Although state law seems to forbid it, Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration is using your tax dollars to design and promote his ballot initiative to increase energy taxes and promote his “Colorado Promise Scholarships.” Higher Education director David Skaggs confirmed my suspicions with his letter in the June 18 Rocky Mountain News:
Regarding the proposed Colorado Promise Scholarships, I’d like to correct an assertion in the June 14 Rocky editorial that it will be Labor Day before “even the broadest outlines of the program are proposed” (“Scholarship puzzles”).
In fact, at its June 5 meeting, as reported in the Rocky, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education instructed staff at the Colorado Department of Higher Education 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.
These policies should provide a reasonably complete understanding of how the scholarships will be administered if the ballot measure passes. The policies will also provide direction to department staff in working over the summer with the state’s colleges to develop more detailed draft guidelines for the commission to review in September.
We expect those draft guidelines will answer very specific questions about the proposed scholarships. The commission will then be able to adopt the actual guidelines promptly after the election.
Although both Denver dailies have noted that Ritter’s ballot initiative is in trouble without more specific detail, it is not the proper responsibility of state employees to develop those details for a privately-funded ballot initiative that has not qualified for the ballot — much less been passed by the voters.
Colorado Revised Statues (CRS 1-45-117) says that government employees may “respond to questions” but 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, Mr. Skaggs and the Department of Higher Education will argue that they are answering questions and not urging the voters to support or defeat the initiative. The Governor has changed his tune a few times regarding the scope and purpose of these scholarships, so someone needs to put some meat on the bones of this proposal — but not at taxpayer expense.
More importantly, these rules are clearly designed to give voters more specific details in order to court their support. However, 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” and “this section must be strictly construed.”
Another court case said that a “brochure mailed by (a government entity) explaining proposed improvements violate(s) the law because it did not present arguments for and against.”
In an attempt to shine the light on this unethical practice, I have filed a request under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) for correspondence between the Department of Higher Education and the Governor’s staff. We’ll see what that turns up!