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Opinion Columns

Opinion: To recreate a great Colorado, we first need to reimagine the social compact, business and government

In March of this year, Gov. Jared Polis asked me to chair the Council on Economic Stabilization and Growth. With the support of several hundred Coloradans from throughout the state, we issued over 200 recommendations to stabilize the economy at the inception of the coronavirus crisis.

Most were incorporated into gubernatorial executive orders, federal legislation or state laws. I believe our council’s work helped to mitigate COVID-19’s extraordinary negative impacts on workers and companies alike.

Sadly, the pain and trauma from health and economic challenges continue to afflict Colorado and other states as we experience new outbreaks. More will need to be done during the upcoming months. 

Federico Pena

For example, federal loans and other benefits from the CARES Act are ending and the U.S. House has passed new legislation (The Heroes Act). Critical workers are still concerned about their safety and businesses stress under limited reopenings. We worry over our seniors and how our kids and their teachers can safely go back to school. If you are poor or Black or Hispanic, you know you are more likely to get sick. 

As we struggle during these times, we should keep our heads up as we look to the future. Clearly, we must begin to restore and increase consumer purchasing power to Coloradans. After all, we are a consumer-driven economy. Simultaneously, we must provide consumers confidence to go out and spend at restaurants, retail stores, bars, recreation facilities and many other sectors of our economy. This requires stabilizing or ending the virus. 

Once done, the question becomes: How can we emerge as an even greater Colorado?

There are three broad reforms we can embrace in creating a greater Colorado: adopting innovative business practices; transforming our attitudes about fellow Coloradans; and reevaluating the roles of governments.

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Colorado has an opportunity to create a new, technologically-advanced economy. We can increase usage of telemedicine, distance learning, telecommuting, teleconferencing, and online purchasing. We can expand the use of artificial intelligence and 3D printing for business. Let’s work to attract foreign-based supply chain companies and become a national repository for medical supplies. 

We can reconfigure traditional work spaces and implement innovative pick-up-and-delivery business models. Innovative retraining programs to assist workers transitioning to our new economy are essential. We can and should invest in rural broadband to support online education and to encourage new business investments throughout Colorado. 

These and other changes would make us more productive and reduce traffic gridlock, auto accidents, and pollution. These measures could limit the transmission of future viruses. There are other creative transformations of our economy that are being evaluated by Energize Colorado, a nonprofit providing relief to small businesses.

The more difficult changes are less apparent. 

Fundamentally, we need an updated version of the social compact that binds us together. It needs to be more equitable and inclusive. We must truly appreciate the contributions of everyone. We can begin by altering the way we view and treat unseen, yet critical, workers.

We must value the work of nurses and doctors, emergency workers, grocery store employees, letter carriers, public transit and cleaning crews, farmworkers, and meat packing workers, to name a few. How often in the past have we left an office building barely noticing the cleaning crews with mops and pails in their hands? 

When you think about it, we have taken these essential workers for granted and have barely noticed them. We need a cultural transformation on how we view and treat our fellow Coloradans and acknowledge and value their service going forward. After all, they work at great risk to make our lives easier. And yes, this needed recognition applies to undocumented workers and immigrants who do the work that most of us shun. 

But changing our attitudes is not enough. Colorado companies need to change, too. Employers need to compensate critical workers so that they can afford quality health care for themselves and their families. They need paid sick and family leave programs and should not be hired as contract workers. We must pay workers just wages and benefits if we are to rescue the middle class. 

Companies need to live up to the common refrain: “Our employees are our greatest asset.” My message to CEOs and their boards of directors: It’s time to walk the talk. Will this increase business expenses? Yes, but you can reduce paying dividends and buying back shares and add more purchasing power to our economy by putting money into the hands of consumers.

Governments must adapt, too. Our state and local officials must ensure that the most vulnerable among us are safeguarded from future epidemics. The fragility of many Coloradans was exposed during this pandemic. We cannot go back to business as usual. 

We must improve access to quality health care for all, provide childcare for indigent workers, support teachers and caregivers, and develop effective programs for the homeless and mentally ill. It is time for government to invest in new priorities by recognizing the real deficiencies in our society. 

This will require a complete reexamination of the proper role of governments at all levels. New partnerships with the private sector, foundations and civic groups must be instituted to effectively address the fundamental needs of all Coloradans in order to make us first in the nation in caring for its people.

And as voters, we need to provide our state and local government the resources needed to finance these critical services. The legislature just saw a $3 billion shortfall or a 25% reduction in current funding. How can our state possibly operate in a crisis? 

We need to revise the fiscal constraints of the TABOR Amendment. It sounds good to demand ‘smaller government,” or to insist that government should “get out of the way”… until of course we face a crisis. Charitable giving, civic groups and foundations can only go so far. I am NOT for big government or wasteful spending of tax dollars. I AM for a government that can effectively respond to current and future needs, especially in a crisis.

If we embrace new business ideas, re-evaluate past attitudes and reform government, we can not only re-imagine a great state in Colorado, we can create one.


Federico Peña served as mayor of Denver and U.S. Secretary of Transportation.


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