The Daily Sentinel, Aug. 6, on increasing pay for state lawmakers:
Money and politics. For whatever reason, the public has come to regard the two as highly reactive substances that should never be mixed lest they spontaneously combust.
It’s the same mentality that gives rise to calls for campaign finance reform - that politicians are bought and paid for - or criticism of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that money is a form of speech.
The truth is that money is politics. Politics is money. Much of what legislatures do is decide how to dole out the millions in revenue the state collects through fees, taxes and licenses.
When the legislature isn’t fighting over pure budgetary issues, money still comes into play. Because every bill carries a price tag. The Colorado Legislative Council, by law, estimates the fiscal impact of every bill or resolution before the General Assembly.
For example, the state’s new felony driving under the influence law has been criticized for being “watered down.” But if the Legislature had gone for a law with more teeth, it would have cost $17 million in enforcement, adjudication and prison costs. So, certain provisions were removed to make it less costly and more palatable to budget-conscious lawmakers.
The watered down version is expected to cost about $8 million a year by the third year it’s in force - a savings of about $9 million.
By coincidence - and we’re not suggesting any direct correlation - the Legislature approved about $7.8 million worth of raises for statewide constitutional officers, lawmakers and elected county officials. A move we think was overdue.
Many state and county elected officials will get a 30-percent pay hike when the raises take effect in 2019. At a time when the Legislature is wrestling with a multitude of underfunded priorities, the vote on the pay raises was ripe for criticism. Sen. Ray Scotts and Reps. Yeulin Willett and Dan Thurlow, all Grand Junction Republicans - voted against the idea.
“It would be nice to have more money,” Scott told the Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels, “but we’re still a citizen legislature. If you can’t afford this job, you shouldn’t run for it.”
We take the opposite view. The current $30,000 salary for being a legislator narrows the field of candidates considerably. Such meager pay favors the retired or independently wealthy. A “citizen legislature” should entice people of all economic strata to run for public office. Term limits are the tool to fight entrenchment, so nobody is going to get rich feeding at the public trough.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, paying a decent wage to state lawmakers is a way to get robust representation, which we’ll need to solve the state’s ongoing fiscal squeeze.
The Durango Herald, Aug. 7, on the Gold King Mine spill:
Animas River vistas evoke heartbreak, anger, frustration and helplessness since metal-laden water began pouring from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton on Wednesday morning. The orange sludge that is painting the riverbed, depositing a cocktail of acidic metals into the river has been steeping behind a debris pile in the long-collapsed mine portal for years. Now, more than 1 million gallons of contaminated water have flowed through Durango, raising questions about water quality, accountability, remedy and remediation. The imagery is stark and the concern is wholly legitimate, but the issue is hardly new.
The mining activity that largely defined the Silverton economy and culture from the 1800s to the late 20th century has left a legacy rich in history and steeped in pollution. A network of mines crisscross the mountains above the town, and contaminated water drainage has been a problem for decades. The Environmental Protection Agency, in its attempts to carry out the mitigation and remediation protocol outlined by the Animas River Stakeholders Group to begin to deal with the water quality issues pouring from the mines - Red and Bonita, specifically, with stabilizing and monitoring the Gold King second on its list - triggered the massive spill, but the agency was largely left holding the hot potato. The region’s geography and mineralogy has long affected water quality, and the mining complex exacerbates the problem. That formula is compounded by a history of insufficient reclamation efforts, limited accountability and concern about the political and economic impacts of a massive cleanup effort, which is ultimately what the river needs - a fact made all too obvious by this week’s spill.
The EPA had begun the relatively small-scale cleanup earlier this summer - on its own dime - a project that included excavating the collapsed Gold King Mine portal so as to install a drainage pipe. From there, the EPA planned to monitor water quality and quantity, particularly in relation to the bulkheads under construction at the Red and Bonita mine. These were critical steps toward stemming the known flow of contaminants into the Animas River watershed; they were not without risk nor were they intended to be a comprehensive fix to the widespread problem owed to geology, industry and impasse. The EPA stepped in to take on this important step in mitigating the multifaceted problem, and in that attempt, unleashed a much larger one that has sharpened the focus on just how critical an issue Animas River water quality is.
The piecemeal cleanup effort was designed to avoid a federal Superfund designation, which would trigger massive EPA investment and presence. It was a compromise and gamble. It failed, but there is a valuable lesson that must not be missed amid the finger-pointing and grieving over a river run foul.
The unpredictability of the mines’ drainage and the vastness and complexity of the contamination underscores the need for a comprehensive cleanup - including long-term water treatment for all that flows from the mine-rich region above Silverton and into the Animas River. That will require a significant investment and a corresponding trust that a major cleanup effort will be to the environmental and economic benefit of the entire region: from the fish to the farmlands and all the water users in between.
The Gazette, Aug. 11, on the impact of the federal Clean Power Plan on the state’s economy:
The newest version of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan,” announced last week, stands to devastate Colorado’s coal-based economy.
