State employees should not do campaign’s homework

by | Jun 26, 2008 | Capitol Review, Notes

If Douglas Bruce authored a ballot initiative that simply said, “Taxes shall be reduced by $300 million a year” but couldn’t explain which programs should be eliminated or scaled back, pundits would ridicule his half-baked scheme and scold him for wasting the public’s time.

That’s the treatment Gov. Bill Ritter should be receiving for his hastily proposed $300 million oil and gas tax increase — money to be showered on various programs with few specific instructions.

Perhaps because he’s the Governor, some editorialists have suggested that state bureaucrats should flesh out the details of his proposal, specifically his vainglorious “Colorado Promise” college scholarships.

There’s just one problem: state law frowns on commandeering government workers at taxpayer expense to do homework for a ballot campaign that hasn’t even qualified for the ballot, much less been approved by voters.

After the Governor changed his tune about how the scholarships would work and whom they would benefit, higher ed chief David Skaggs, the former Boulder congressman, rode to the rescue:

“[T]he Colorado Commission on Higher Education instructed staff … to prepare recommended policies to implement the provisions of the scholarship ballot measure and to have them ready for the commission to consider at its next meeting, July 10,” Skaggs wrote in a letter to the editor.

Didn’t these state staffers have any work to do before the Governor decided to play Santa Claus to college students by raising taxes on oil and gas? If not, then perhaps he could create a few scholarships simply by eliminating unnecessary bureaucrats in higher ed.

Both Denver dailies have correctly noted that Ritter’s ballot initiative is in trouble without more specific detail, but it is not proper for state employees to develop those details for the campaign.

Colorado Revised Statues (1-45-117) allow government employees to “respond to questions” but they may not spend “more than fifty dollars of public moneys in the form of letters, telephone calls, or other activities incidental to expressing his or her opinion on any such issue.”

No doubt, Gov. Ritter and Mr. Skaggs will contend they are simply asking state staffers to answer questions — not using them to garner support for the initiative. But these are not technical questions, like “Will the scholarships come in the form of a reimbursement or as a credit against tuition?” These are essential policy decisions, such as “How much will the scholarships be worth?” and “Who will be eligible?”

Without these specific details — which the Governor and other proponents failed to provide — the tax increase and the Governor’s vanity scholarship program are dead in the water.

Still, the courts have ruled that the purpose of the aforementioned law “is to prohibit the state government and its officials from spending public funds to influence the outcome of campaigns for political office or ballot issues.”

Another court case said that even an informational “brochure mailed by (a government entity) explaining proposed improvements violated the law because it did not present arguments for and against.”

On June 18, I filed an open records request to find out exactly how much homework higher ed officials and the Governor’s staff are providing for the ballot initiative. Mr. Skaggs responded that his staff could not produce this material within three working days “without substantially interfering with the staff’s obligation to perform other public service responsibilities.”

While I await his final response, I will contemplate how it is that his staff can develop, almost from scratch, a $130 million scholarship program without compromising “the staff’s obligation to perform other public service responsibilities.”


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