This was a great way to bookend this session. Before the start of the session I went to the Evil Jedi Conclave GOP Legislative Kick-Off and after I had the chance to interview Senate President Brandon Shaffer. Senator Shaffer is a really nice guy and I think that is a big asset in leading the Senate. He also has a GIANT office – every other legislator is stacked up in various broom closets. Nice digs.
I started off by saying that I thought this had been one of the most productive legislative sessions ever and asked if that was true. Brandon thinks that is true, that "at the end of the day we got a lot done." He listed through a dozen or so bills that are substantial and move us forward (many covered below). He also brought up the major point that the legislature addressed a number of issues that had been put off for years. And stepping up to address those issues (like Higher Ed transfer, SB-191, PERA, etc.) was major.
He called out PERA as a very difficult problem that every state is facing. This year they came up with a solution that keeps the fund solvent. And it was done in a bi-partisan manner without a major conflagration under the dome. He points out this easily could have been a giant partisan fight. But instead they created good legislation.
This led to my asking, aside from legislation on redistricting & voting which are always partisan (the minority party is always shocked, repeat shocked, that the majority party will try to gain advantage on these), was there any major partisan battle this session. Brandon said there was one other – the exemptions & credits bill. That was rammed through on partisan lines. But after they got through that, everything ran pretty smoothly. He then went to quote me statistics, pulling out his iPhone to rattle off the number of bills with bi-partisan prime-sponsored, total, etc. They worked very hard to make as much legislation as possible bi-partisan.
My $0.02: When there's no fight, there's no story. What the legislature pulled off this year is amazing in terms of what was addressed and how well it was accomplished. This is the political system at its best. It's also illustrative that the one exemption, the search the couch for any spare change (exemptions & credits) bill was a complete mess and almost certainly would have been a better bill if the legislature had taken the time and crafted a bi-partisan compromise.
This led to the most important question of the interview – why was this session so successful and how do we get that again in the future. Senator Shaffer started off by saying "we made a concerted effort to be bi-partisan this year." He said they started talking last summer and worked hard to keep those issues that need not be bi-partisan to work together on. And to create a collegial atmosphere.
My $.02: I think Senator Shaffer's point on not letting disagreement on one topic spill over to all legislation is an important one. But I think a lot is also due to the legislators deciding to address the serious issues the state faces, and to do so responsibly. We have a really good group in there – on both sides of the aisle. I also wonder if term limits helps. Each session a lot of legislators are done, so there is no major political repercussion they face on their efforts and votes.
I next asked about SB-191 (tenure reform). Brandon replied that he worked harder on that bill than any other bill this session with the possible exception of PERA reform. His wife is a teacher, active in the CEA, and she also worked very hard to try and bring all parties together on this. So his was a family effort on this bill (Shaffer voted for the bill).
Brandon spoke very highly if how Senator Johnston moved the bill forward, working with everyone. He also discussed how it is very scary to the people involved. He put a great personal note on it pointing out that if his wife loses her job due to this bill "I guarantee you, I will hear about it." (Isn't that the truth.) He then discussed how the vast majority of teachers in our system are effective teachers (very true).
I followed up saying that what's key is to have this implemented well, and does he think the state will do a competent job implementing the legislation. Senator Shaffer believes we will be ok on this count, we have 3 years to put it together, a year of rule-making, and then it comes back to the legislature. And then a year of a pilot program. And subsequent to that, the legislature meets every year and can tweak it as necessary.
My $0.02: All fair points. But the best plan can still be screwed up by incompetent administration. I am hopeful that SB-191 will lead to significant improvement, but we need to have the right people implementing it. And you know… Brandon Shaffer will be term limited about the time they need someone to head this up.
My next question is what is the State's strategic plan. Brandon started off by saying that the requirement for a balanced budget (in the constitution) requires a stagnant instead of a dynamic budget model. In other words, you can't spend an extra 100 million this year that will save you a billion in 5 years – unless you have that 100 million today.
