After a legislative session that delivered full-day kindergarten, lower costs for early childhood education, new steps toward paid leave and retirement security and stronger consumer protections, there’s a campaign trying to tell you these priorities are somehow alien ambitions for our state — that these community achievements are a far cry from what Coloradans want from their state government.
The overreach campaign is as ironic as it is cynical; a confusing attempt to convince Coloradans we don’t need solutions to the dramatic changes happening here.
Democrats hadn’t even won their dramatic victory in Colorado’s elections before Republicans started accusing them of political overreach.
Recall that on the eve of the election, former Senate President Kevin Grantham “warned” if Democrats controlled the direction of the state government, Coloradans would see full-day kindergarten, paid family leave and solutions to affordable housing.
What Grantham intended to be a deterrent, voters instead saw as a promise. Cue Colorado’s political earthquake in 2018.
As the new legislature sought to deliver on their promises, Republicans continued their accusations of overreach throughout the entire 2019 session, even using parliamentary tactics to slow down business in the state Senate.
Conservative corporate lobbying groups even saw fit to run attack ads lambasting the entire legislative session as inconsistent with the Colorado way of life. This isn’t just a matter of partisanship — it’s an argument about the direction of our state.
To truly assess whether or not Colorado legislative leaders “overreached,” let’s look at the needs of the state they’re working on behalf of:
- Colorado has a prosperity distribution problem. We’ve been rated as the No. 1 economy in the country, and there are amazing stories of entrepreneurship and growth here, yet we we have entire places and sectors in our state that are falling behind.
- One in four Coloradans live below the self-sufficiency standard. Our middle class has stagnated, mainly due to the high cost of raising a family. Wages in key sectors like education and health care are actually going down.
- Faced with the prospect of big demographic changes, our Latinx students in particular struggle to access higher education as Colorado has the second highest attainment gap in the country.
All of this is happening under the encroaching shadow of a changing climate and the need for a dramatic response.
With issues like this plaguing our state, is it any wonder we saw bills seeking to raise wage standards, improve education funding, make child care more affordable and create new social insurance programs to help families feeling the squeeze?
In a state that spends way below the national average on our schools and has let parents pick up the ever-growing tab for their kids’ education, it makes all the sense to prioritize free full-day kindergarten.
In a state that has been able to just barely catch up to where we were in public spending before the Great Recession, asking voters to invest their tax refunds in infrastructure is the least we can do.
In a state where increased burden on families to pay for college is driving crippling student debt, doesn’t it make sense legislators passed a new student borrower bill of rights?
That’s why when organizations like mine saw this year’s legislative agenda, we saw a docket finally aligned with the clear and documented needs our state is grappling with. Sure, some of these bills have been introduced in past sessions, but they landed in gridlock.
This year, they moved forward through chambers that understand the economic imperative for these policies.
So, did our legislators overreach this year? No. They took aim at precisely the right targets.
Hitting these targets, however, isn’t easy. Many issues — like creating new social benefit systems, raising the minimum wage, creating new consumer protections — are inherently disruptive to the status quo.
They become a zero-sum game for entrenched interests who claim every change is a slippery slope. Those battles will always be pitched, but after years of deferring to the free market to produce better outcomes for struggling families, it’s finally time to take action and raise the floor in our economy.
Is it an overreach to respond to the needs of those you were elected to represent? Is it an overreach to adapt to changing times and circumstances?
In every generation, a debate emerges between one camp that says it’s time for change and another that remains entrenched in the old status quo.
All the signs point to the fact that Colorado is at a crossroads and a different direction is necessary for our future success. It’s a good thing we have legislative leaders in the driver’s seat who understand that.
But the legacy of this year’s legislative session is not yet complete. This fall, voters will need to weigh in on several referred measures the legislature approved.
Some groups will try to paint modest measures like the one asking voters if they are willing to invest their future TABOR refunds in schools, colleges, and roads as radical plans. They’ll claim adapting our rigid financial rules to the new realities of a growing state is a betrayal of the highest order.
We should reflect on that rhetoric: To disagree with the proposal is one thing, but to frame it as “overreach” is an attempt to discount it and treat it as alien to our community’s public discourse. The accusation itself is the overreach.
Scott Wasserman is president of the Bell Policy Center.
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