voters. There is more work to be done educating the public, and more harm that needs to be seen with voters’ own eyes.

In the meantime, Gov. Hickenlooper is doing what he can. The arguments that he’s making for this small-scale proposal apply to the big questions as well–and either Hick or his successor will benefit from his touring of the state to tell this story when TABOR’s judgment day finally arrives.

Local GOP Operatives (Still) Can’t Get Their Facts Straight

In response to contemporary political events both nationally and here in Colorado, Republican message operatives have started off the week…well, badly. We’ll take just a brief moment to correct two laughably inaccurate opinion pieces from the last 48 hours–the first being a column defending GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump at Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, penned by 2013 Colorado Senate recall spokesperson Jennifer Kerns:

They say numbers don’t lie.

Then neither does Donald Trump when it comes to illegal immigration.

While Donald Trump continues to make waves with his recent comments regarding illegal immigration, FBI crime statistics and other data reveal an interesting revelation: Donald Trump was right.

GOP spokesperson Jennifer Kerns.

GOP spokesperson Jennifer Kerns.

No doubt Donald Trump is looking for (and most likely paying for) defenders in the wake of his highly controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants during his campaign launch speech. But as our readers know well from the 2013 recalls and subsequent tall tales about marijuana “crack babies,” Jennifer Kerns is not really a devotee of, you know, accuracy.

As she amply demonstrates defending Trump:

According to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement report provided to Congress, just 1,000 illegal immigrant criminals tracked by ICE “had amassed nearly 88,000 convictions among them including 193 homicide convictions, 426 sexual assault convictions, 303 kidnapping convictions, and 16,070 drunken- or drugged-driving convictions.”

Folks, this statement is factually ridiculous. The report Kerns links to in truth says that of some 36,000 undocumented immigrants released by ICE, 1,000 re-offended. The 88,000 figure was for the original offenses committed by this much larger group (and keep in mind that many convictions involve several offenses). The truth is, this is a much smaller rate of recidivism than that of the general American public–a study by the National Institutes of Justice found that among released prisoners in America, fully 67% of prisoners were re-arrested in three years, 56% of them within the first year. That’s rather worse than 1 in 36.

In short? Jennifer Kerns is absolutely, utterly full of shit. Either she misread the report she cited, or she didn’t care if she got her facts right. Judging from her previous work, we suspect the answer is both.

Jonathan Lockwood of Advancing Colorado.

Jonathan Lockwood of Advancing Colorado.

Our second example of conservatives screwing up their most basic facts comes from Advancing Colorado, a relatively new conservative front group operated by Koch-funded activist Jonathan “Stop Being Poor” Lockwood. From a press release yesterday, lamenting the Colorado Supreme Court’s refusal to take up a case challenging the 2009 FASTER road and bridge fees:

“The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to not review the case is disappointing,” said Advancing Colorado Executive Director Jonathan Lockwood. “This decision shows how important it is for us to defend the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, because without it we would have little to no protection from government using us as unlimited ATMs. The more that government seeks to exempt itself from TABOR, the more concerned Coloradans should be.”

In 2009, Gov. John Hickenlooper created the CBE through the “Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act” (FASTER)… [Pols emphasis]

Now, we could spend some time deconstructing Lockwood’s vacuous argument about how the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is the only thing stopping Big Bad Gubmint from turning you into an “unlimited ATM.” After all, that hasn’t happened in the states that don’t have TABOR, which if you haven’t heard is, well, all the other states. To be honest, we’re not sure what exactly Lockwood means by that at all.

But one thing we do know is this: John Hickenlooper wasn’t governor in 2009. And we feel like we can stop reading right there.

Bottom line: Colorado has emerged as a critically important swing state. Large amounts of money and human capital flow into our state every election cycle now as Colorado has become a competitive battleground at every level, from school boards to the presidential race. And we consider this overall to be a very good thing.

But please, please make sure the people you hire are not clueless.

So You Don’t Like Toll Roads? Well…

U.S. 36 Express Lanes Project.

U.S. 36 Express Lanes Project.

The Colorado Statesman’s Vic Vela has a story up today about the long-term shortage of federal funds for transportation projects, and what that’s forcing states like Colorado to do to provide for the infrastructure needed to sustain economic growth–not to mention keeping your commute from driving you totally insane:

Congress faces a July 31 deadline to pass legislation addressing the country’s transportation needs. But recent history suggests lawmakers will fall short of passing a long-term funding bill, instead opting for yet another stopgap measure.

Over the last six years, Congress has passed short-term transportation funding extensions 33 times.

The temporary funding measures are unsustainable, Mendez said, if Congress intends to repair roads and bridges…

[Deputy Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez] called on Congress to take action on the Grow America Act, a six-year, $478 billion highway funding bill supported by President Obama and Mendez’ boss, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

According to Deputy Secretary of Transportation Victor Mendez, passage of the Grow America Act would bump Colorado transportation funding up 20%, with an even bigger increase for transit projects. As you can imagine, though, the measure is going nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress:

“There’s difficulty getting it through the Republican House right now, which is sort of par for the course,” said Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents the 7th Congressional District.

The U.S. Senate has introduced a more modest bipartisan proposal, cosponsored by GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, that would increase transportation funds by a smaller amount via a relatively gimmicky incentive for corporations to repatriate overseas earnings at favorable tax rates. Anything would help, of course, but the huge long-term deficit in funding for transportation projects, both to maintain current infrastructure and to provide for the future, is much bigger than what Gardner’s bill would provide for.

But there’s another big difference between the two proposals: the President’s bill relies on provisions that Coloradans may not like, even though they are being embraced by cash-strapped Colorado transportation officials right now. The Grow America Act would significantly ease restrictions on tolling of existing interstate highways, as well as encourage so-called “public-private partnerships” to build new transportation projects. In Colorado, the new U.S. 36 Express Lanes Project is an example of what the future would look like under the Grow America Act–new infrastructure, but at a significant long term cost and loss of control: