HUDSON | More than one guv has hidden behind the ‘blue ribbon ruse’
Author: Miller Hudson - October 29, 2018 - Updated: October 29, 2018
Voters can sense there are numerous hustlers masquerading as candidates, lobbyists and policy advocates. Divining the genuine agendas behind their smokescreens makes political involvement challenging work. It is also why many voters settle for mailing a check to membership organizations that ostensibly share their priorities; whether those are concern for the environment, the provision of mental health services, education funding, federalism, gun rights or ethical crusades. Upon close inspection, however, these self-aggrandizing tribunes are often found, both on the right and left, to devote a lion’s share of members’ contributions on the comforts of staff rather than effective advocacy. Supporters are assured of receiving a glossy newsletter carrying desperate appeals for more money.
Once elected, officials run hustles of their own — perhaps none as deceptive as the “blue ribbon commission.” These are usually the prerogative of the executive branch. The undisputed Colorado champion of this incarnation of “lets pretend we’re doing something” politics was former Gov. Bill Ritter, who launched more than a half dozen inquiries to examine transportation funding, health care costs and other policy dilemmas during his single term. Surprisingly, most of these efforts produced thoughtful, even inventive recommendations. Virtually none were ever implemented or found their way into law.
Nonetheless John Hickenlooper launched “to-be-determined” (TBD) shortly after assuming office, followed by a handful of subsequent studies, including the Colorado water study. Why, you might ask? President Obama noted, echoing John Kennedy’s inaugural phrasing, that the issues finding their way to his desk arrived not because they were easy, but because they were hard. The same can be said about Colorado’s Legislative failure to negotiate workable policy compromises. Transportation funding has been touted as the number one, bi-partisan priority of legislative leaders without material results for nearly a decade. For a governor, either without a strategy of his or her own, or no real intention of offering leadership to develop one, the Blue Ribbon Commission is a perfect escape hatch.
The usual suspects are appointed, including major donors, business leaders, a friendly legislator or two and identified stakeholders (or their lobbyists), who can then be safely turned loose without supervision. Rarely involved, other than as expert witnesses, are civil servants who must implement any eventual recommendations, or members of the public who will be asked to fund them. Think of this as a form of charade. The TBD exercise did very little to restructure, redirect or reprioritize state government and ultimately vanished into a mist of good intentions. As a by-product it did produce the uniform, triangular signage for state departments and vehicles. While it sounded a little dorky at the time, those triangular logos may prove the most lasting legacy of Hickenlooper’s reign.
The Blue Ribbon ruse is not limited to governors. Our past six presidents have commissioned a re-evaluation of the nation’s high-level nuclear waste program, and each time they received the same recommendation: isolation (burial) in a deep geological formation that has remained stable for at least a hundred million years. The Yucca Mountain site outside Las Vegas, Nevada, was approved on a 98-2 vote in the U. S. Senate nearly a half century ago. I bet you can guess where the two no votes resided. With Dean Heller’s re-election hanging in the balance in 2018, President Trump indicated last week that it may be time for a reconsideration of the Yucca selection. Make way for another Presidential Commission, pushing study costs past a billion dollars.
In considerable part because of TABOR, Colorado has failed to resolve a basketful of self-evident crises. Split leadership hasn’t helped. There appears a chance Democrats will seize both chambers, as well as the governor’s office this year. If so, Gov. Polis cannot rely on a unified government for more than two years. There will be no time to revisit the issues. In any case, there are reams of reports gathering dust on the shelf that can be reviewed. Polis will need to hold House and Senate leaders’ feet to the fire demanding solutions that can be sent to the ballot. This pressure is what used to be called leadership. Some proposals may fail, but others will pass and Colorado’s future will be that much less at risk.
Frustration with the Legislature’s current gridlock has prompted private sector parties to send customized initiatives to the ballot. These have rarely fared well because the issues we confront are not easy; they are hard. Compromise is demanding work. Consequently bi-partisan solutions may not prove achievable, although Republicans should be provided seats at the table. They may prefer to opt for obstruction. Proposals relying exclusively on Democratic votes remain solutions. And, yes, they are likely to require additional revenue and higher taxes. No hustle can avoid this hard truth. But, the Legislature would be be doing its job. And that may not be such a hard sell at the ballot box.
In the near term no commission can build roads that pay for themselves upfront or construct water projects for the next few million Colorado immigrants with their dollars until they arrive. Over the long run we are likely to see these investments pay for themselves. But, we will need to talk about that.