In Colorado Springs, it could negate the more than $100-million in upgrades to improve emissions at the city’s coal plants and would almost certainly force closure of at least the downtown Drake power plant. This local decision would suddenly become federal.
Colorado Springs relies on coal for about half its electrical generation. Statewide, nearly 65 percent of power demands are fulfilled by coal. About 20 percent relies on natural gas, and the remaining 15 comes mostly from hydroelectric, solar and wind.
How Colorado powers its grid should mostly be a Colorado decision, not a sweeping, authoritarian mandate of the Obama administration’s EPA - the agency that just spilled 3 million gallons of toxic sludge into West Slope waterways, tried to downplay the disaster and failed to warn New Mexico authorities downstream. Please, someone protect us from the EPA.
NERA Economic Consulting, a global firm of economists, estimates the EPA plan may bring double-digit rate increases to Colorado and 42 other states. In all, the firm estimates the plan would cost the American economy $366 billion. That’s $366 billion that cannot be used to expand businesses, pay for education or assist the needy. It is $366 billion just to power our grid in a fashion more amenable to President Barack Obama’s EPA.
As explained in a Wall Street Journal article, the plan could weaken reliability of the electric grid by forcing plants to close before replacements could be built.
“Yet even the administration admits that the EPA plan will have only a trivial impact on the climate,” the article states. If so - if this proposal won’t dramatically alter the climate - it sounds like another feel-good plan, at an enormous price, designed mostly for the sake of a president’s legacy.
Gov. John Hickenlooper is enthused about the regulations, and said he won’t join other state leaders who are considering the option of noncompliance.
Fortunately, the governor does not unilaterally control our fate in a system of checks and balances. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman maintains a skeptical view of the EPA’s anticipated overreach and is open to the possibility fighting for hardworking Coloradans. It is possible, in fact likely, the EPA lacks authority to impose such draconian rules.
“I will carefully review the EPA’s plan and evaluate its long term consequences for our state,” Coffman explained in a written statement. “But as I put the best interests of Colorado first, it may become necessary to join other states in challenging President Obama’s authority under the Clean Air Act.”
Colorado has a proud history of progressive environmental policies and is ahead of much of the rest of the country in setting high renewables mandates. But the EPA’s proposed new policies are unrealistic - too much too fast - even for Colorado.
“This expansion of federal power has the potential to put Colorado’s nearly $9 billion mining industry in jeopardy and threaten more than Colorado’s 74,000 jobs,” Coffman wrote.
The Supreme Court of the United States slapped down the EPA’s 2012 regulations with its ruling in Michigan v. EPA. In a nation of laws, the federal government’s executive branch has limited authority over individuals and the state governments that serve them. We encourage Coffman and other state attorneys general to seek justice against mandates that will harm the people who elected them.
The Denver Post, Aug. 11, on the death penalty:
Denver District Judge John Madden IV was, of course, correct this week when he advised jurors who’d just convicted Dexter Lewis of five murders at a local bar that “another prominent case in our state” - meaning the James Holmes trial - “doesn’t have anything to do with this case.”
From a legal standpoint, that’s true. But outside Madden’s courtroom, the life sentence for Holmes colors everything the jury in the Lewis case does now.
If the jury chooses a life sentence for Lewis, too, it will underline once more the farcically arbitrary nature of capital punishment in Colorado and the urgent need for the legislature and governor to repeal the statute. If the murderers responsible for the massacres at the Aurora theater and Fero’s Bar & Grill don’t deserve the death penalty, then no one does. It is hardly possible to imagine more heinous crimes.
Surely the death penalty doesn’t exist solely to handle the unlikely event that a criminal someday will exceed the monstrous depravity of Holmes or Lewis.
A sentence of death for Lewis, meanwhile, will also be awkward for death penalty proponents, whether they wish to admit it or not. And that’s because Lewis is black and Holmes is white - and the only three men now on death row also are black.
We don’t think it’s fair to make too much of this racial angle, since the only two executions in Colorado over the past half century involved white and Hispanic men (1997 and 1967, respectively). And Holmes’ attorneys aggressively emphasized his mental illness, going so far as to push, unsuccessfuly, an insanity defense.
But Lewis has his own tale of woe - broken family, dad shot to death in a gang incident when Lewis was four, and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a defense attorney in 2009.
By contrast, Holmes’ upbringing was idyllic. And he was, after all, found legally sane, capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong.
The racial component aside, a death sentence for Lewis at the very least would highlight the capricious manner in which the punishment is applied in this state. It isn’t just Holmes who has escaped death row despite horrific crimes. Killers responsible for some of the most sickening murders in recent decades either have been spared by juries who rejected the death penalty or by prosecutors who failed even to seek it. Its application defies all logic.
Colorado briefly abolished capital punishment in 1897 but brought it back a few years later. It’s time to retire the penalty again - for good.
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