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The long and winding ballot

Essay by Ed Quillen

Politics – November 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

BY THE TIME this arrives in your mail, early voting will have already started in Colorado. I’ll likely take advantage of it, given the length of this year’s ballot and thus the likelihood of long lines at the polling place.

That’s not something I worried about before. The polling place used to be right across the street, and I’d just look out the window, and when there were only a few cars parked nearby, I’d walk across the street and vote. But this year, Chaffee County has “voting centers,” and mine is several blocks away.

So I’ll vote early at the courthouse for Barack Obama for president. I used to admire John McCain, and if the McCain of 2000 were running, as opposed to the current version, I’d likely vote for him. But that was then, and this is now. In recent months, McCain seems flustered and unpresidential, and he’s been running a campaign unworthy of the old McCain.

Obama’s résumé is thin, and he has associated with some shady people. But who hasn’t? I generally regard my parents as right up there amongst those Americans least likely to consort with radicals and criminals. Yet as the manager of an industrial laundry, my dad once worked with work-release prisoners. And my mom spent years as a secretary at CU and later owned her own typing service, thereby working with countless professors, students and businessmen. Although my mom clearly should have vetted all of her associates’ financial and political ties — just in case she decided to run for office — I suspect she didn’t.

And just in case you’re thinking you have avoided any nefarious associations by living in a rural backwater, think again. Looking back over the stories I’ve covered in Chaffee County, I can recall a steady stream of scandals, theft, embezzlement charges, cases of sexual misconduct, drug arrests, and the like, many of which involved public servants and/or church personnel — including an interim preacher who was found guilty of murdering his seven-year-old son shortly after he left Salida. (Thank goodness he left.)

Guilt by association is bunk. If you wanted to cut your chances of associating with criminals and radicals, you would have to quit going to the bank, attending church, or sending your kids to school.

Yet McCain and Palin have based their campaign not on establishing a coherent and workable platform but on disseminating gossip and innuendo. So why should you vote for them? Because of Obama’s ex-preacher? Or Obama’s service on a board that included a radical college professor? Or Obama’s former association with ACORN? If those are the most important things McCain and Palin have to say for themselves, why not vote for one of the fourteen other presidential teams on the ballot?

At this point, McCain’s positions — on torture, abortion, deregulation, immigration, and curbing government spending — have changed so much that he now seems aimless and unpredictable.

OBAMA, on the other hand, has been deliberate and thoughtful, and not prone to rash actions or statements. After eight years of a rather impulsive president who invaded Iraq without contemplating the next step, that would be a refreshing change.

When I think of what I’ve seen of Obama of late, it brings to mind a Rudyard Kipling poem I had to memorize as a kid: “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you….”

I’ve liked Obama ever since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention when he said that “The pundits, the pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

I rather enjoy someone addressing me as a citizen of the United States of America, rather than as part of the “rural white guy without a college degree” demographic.

Which brings us to Sarah Palin, who’s supposed to appeal to precisely that bloc. Us regular guys hate them elites, and so does she, so she stands up for us, or something like that. But I write for the “main stream media” so therefore I must be part of the elite — except wouldn’t the largest newspaper in the state be something for regular folks, rather than the elite?

TO MOVE ON, there’s the Big Bailout that many claim is just a subsidy to big banks. Perhaps so. But we’re not immune to the “credit crisis” — even here in the mountains.

Suppose you run a gift shop in Salida. With the holidays coming, you need to expand your inventory, and need a 60-day commercial loan. Your credit is good, and in normal times, it would be routine.

But suppose your bank says “we can’t do it now.” So you lose the chance to sell more goods during your best part of the year. Thus there won’t be profits to tide you through the lean months until the tourists return in June. In that case, you might just sell what you have and close your doors.

Your landlord loses a tenant, and decides to put off buying a new car. Other people make the same decision, or have trouble getting car loans, and the local dealer has to lay off salesmen and mechanics. They quit going to restaurants. So cooks and wait staff lose their jobs.

You can see where this is going. If credit is unavailable, even those who don’t believe in borrowing can lose their jobs (when the people they work for can’t get financing for goods, services, remodels, or needed repairs).

America, whether we like it or not, is a nation that runs on credit, and if it is unreasonably cut off, we are all going to hurt.

I don’t know whether the Big Bailout will cure that, but fixing the credit crunch is part of its goal. And we need a functional banking system, one way or another. So let’s get that going, and then look for Wall Street manipulators to hang from the lamp posts.

