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Legislative secret: Past experience helps Democrats

Fri, Dec 7, 2012

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When voters approved term limits for Colorado state legislators, the electorate pretty much split along party lines. Republicans loved the idea (get rid of all those professional politicians!) and Democrats didn’t (we’ll lose institutional memory and be at the mercy of cunning lobbyists!). A majority of unaffiliated voters agreed with the GOPsters, and term limits were duly embedded in the state constitution.

Since 1991, state House representatives can serve no more than four consecutive two-year terms, while state Senate members must leave after two consecutive four-year terms.

It’s possible to game the system, either by moving from one chamber to another or by waiting four years after having served eight years in either chamber, and running again for the same seat. A particularly agile politician theoretically could serve eight years in the Senate, followed by eight years in the House, another four years in the Senate, and a final two years in the House for a total of 22 years.

Moving from the House to the Senate has been particularly popular among El Paso County Republicans, blessed with safe seats and adoring constituents. Andy McElhany glided from the House to the Senate, serving three terms in the House and two in the Senate. Doug Lamborn was elected to the House in 1994, moved to the Senate in 2000, then on to Congress in 2006. Colorado Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman served four House terms beginning in 2000, and will start his second Senate term in January. State Sen. Kent Lambert, who sits on the two most powerful Senate committees (joint budget and appropriations), served two House terms before jumping to the Senate.

Legislators such as McElhany, Cadman, Lamborn and Lambert, blessed with years of experience, should have been able to outmaneuver and outsmart their Democratic counterparts. Theoretically, we should be in the catbird seat, with baffled Denverites wondering why Colorado Springs gets more than its share of transportation, education and social-service dollars from the state. Theoretically, Mayor Steve Bach should have been cutting ribbons to celebrate the widening of U.S. Highway 24 and the completion of the new Interstate 25/Cimarron interchange.

Dream on. Bach, like every Colorado Springs mayor for the past 20 years, has been complaining loudly — and so far ineffectually — about inadequate state transportation funding.

It doesn’t make sense, unless you compare Republican legislators to their Democratic counterparts.

Republican legislators are a varied group. Included in their numbers are attorneys, business owners, farmers, nonprofit execs, stay-home moms and military retirees. The caucus is rich in talent, experience and intelligence. It’s a strong lineup and has been for many years, but one lacking a crucial skill.

While fond of railing against “big government,” few have worked as civilian employees of the government(s) they so disdain.

Dems, by contrast, know government from the inside.

According to House Speaker Mark Ferrandino’s (D-Denver) bio, he “… served as a senior budget analyst for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, as a program analyst for the Department of Justice and as a policy analyst for the White House Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.”

Rep. Lois Court (D-Denver) “served as Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s director of administration in the General Services Department and was director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Response.”

Rep. Beth McCann (D-Denver) “… was deputy attorney general in charge of civil litigation and employment law in the Colorado Attorney General’s office. She was Denver’s first manager of safety in the early 1990s under Mayor Wellington Webb.”

Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) was a Springs city cop for about a decade and later was Fountain’s police chief. New Rep. Tony Exum (D-Colorado Springs) spent more than three decades in the Springs fire department, working up to battalion chief.

These folks have a sympathetic understanding of government at different levels. They can work the system, give and receive favors, and subtly manipulate the levers of power.

Our Republicans may have longevity in office, but shorter-serving Dems have a different edge. Our GOPsters may understand legislative politicking, but they have little first-hand experience in the nuts and bolts of government.

It’s a little like the NFL — you may have some great players, but if they miss training camp, you’ll always be on the losing side.

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