By Professor John Straayer of Colorado State University
Over the past several decades Colorado has been a politically competitive state but quite recently it has shown signs of Republican dominance. For two and a half decades Republicans have held majorities in both state legislative chambers while Democrats Richard Lamm and Roy Romer were governors. During the 1970's, 1980's and until 1995, the congressional delegations were quiet evenly split. Republicans included Hank Brown and Bill Armstrong; Democrats included Gary Hart and Tim Wirth.
The Republican tilt became increasingly evident in the 1990's. In elections of 1994, 1996, 1998 Republicans emerged with both U.S. Senate seats and four of the six U.S. House slots. In 1998 Republican Bill Owens, formerly state Treasurer and a state legislator in both chambers, became the first Republican Governor in twenty-four years. Roy Romer retried as Governor, a victim of Colorado's eight year term limits which now restrict both the executive and legislative branch. In November 2000, all 65 state house seats and all six U.S. house seats will be on the line, but no state executive branch positions and no U.S. senate slots will be on the ballot.
United government, with Republicans in control of the state house, state senate and governor's mansion, produced a rush of tax cut legislation in the 1999 session. TABOR ("taxpayers bill of rights") places constitutional limits on state spending and in recent years revenue surpluses have had to be rebated to taxpayers. Democrat Romer resisted permanent cuts in the tax base, but under Owens the 1999 General Assembly enacted two dozen reductions, sixteen of them cutting taxes permanently. Tax policy will continue to be contentious.
Other major current issues include transportation, growth, education, guns and abortion. The state is growing rapidly, on the eastern front range especially, and the highways are clogged, and deteriorating. Governor Owens is pushing a November 1999 legislatively referred ballot measure to authorize borrowing against anticipated federal fuel tax distribution so as to repair roads, widen the interstate in south Denver and add some light rail. The issue is contentious.
Colorado's religious right, anchored in but not restricted to the Colorado Springs area, relentlessly pushes restrictions on reproductive choice. Each legislative session recently bills to do so have met with success in one chamber but died in the other. A 1998 state-wide ballot item passed requiring parental pre notification of teen abortions, and anti-abortion forces continue to push further limits both via legislative efforts and the initiative.
Until the Columbine shootings, the 1999 legislature was well along in enacting measures to ease concealed carry restrictions for weapons, and limit municipal authority to regulate both the transport and concealment of guns. Governor Owens was poised to sign some of them, but with Columbine, the pro-gun agenda died. The Republican Governor, Democratic Attorney General Salazar and the legislative moderates now appear interested in enacting some moderate gun controls in the 2000 legislative session, such as raising the minimum purchase age and requiring the purchase of trigger locks. The extreme elements in the gun lobby promise to fight the efforts vigorously.
The tax and spending limitations of TABOR are creating problems for all of Colorado state and local government, and mostly especially the K -12 schools and higher education. TABOR limits annual spending in all jurisdictions from all sources, including fines, fees, and tuition, to the prior year's level plus the percentage of inflation and population growth. But student growth and the demand for services and maintenance are running ahead of the permissible spending levels. Avid anti-government types applaud and defend restrictions. Others call for release from the constitutional fiscal noose. Generally, Republican conservatives, including Governor Owens, support TABOR. Democrats and Republican moderates do not. This issues promises to become increasingly visible, contentious and troublesome.
The issues of growth is increasing in salience as the front range is becoming clogged with people and vehicles, and as upscale development in prime mountain locations is squeezing long-time locals. But the issues often lack focus. Environmental groups and some locals want restrictions on growth; landowners, developers and other locals don't. The generally conservative state legislature is not likely to enact much by the way of growth controls and land use restrictions; indeed in 1999 it went the other way with "takings" bills which benefit land owners in squabbles with cities and counties. In 2000 voters may well be facing a citizen initiated ballot item designed to limit growth and control land use.
In the fall of 199 it is not clear how Colorado politics may impact the national political scene. Governor Owens jumped on the George W. Bandwagon in the summer, and the state generally seems to be tilting in the Republican direction. But there are no guarantees at this point, as Colorado voters have a history of supporting both parties at the statewide level.