BACK TO CAMPAIGNS, specifically the U.S. Senate in Colorado. The Republican, Bob Schaffer, is damn smart; I heard him speak at a water conference in 2004, and he knew his stuff up and down, and stated it clearly and well. I didn’t agree with all of his statements, of course, but he seemed more than competent. Plus, when he represented Colorado’s fourth congressional district, he honored his pledge to serve no more than three terms — as opposed to, say, Scott McInnis in the third district, or Tom Tancredo in the sixth.

Schaffer’s Democratic opponent, Mark Udall, has disappointed me by running a rather lackluster campaign, although he seems to be getting better. (But I can’t understand how a guy who voted against the Patriot Act could vote for the FISA bill.)

By the way, he’s the son of Mo Udall, one of my favorite politicians of all time. The first time I went to a precinct caucus, in 1976, it was to support Mo Udall for president — a smart and witty man who described himself as “a one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona.”

Alas, a lot of those qualities seem not to have been inherited. But I agree with far more of Udall’s positions on a host of issues, from civil liberties to environmental protection, than I do with Schaffer’s. So Udall is my pick.

Congress? We’re in the Fifth District with Colorado Springs, which means that the Republican, even one as annoying as Doug Lamborn, will win. I’ll vote for Hal Bidlack, a good man who deserves a competitive place to run. But I suspect all my vote will do is make me feel better.

We don’t have a state senate race here this year. We do have a contest for state representative from District 60 (Park, Chaffee, Custer, Frémont and portions of Saguache and Pueblo counties) between Democrat Cal Cali of Crestone and two-term incumbent Tom Massey of Poncha Springs.

Over the past four years, Massey has been a much better representative than I at first thought he’d be. I expected another Republican hack, but we got a guy who will buck the party when necessary to look out for his constituents. He’s also quite accessible and willing to explain his positions. I’ll vote to give him another term.

As for Chaffee County commissioners, we have two races. Commissioner elections are kind of odd because a candidate has to come from a certain district in the county, but the whole county votes. That’s different from our city council, where only the relevant ward gets to vote on a given ward’s seat.

In District One, the north end of the county, Democrat Susan Bristol and Republican Dennis Giese are running to replace Democrat Jim Osborne, who chose not to seek re-election. Giese, a retired school administrator, would do fine.

But Bristol has a lot more experience in local government, such as school board and town board, as well as helping run an excavating business, and she’s worked on many community projects.

Plus, she seems to have a good attitude. I asked if she could meet the major qualification (in some circles, anyway) this year, that is, could she field-dress a moose?

“Never did it,” she replied, “but I’m sure I could figure it out because I have some experience with elk.”

As for experience with elk, incumbent Democratic County Commissioner Jerry Mallett stepped in it big-time in late 2006 when he illegally shot an elk.

However, he paid the fine and took the penalty. And during his four years on the board, the county has generally moved in good directions, trying to steer development toward towns and working to preserve open space.

His Republican opponent, Frank Holman, has no experience in public office, but his pre-retirement career in the Colorado Department of Transportation gives him experience that would be useful for a county commissioner.

However, Holman lost any chance at my vote when he said that he “would develop a relationship to work cooperatively with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District. They are the experts and I think we need to make sure we do everything we can.”

The same UAWCD that opposed the county’s application for a recreational flow right on the Arkansas River to protect the area’s summer tourism industry? The same UAWCD that purports to protect our water from the Front Range, but worked to expand itself into El Paso County on the Front Range? The same UAWCD that tried to void a storage agreement with the City of Salida? The same UAWCD that won’t provide relevant papers to one board member who happens to represent a municipality? The same UAWCD that encourages rural sprawl development with its augmentation program?

Or let’s try this one. In preparing the ballot for the expansion into eastern Frémont and western El Paso counties, the UAWCD grossly understated the amount of taxes it would collect: $10,141 as opposed to the real sum of more than $170,000. As District Judge David M. Thorson ruled, “the disclosed number is so ridiculously low compared to the actually anticipated revenue that no reasonable person would rely on it … it could not have fooled any intelligent voter.”

In other words, if you’re reasonable or intelligent, you know better than to believe what comes from the UAWCD.

The only way I can imagine “co-operating” with the UAWCD is bending over for that outfit, which consistently works against elected local governments. We can’t vote for the UAWCD board, and there’s no way to recall its directors. The public has no control over this body, which has its own agenda, and the notion of co-operating with it brings to mind Chief Ouray’s comment on an imposed treaty: This is the sort of agreement a buffalo makes with an arrow.

