Economic Futures Panel concludes the state's broken and needs fixing

Filed under: Opinion |

The Colorado Economic Futures Panel has released its preliminary report, and it isn’t a stretch to say that the state wouldn’t be close to making the dean’s list.

The panel was created last December by the University of Denver to analyze Colorado’s fiscal situation and provide a platform for discussion and possible solutions. There were 16 members from across the state, including Dick Celeste, president of Colorado College.

The panel concluded that Colorado’s fiscal policy making process is deeply flawed and that there are procedural, systemic and attitudinal factors that place the state at risk.

That might be the understatement of the century.

The fact that DU thought it was necessary to form the panel is pretty scary in and of itself. The fact that nobody along the way saw the train wreck coming or did anything to stop it is more than pretty scary. The fact that the preliminary report is 18 pages long is beyond scary.

But now that we know about the mess, somebody has to step up to the plate and something has to give.

The following findings were included in the panel’s preliminary assessment:

• Colorado’s state and local fiscal systems are inflexible and cannot adapt to changing economic circumstances and unexpected developments.

• Colorado’s fiscal policy making processes have resulted in a patchwork of unrelated and, at times, conflicting constitutional and statutory provisions governing the way state and local government services are financed.

• Colorado’s state and local tax and spending systems have evolved incrementally, without a coordinated framework or rationale.

• Colorado’s penchant for public referenda as a basic policy making tool has had a number of very damaging outcomes.

The panel’s chairman, James Griesemer, a professor and dean emeritus of the university’s Daniels College of Business, said that Colorado has “one of the most fragmented and decentralized service delivery systems in the nation.”

“More than 2,500 units of government deliver public services in Colorado and, of those, more than 2,000 units are special districts,” Griesemer said. “This is just one area the panel found that needs to be addressed. Otherwise, Colorado’s system of government may become even more fragmented, and its cost-effectiveness will continue to suffer.”

I’d say that given the fact that more than 80 percent of governmental units are special districts, it’s amazing anything ever gets done. Maybe the first step in the healing process would be to eliminate the special districts that exist and make it near an act of God to create any new ones.

Something also needs to be done about constitutional conflicts. Voters can’t keep saying that they are unwilling to pay new or higher taxes, but in the same breath require more spending for select services. If we want good schools, we need to be willing to pay for them. If we want good roads, ditto.

You would have thought that by now most human beings would have reached the point in the evolutionary process that the concept of getting something for nothing instantly triggers an “unrealistic” red flag.

The report said that solving the problems that the panel identified will require examination of a number of interrelated issues, including:

• The constraints that we place on elected officials.

• Whether the initiative or referendum processes can be improved.

• Whether we can streamline the way we govern.

• How we want our governments to respond to our ever-changing circumstances.

• How we can focus on getting the maximum value for the hard-eared taxes we pay, rather than simply on how we can pay less.

• Insisting on strategic public investments that will pay off in our quality of life for generations to come.

I’m not sure I want to wholesale loose the chains that bind elected officials. The reason is that I’m not sure all of them have the greater good as their main interest. But maybe some form of firm accountability would work better than clamping down.

Maybe if enough politicians could convince me that they care more about the good of the many as opposed to the good of themselves, I’d be more inclined to trust them to do the right thing. Of course it’s the politicians that got us into this mess, so convincing ain’t going to be easy.

I don’t think that there is any question that the initiative and referendum processes can be improved. I’m all for democracy, but representative democracy means that you allow the people you elect to make decisions on your behalf, even if they don’t always listen. If our elected officials aren’t doing what we want, why do we keep electing them?

The panel will issue a final report by the end of the year with recommendations about how to rebuild Colorado’s economic future. But considering the tangled mess that the group uncovered, a quick fix doesn’t appear likely.

Mike Boyd is editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at mike.boyd@csbj.com or 329-5206.