April 20, 2018

Ethics Initiative

It's been a little while, friends. I'm writing now from Breckenridge, where I and most of City Council is attending the Colorado Municipal League’s annual meeting and conference. Today I attended a useful session on economic development and another on ethics in government.

One of the speakers at the ethics panel described a statewide initiative aimed at cleaning up some of the biggest problems at the state legislature. Colorado Common Cause is leading the initiative effort, known as the Ethics in Government Initiative, which would have three major components:

1) The initiative bans gifts from lobbyists to state legislators. Right now there are no limits on such gifts, and in 2005 lobbyists and others gave over $300,000 worth of meals, sports tickets, tickets to cultural events, and other gifts to legislators.

2) The initiative requires that state legislators wait at least two years after finishing their service as elected representatives before becoming a lobbyist. Right now there are no such restrictions, and in fact state legislators can apply for and negotiate lucrative lobbying jobs while still holding public office and making decisions that affect their potential new clients.

3) The initiative would create an independent ethics commission for the state legislature to prevent the inherent conflict that occurs when some state legislators are forced to evaluate ethics complaints against other state legislators.

I am supporting the initiative.

What Ref. C Means for Colorado

State Representative Andrew Romanoff – the Speaker of the House – wrote a nice bit on the recent budget agreement between the Dems in the state House and Senate and Governor Owens. The long and short of it is that the governor will sign both the School Finance Act and the State Budget, and that is good news for education, health care, and transportation. I figured the easiest thing to do was reprint part of Representative Romanoff’s post here:

The package boosts funding for K-12 education, higher education, health care, and transportation, in keeping with the voters’ decision last fall. As Hank Brown put it in describing the first allocation of Referendum C dollars, this is a case of “promises made, promises kept.”

THE COLORADO INDEX

Here, in more tangible terms, is what the budget agreement really means (with apologies to Harper’s):

1. At-risk children who will be added to preschool and kindergarten rolls: 2,000

2. Children with developmental disabilities who will no longer have to wait for early intervention services: 613

3. Colorado seniors who will qualify for the Homestead Tax Exemption: 140,000

4. College students who will see increases to the College Opportunity Fund: 124,000

5. Estimated economic impact of tourism-related promotions: $2.6 billion

6. Low-income households that will receive help with heating bills and greater energy efficiency: 110,000

7. Transportation projects green-lighted: 36

8. Children who will receive improved instruction through special education: 80,000

9. Uninsured Coloradans who will benefit from investments in community health centers: 50,000

Toll Road Bill Soars Thru Committee

SoapBlox reports on the hearing yesterday at the State Capitol on Representative Pommer’s bill requiring toll roads to go through the same sort of environmental review, mitigation funding, and planning that other kinds of highways must go through. CINQ worked hard to organize some turnout and bunches of folks came out in support of the bill. It sounds like went pretty well: the House Transportation and Energy Committee (on which our very own Rep. Gwyn Green sits) unanimously passed the bill. I believe the bill now heads to the House floor.

While the bill wouldn’t outright ban the use of eminent domain by private tolling authorities to build toll roads, it at least forces proponents to go through the same process as everyone else. More importantly, because Rep. Pommer took the time to negotiate with the Governor at some length on the bill language, the Governor might just be willing to sign it (unlike last year’s bill, which he vetoed).

The Rocky Mountain News reported on it today as well.

Open Space, Ref. C, and Bus Terminals

Late last week I attended a briefing, hosted by the Transit Alliance, on the Union Station project in downtown Denver. I will tell you I think it's an amazingly cool project which will integrate local city buses, regional buses, light rail, Amtrack, Greyhound and other bus services, and every other kind of transit you can think of under one roof. Although I will be sad to see all the open space of the South Platte Valley (near LoDo in downtown Denver) vanish, if they pull this off it will be urban infill done right, and the entire Denver region will benefit from the incredible transit center that Union Station becomes. They just released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement in case you want to dig into the details, but if you are more interested in the quick overview of what it will all look like I suggest RTD's power point presentation.Union Station has a lengthy history, and as best I can tell the project will do a good job of preserving its historic character and the large, open plaza despite the substantial expansion of the building and the complex.