Holman strikes me as another effort, like Bev Scanga’s commissioner campaign two years ago, by the UAWCD to take over the county government. That’s the last thing we need.

Before moving to the long state list of initiatives and referenda, I’ll look at the local ones.

Salida School District R-32J has four items, all involving property-tax increases, on the ballot. I don’t want to sound like one of those old cranks who opposes school spending since all his kids have grown up, but I do have problems with all four.

The big kahuna is a $25 million bond issue for building improvements. While they may be necessary, this isn’t exactly the time to be borrowing money. Further, it means a major increase in taxes for commercial-property owners (I am not one), and the economy here isn’t exactly booming.

The district’s building problems didn’t develop overnight, and they don’t need to be cured overnight. The financial markets should be more settled by next year, so waiting seems prudent. I’ll vote against 3D, and when the national financial situation stabilizes, I’ll hope that we’re in a position to support something like it.

As for 3A, it’s supposed to go for staff pay increases — 15 percent across the board over three years, according to Lezlie Burkley, the school board president. She says the district’s pay scale is below regional and state averages, and it’s hard to recruit and keep people.

I don’t doubt that, but I have problems with the approach. Since I don’t know the real numbers, I’ll use hypothetical ones. A cook making $15,000 a year gets 15% and in three years goes up to $17,250, for a total raise of $2,250. An administrator making $90,000 goes up to $103,500, for a total raise of $13,500. The one who gets the bigger raise isn’t the one who needed it the most.

In other words, across-the-board percentage raises just amplify the growing disparity that’s been plaguing America and is especially heinous in places like Salida, where wages are below average but housing and living expenses are not. I recognize that administrators have greater responsibilities and should be paid more, but it doesn’t seem right to make the gap so wide that full- time public employees can’t afford adequate housing, or medical insurance, or dental care. I’m leaning real hard toward voting against this one, in the hope that the district will come up with something more fair.

It seems to me that if the District did a better job of budgeting, 3B (more money for high-tech stuff) and 3C (money to replace an aging transportation fleet) wouldn’t be necessary. Computers depreciate and so do buses and vans. These are predictable expenses. The annual budget should reflect this, and if that means a tax increase, sobeit. They shouldn’t be hitting us up for special funds for routine needs.

THE CITY OF SALIDA has some issues, too. The state has repealed its limit on total sales taxes, so the city wants to raise its sales tax from 2% to 3%, and repeal the city property tax, which would happen if 2A passes. The money would go to street maintenance and improvement. I talked with Hugh Young, who sits on the city council, about this, and he made a pretty good case.

The city has 36 miles of streets, and keeping them in good shape would cost about $2 million a year. But the city doesn’t have that kind of money. With this revenue, Young said, the city could plan on repaving about two miles a year, and keep all our streets in reasonably good condition.

The curmudgeon in me says I like the bumps and chuckholes on my street, because they slow traffic down better than any police presence, at no expense to the public. But this is a sensible plan, and we do need our streets.

Salida’s 2B is sort of quirky. It proposes a tax on motel rooms to finance improvements to the hot springs pool, which costs a lot to operate. The idea is to improve it into a “destination pool” that people would come for. And that would benefit motels, so why not charge their customers a tax to pay for pool upgrades and operation

Salida is a statutory city, not a home-rule city, so state law forbids it from collecting a percentage tax on lodging. But it is allowed an “occupation tax” of a specific amount per transaction, and thus the $4.58 levy per room per night.

That strikes me as high, and there’s been talk that the city would drop it to $2.50 if the measure passes. I like having a swimming pool in town, but we need to figure out whether it’s a municipal pool for area residents, or a tourist attraction. So I’m still undecided on this one.

Salida also offers us 2C and 2D, to sell city property, and 2E and 2F, to appoint rather than elect the city clerk and treasurer. I’m voting for all of these.

Now to the state ballot issues. I’ll vote for L, M, N, and O. The first three clean up the state constitution by removing out-dated provisions, and O makes it more difficult to amend our cluttered constitution, while making it simpler to initiate regular laws. It’s a good idea.

As to all the others, while some have their merits, all have some flaws. So I’m inclined to vote against all of them.

I do want to retain Bill Alderton as Chaffee County Judge. And that’s enough, even though there are many more judges on this interminable ballot. Good luck getting through this ballot.