I am not a vegan … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Then again, I enjoy vegetarian meals several times a week and have read the science that makes it clear the meat-intensive diet of my childhood was not merely boring but unhealthy.

So, I’m OK with our governor supporting the MeatOut challenge to go one day a year without eating meat. Heck, the Catholic Church has been advocating meatless meals for centuries and I don’t hear Colorado legislators, county commissioners or the governor of Nebraska protesting Lent. 

Diane Carman

Colorado ranchers are not the delicate snowflakes they’re portrayed to be by the whiners at the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. After all, if ranchers can survive years of crippling drought conditions and the cutthroat monopolistic cattle pricing imposed by the greedy meat packing conglomerates, I’m pretty sure they can handle one day a year when people order a bean burrito instead of the carne asada.

The whole debate is preposterous, especially right now. 

While elected officials were wild-eyed and fulminating about the great MeatOut controversy, the state auditor was busy delivering them a juicy cause for legitimate outrage right there on a sizzling platter.

When Auditor Dianne Ray’s staff attempted to review the books for the Department of Labor and Employment for the fiscal year ending June 30, the auditors discovered there was no there there.

And it was hardly a matter of a few measly rounding errors. As Tamara Chuang reported last week, the auditor’s office couldn’t track something like $2.1 billion that moved through the department. 

Even in the era of federal pandemic rescue funds in the trillions, $2.1 billion is still real money.

The reasons for this catastrophic accounting fiasco are complex and, in some cases, were foreordained by decisions made years ago to leave obsolete computer systems in place long beyond their useful life. 

So, I guess some of the explanations for the screw-ups are legitimate … um, sort of.

The sudden pandemic shutdown exploded the system for unemployment compensation. Claims went from an average of 109,000 filed annually before COVID to 548,000 claims in fiscal 2020, most of which had to be processed between March 15 and April 30. 

At the same time, while the department was trying to process five years’ worth of claims in six weeks, it was limping along with a decimated staff. The controller and deputy controller had left the agency before the pandemic. The director of the unemployment insurance division left soon after and then five accountants quit. (Can you blame them?)

So, it should come as no surprise that the number-crunchers at the labor department dropped a few digits in the frenzy to keep Coloradans from going hungry. 

Meanwhile, a new computer system for processing benefits was being installed to replace the antique software that for decades made Colorado famous for bungling benefits.

In the face of all that chaos, it’s not surprising then that crooks cynically exploited the opportunity to game the system and an estimated $6.5 million was skimmed by fraudulent unemployment claims.

But Colorado was hardly unique in facing unemployment insurance fraud.

The federal Department of Labor estimates that $63 billion, about 10% of the giant pandemic unemployment relief program, was lost to fraud nationwide. 

It was both a critically important rescue effort in an unprecedented crisis and a colossal mess.

Enter the crooks. They love hard times. And it’s not just the little guys. Just look at all the corporate price-gouging on essential medical equipment that has taken place over the past year. It’s classic.

So, while I’d like to be able to say there’s no excuse for the incompetence uncovered by the audit at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, in fact there are several. And they all suggest the state needs to stop shadowboxing and get serious about managing a system that is essential to restoring economic security to so many Coloradans.

But maybe even more important than the immediate need to rectify the accounts at the Department of Labor is the need to restore the public’s confidence in a government’s fundamental ability to respond to a crisis. 

Failures like those uncovered by the state auditor are devastating to any effort to build support for the policies we need to address our pathetic infrastructure shortfalls, health care deficiencies, public safety challenges and environmental crises. 

So, instead of engaging in silly made-for-social media distractions about our sacred duty to eat grilled meat, our leaders should get real and hold the governor’s feet to the fire to make sure the bureaucracy has what it needs to get the job done … well.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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Diane Carman

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @dccarman