First off, we have too many elected officials named Joe. Ok, on to Joe Rice. I had coffee with him Friday morning and he is another example of the incredible depth of the Democratic bench here in Colorado.
Joe is that rare beast in politics where he is there to make the system better - and that's it. He does not view this as a stepping stone to higher office. He does not view this as a way to impose his philosophy on others. He does not view this as a way to get some grand program implemented (or stopped).
Virtually the entire conversation was about two things; first finding where the legislature can help people. The law he is most proud of is the cold case law. And as he explained it, it seems to me that the gigantic value of that law is it tells the family & friends of the murder victims that they are not forgotten. And that is an important thing. He also talked about a number of others including removing the requirement of fund-raisers to collect sales tax (apparently my daughter's soccer teams were violating the law when they made $50.00 selling cookies).
Second was listening to constituents. If someone emails or calls Joe, he emails or calls them back. If a group invites him to speak, he's there. He does town-halls all the time. And he walks his district, hitting every door. This is a tremendous effort but it is invaluable for our democracy. Our state reps are probably our most accessible elected official - if they are willing to put in the effort.
Joe knows what the people in his district want, and he discusses those topics with them. He may not always agree with them. When he agrees he may not work on that particular item. But he listens and discusses it - and that is invaluable in terms of the voters feeling that their government is responsive.
One sign of this, Joe says that when people are testifying on bills half the committee members are not there and many of the remaining ones are on their laptops or talking to others. And you have people there who have never testified before who have come down to the capitol for this one bill. He always pays attention to the person speaking so they feel that the legislature is listening to them.
I think this is what makes Joe special, he respects the voters and he shows it. It shows in his efforts to communicate with them. And it shows in his telling them when he does not agree with them, and why. This is incredibly powerful, not just for Joe but it also brings credit to the institution of the legislature itself.
Diving into some specifics, TABOR barely came up. I mostly listen and occasionally ask a general question so it could be that we just never hit it. But he is the first state legislative member or candidate that I have talked to that did not bring it up as the biggest problem facing the state. (His one discussion of it was if we shifted some taxes by eliminating the business property tax, a TABOR election would probably be required even though the total tax hit would not change.)
I have no idea why this did not come up in our conversation. It may be that the conversation never got there. It may also be that what he has focused on is not impacted by TABOR and therefore it's not central to his efforts. And it may be that he's ok with how it works. (I should have asked him at the end - bad job on my part.) But it is interesting regardless...
He did talk about health-care and energy use. In both cases it was pretty general where he discussed some basics that need to be in place for both, but not detailed specifics or a given approach. I think this is good in that he has some basic requirements he knows we need to meet on both but is not locked in to a specific approach.
On the flip side, I don't think he will be leading either effort. Because if he was, he would have a lot more detail on what all goes in to this. That's fine, we have a part-time legislature we pay a pittance and that means each legislator can, if they are independently wealthy, concentrate on one major issue. But Joe will be there helping craft a solution.
I've talked to a number of state legislators (House & Senate) now and without exception they have all discussed that they need to address health-care and energy in the upcoming session. Now maybe they're the only ones who think this way, but that's unlikely. So my guess is the three biggies in '09 will be transportation, health-care, & energy.
My final question to him was if he was told that he could bring forward any bill and it would be immediately passed and signed by the governor, what would it be. And his answer was a comprehensive transportation bill. His reasoning was that it is vitally important for the state, yet never gets the attention it requires.
He talked about a fire concerning a wooden bridge where two firefighters died because the bridge was wooden (they would have lived if it was steel). He sees the direct specific impact we have due to not properly handling transportation. He also discussed how the gas tax which funds all of this has been the same amount since 1970(?). So we're funding transportation expenses with drastically reduced revenues.
I think this goes back to Joe's root purpose which is to make the government work well for the people. Transportation was clearly the biggest failure this past session, where the legislature - could of, should of, but didn't. I would not be surprised to see Joe take a lead on this, both for what should be funded now and fixing the funding mechanism for transportation.
All in all, a really impressive legislator - quiet & effective.