This week I attended the TransitWest meeting and learned more about efforts on the I-70 corridor to push CDOT to consider something other than their typical "maximum asphalt" solution to congestion.

I also attended a briefing sponsored by the Bell Policy Center and a large bipartisan group of state legislators. They offered the clearest explanation of the state budget process I've ever heard, and made very clear that they are honoring their promises during the Ref. C campaign regarding how the legislature would spend Ref. C funds. The take-home message was pretty clear: Ref. C is allowing the state to tread water with respect to many critical programs like community colleges and other higher education funding needs, services for the mentally ill and the poor, transportation projects, K-12 education, and health care. I asked the distinguished panel (which included Senate Majority Leader Joan Fitz-Gerald, our own State Senator Moe Keller, and our own State House Representative Gwyn Green) where in this process they would establish reasonable sideboards on their transportation funding to ensure that CDOT appropriately prioritizes funding for transit and appropriately considers the needs of local communities before ramming careless, ineffective, and expensive projects down their throats. No one had a particularly satisfying answer ("this is just the appropriations process and those are policy questions"), although to Representative Green's credit she did politely point out the way in which many in the state legislature defer to CDOT's arm twisting. I think decisions about appropriations are policy decisions, and the legislature has a responsibility to ensure that CDOT and all other state agencies spend the taxpayers money appropriately.

Finally, this evening I attended Plan Jeffco's annual banquet, which was in part a celebration of the protection of the Ralston property and some adjacent land owned by the Mt. Vernon Country Club. Lots of folks deserve credit for pulling off the deal, including the Northwoodside Foundation, Clear Creek Land Conservancy, Jefferson County Open Space, Mt. Vernon Country Club, and of course Plan Jeffco. I like celebrations, and celebrating the protection of important open space is particularly satisfying.

Owens Signs Statewide Smoking Bill

I just got an email update reporting that Governor Owens signed the smoking bill (HB 1175), which makes it official. The bill, which goes into effect July 1, bans smoking in most bars and restaurants across the state. I wrote about this bill once before, and you can more information about the bill-signing from the 9News web site.

Owens Will Sign Statewide Smoking Bill

After a long and convoluted legislative battle, Governor Owens said on Friday he would sign the smoking ban bill just passed by the state legislature. According to the Denver Post story, the bill bans smoking in public places with exceptions for casinos, small businesses, the smoking lounge at Denver International Airport, smoke shops, family farms, and cigar bars. ColoradoPols cites the Rocky Mountain News story and has some boisterous discussion for good measure (more than 100 comments posted so far).

I’ve been supportive of a smoking ban designed to protect restaurant and bar workers from the effects of secondhand smoke but believed a statewide solution made the most sense. A statewide bill like the one the Governor is planning to sign ensures that the rules are consistent everywhere and that restaurants and bars in different towns will still all have a level playing field. I’m pleased the legislature pulled it off. Hats off to Republican House Minority Leader Mike May and Democratic Senator Dan Grossman for their tenacity and legislative acumen.

Save Money on Gas . . .

If you commute or drive your kids to school you may be interested in knowing more about DRCOG’s “RideArrangers.” RideArrangers offers help arranging vanpools, carpools, and schoolpools (to share the responsibility of driving your kids to school). They help businesses develop telecommuting programs allowing employees to work from home full-time, a few days a week, or once in a while. Finally, for folks who participate in these programs, RideArrangers also offers the Guaranteed Ride Home program, which guarantees a free taxi ride home from work if an emergency arises on a day that you carpool, vanpool, or use transit.

RideArrangers also sponsors Bike to Work Day (this year on June 28).

To get information on bus and transit routes, schedules, and fares, visit the RTD web site.