He next talked about the Long Term Fiscal Stability Commission (started last year) that is looking at the core government functions. He called out the core jobs of the state as public safety, public education, and transportation. But he discussed the difficulty of building consensus as to what is core and what is not core using the example of early childhood education – not all legislators view that as part of the core. He also brought up the example that you can suggest dropping parks & recreation because that's not core, but to some people it is a key service.
Senator Shaffer also talked about how people think the state is bloated in terms of what it offers when in fact it is cut so far back that we are not even keeping the core functions maintained. He brought up the disrepair of our transportation as a prime example of this. He then brought up the SMART Government bill that first requires each department to generate a strategic plan, list out their department's goals, and then set the auditor's office to measure how well each department meets its goals. It's a bit of a complicated process due to separation of powers and this is just getting started. He finished by pointing out that this will take years to play out, but we might as well get started now.
My $0.02: This may be one of the most powerful initiatives ever for the state. If executed well, this could bring clear rigor and accountability to each department as well as a clear focus on what that department is expected to accomplish. Most people do not think the state is bloated but they do realize that it is horribly inefficient in places. When you have disasters like OIT & DOR, that reflects on every department in the state – and an initiative like this can put an end to incompetently administered departments.
I next asked what does the ROI need to be on a program that saves residents money for it to be considered worth continuing its funding. He first brings up the key point that when they create legislation they are dependent on projections and "projections from past experiences are very difficult to calculate." (That's political speak for "they're a wild-ass guess.") It then takes years of a program in effect to determine what it's real ROI is. And with term limits, etc. that makes evaluating it difficult. The legislature is now requiring a 3 – 5 year look back to determine what the state actually gains from each program. This has now been done for the past 2 years.
He also discussed a program the Colorado Children's Campaign has created a dynamic modeling program where you can tweak input variables and it will then show you the improvements you gain from those changes. Senator Shaffer states that he has no idea how accurate it is, but then goes on and on about how cool it is and what you can learn from it. He then said that if you had a super computer that was fed all the data on what efforts deliver what results you could do the budget very quickly by running this program.
My $0.02: This is every public policy person's ultimate fantasy. And like every fantasy, the reality is quite different. First off doubling an input does not mean you get double the output. Second, many times you can't find the right people to double the input (i.e. how many qualified pre-school teachers are available). Tools like this can help in decision making, but they are just one tool out of many that should be used.
$0.02 cont: What is very valuable is to constantly look back on each program, and adjust or end those that are not working. This constant beta/fast failure model is used in the high tech world to great success. The big problem in the public sphere is once a program is running, the people directly involved in it will hang on to it for dear life, because that program is their livelihood. The state has to get better at ending programs.
Next I asked if the state should have an antagonistic relationship with business. Brandon replied with an emphatic no. He went on to say "state departments should be helping business both to navigate the regulations that are out there so they don't accidently violate rules." I then asked about the Department of Revenue being unable (or unwilling) to give guidance on the new sales tax rules. He replied that they made some changes because the state needed the additional revenue and it takes the DOR time to figure out the new process.
Brandon then spoke about how business wants certainty more than anything, that he "is told over and over – just tell me what the rules are." He then went on to admit that at present there is uncertainty and it will take some time to "shake out." He then brought up that another way the state is gaining additional revenue is through stronger enforcement of existing law. I summed this up as the state telling business "we can't tell you what you're supposed to do yet and once we figure it out [we'll fine you for what you did wrong]." Brandon's reply was "that is a fair commentary."
He said that they usually try to put a 6 month delay in on changes so departments have the time to figure them out. I asked why they didn't have the delay in the software tax bill and Brandon said the same thing Rollie Heath said – that he thought it had the delay (it didn't).
My $0.02: Unfortunately, understanding this problem doesn't alleviate it. Small business pays the price for the state's inept handling of this "shake out" period. And while the prime responsibility of this sits with the administration, not putting in a sufficient delay rests with the legislature. And it's worrisome that both Brandon and Rollie voted yes on a bill they thought had a 6 month delay when it didn't. This is a large part of why the state has an antagonistic relationship with business. It's also a large part of why business owners tend to support Republicans.
I next asked about the taxes that have very high overhead like Use Tax and Business Property Tax. His first answer was that because of TABOR, they have gone for the additional revenue where they can raise it without a vote. He then brought up a bill this session that will study all of the taxes and fees of the state. The state does this every 50 years. Brandon concluded by saying he would love to get rid of all the fees and adjust the income tax to match. (I should have asked if he would like to get rid of sales tax too and do just income tax – sorry.) He discussed this in detail and sees rationalizing the taxes and fees as something that will improve citizen's view of the state government.
That led in to the question of what do we do about TABOR besides blame it for everything. He first started discussing the constitutional revision committee proposal that Rollie Heath proposed (it was not passed). Brandon made a good case for the committee and how it would work. Listen to the recording for all the details (this goes back to Andrew Romanoff).
What was really interesting is Senator Shaffer then said what he really would have liked to do is set up a constitutional convention. He then went in to why he thinks we should do it, and why he thinks it would work well. His main points (both very good) is first that the new constitution has to be approved on the ballot so anything crazy won't get approved. Second he brought up the very good point that the people writing it will be very aware of the need for it to pass on the ballot and will therefore be careful to write something that will be approved. Brandon is a strong supporter of a convention and will try to make this happen next year.
I then asked what is the state doing to help on the jobs picture and to help small business (the main engine of new jobs). Brandon started off with the healthcare reform that has been passed over the last 2 years at the state level. Lowering healthcare costs does reduce overhead costs for local businesses. He next discussed how most efforts for this cost money – and the state doesn't have any spare cash. But outside of that, increasing the renewal energy requirement and the switch to natural gas will generate jobs as those are implemented.
My $0.02: Not to pick on Brandon because this has been consistent across everyone I have talked to. The state could do a tremendous amount to help small business and thereby boost job growth in this state. And do so at no increased cost. 1) Provide competent leadership in departments that interact with businesses. The incompetence at Department of Revenue negatively impacts every business in Colorado. 2) Eliminate uncertainty by giving businesses clear answers on what they should and should not do. Leaving businesses to guess takes time, money, and opportunity cost. 3) Reducing overhead. For example, give companies the option to determine Use Tax owed as a percentage of gross income. 4) Have departments purchase from Colorado companies if they offer the best product. At present OIT's policy appears to be ABC – Anywhere But Colorado. Now these items are on the administration side of the system – but it would be nice to see legislators recognizing the jobs boost we would get from these actions and looking for ways to make them happen.
I next asked what program he would kill. Kudos to Senator Shaffer here – he first said that he hoped it would not appear in the blog (I immediately replied it will) but he then immediately followed on with CCHE. This speaks well of Brandon that he directly answered the question with a specific program. He then went in to how CCHE is not really doing anything – well thought out argument on this.
I ended asking him what he's going to do when he is term limited. He came alive saying he would love to teach (High School American History) or work for the foreign service. He was very animated and excited talking about both and the specifics of each – especially teaching. And then he said but probably law – and that was without the same level of interest.
First off, I think Brandon Shaffer deserves a ton of credit for this session – a job very well done. He clearly is a very smart and thoughtful guy who took on the hard issues the state faces and thought through the legislation to determine what should be done. Democrats from Boulder County clearly make great Senate Presidents. Really good person to have in this position.
Second, I think the state has a lot of new processes in progress that can lead to a tremendous improvement in how the state government operates. SB-191 got the most press, but an ongoing look back on all projects and putting in place ongoing audits of departments – those are huge. Rationalizing the tax structure and maybe next year starting on the road to a constructional convention – also major. The state isn't where it should be, but it's getting there.
Finally, Brandon Shaffer clearly has the talent to accomplish politically difficult tasks in a very positive way that brings everyone along as much as possible. At the same time, he does not shy away from the fights necessary to get effective legislation through. This is a rare and valuable talent. And it is exactly what is needed for whoever will head up the efforts to implement SB-191. Add to this his desire to be in teaching after he is term limited, and I think we have a really good fit.
podcast: Brandon Shaffer Interview