Denver Post Editorial on Toll Roads

The Denver Post today editorialized on CDOT proposals to construct toll lanes on C-470 and elsewhere. One key problem with CDOT’s proposed toll lanes on C-470, I-225, and other regional highways is that they won’t do much if anything for congestion. The basic principle is that congestion on the free lanes drives folks to pay the tolls in the new toll lanes. If the toll lanes are congested, people won’t pay tolls to use them. In other words, toll lanes don’t do much to reduce congestion precisely because they are managed to keep the volume low. This is the same motivation for the non-compete agreements that have received some attention lately in the blogosphere (see part one and part two of unbossed’s discussion and this Daily Kos post), the media, and in the state legislature.

According to the Post’s editorial, Pam Hutton of CDOT argues that we should build toll lanes where we can (presumably financing them in part based on projected toll revenues) and that doing something is better than doing nothing. I don’t think that’s right, since building toll lanes now will actually impede our ability to relieve congestion in the future. Once the toll lanes are built and private investors or whoever else has a financial stake in their continued operation as toll lanes, we aren’t likely to convert them into congestion relief lanes for a long, long time, and we’ll use up space that could have been used for congestion relief. In other words, building toll lanes that do little for congestion now is not better than nothing. It’s actually worse because it doesn’t help the problem and precludes options that might actually help at some point in the future.

Of course CDOT’s argument about the proposed superhighway through Golden is even worse. Under the best of circumstances it will require hundreds of millions of dollars of public money to subsidize construction of a superhighway that, according to all the traffic studies and models, will do little to improve congestion in the northwest quadrant.

The Denver Region Comes Up Short on Transporation Dollars

This morning I joined Mayor Baroch and Councilor Karen Oxman at the elected officials briefing sponsored by the Colorado Department of Transportation. CDOT staff gave updates on some west side projects although most won’t have any direct impact on Golden. More interestingly, Jennifer Schaufele, the executive director of the Denver Regional Council of Governments, sparred a bit with CDOT director Tom Norton over the allocation of transportation dollars across the state. When CDOT started spending money on highway projects at the beginning of the fiscal year (last fall), CDOT staff apparently forgot about their obligation (through Memoranda of Understanding with DRCOG and other regional planning organizations) to equitably distribute transportation dollars across regions of the state. They also seem to have forgotten about their legal obligation to allocate 10% of Senate Bill 1 funds to transit projects. The result is that they are now likely to short the Denver region on transportation dollars by as much as $30 million, and are proposing to allocate the transit dollars (more than $20 million) by cutting that out of the Denver region as well. Jennifer was very clear that DRCOG is unhappy with coming up short by as much as $50 million, and Tom Norton was equally clear that he didn’t much care. As Lorraine Anderson of the Arvada City Council, who sits on the COG board, pointed out during the briefing, COG seems very willing to be flexible (e.g., accept a shortfall this year if CDOT makes up for it next year), but Norton and CDOT seem pretty fixed on violating the agreement that was supposed to ensure a fair sharing of transportation dollars.

Of course there is always a concern about CDOT getting enough money to fund the beltway, but it’s in tension with some very real transportation needs including transit projects. I’ll write more on the beltway fight soon, but suffice it to point out for now how interesting it is that CDOT is picking real fights with Aurora, Douglas County, and communities on the I-70 corridor over what seem to me to be essentially the same issue: CDOT deciding it wants to build something and insisting on making it happen regardless of how it affects the local community, or what the local community’s transportation needs actually are.

DRCOG, if you don’t know, is made up of representatives from 52 local governments across the Denver Metro region. Although its highest profile role is regional transportation planning – most federal transportation dollars to the Denver region have to run through the DRCOG planning process – it also runs strong programs on regional growth planning (the Metro Vision 2030 plan), water and air quality, services for older residents of the region, and public safety programs. I represent Golden on the DRCOG board of directors and serve on the policy committee (known as the Metro Vision Issues Committee).