The Colorado Legislature began its 2009 session Wednesday, and the day began with the typical ceremony bestowed on opening day. But there was an injection of history-making too, as for the first time, a black person was sworn in as Speaker of the House of Representatives. With Rep. Terrance Carroll's election to the leadership position and Colorado Senate President Peter Groff's ascension to that chamber's helm in 2008, Colorado has become the first state to elect black leaders to both of its legislative chambers. That is an honor for which all Coloradans should be proud.
Carroll's election as House speaker, coupled with Groff's parallel achievement in the Senate, is reflective of an encouraging trend in state and national politics - one most obviously embodied by the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president in November. These men's achievements and ascendance of the political ladder offer great promise that the nation is moving to correct and transcend its deep and troubling racial struggles. And though there remains much distance to travel, the hope signaled by Carroll, Groff and Obama is significant. As a leader in this trend, Colorado is adding important momentum.
The historic nature of Wednesday's opening day was at least partially eclipsed by the daunting tasks facing legislators after the ceremony ended. With a shrinking budget coupled with growing demands for investment in transportation and education, the Legislature could have to find a way to trim $600 million from the state budget, all while providing necessary services to the state's residents. That is sure to be no easy task and will surely spur divisive arguments among lawmakers, both along party lines and interest areas. Trimming hundreds of millions from an already tight budget is an endeavor that will leave no stakeholder completely satisfied, and the leadership Carroll and Groff demonstrate in guiding the process will be a challenging test of their abilities. Consensus-building, to the extent that it is possible during the difficult negotiations to come, will be instrumental to the Legislature's success.
Lawmakers, too, will review the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission's revamped rules governing how gas and oil extraction takes place in the state. The process through which the new rules were drafted has been lengthy, thorough and inclusive. Nevertheless, some Republican lawmakers, as well as the gas industry, have called for the rules to be delayed or scrapped, claiming that they will be sufficiently onerous as to drive the industry from Colorado, further troubling the state's economy.
Legislators would be wise to resist this Chicken Little hand-wringing, and stick to the longer view that led to the rules' development in the first place. A balanced approach that considers and respects all stakeholders is instrumental to any set of regulations, and that was woefully lacking in the existing policies governing gas and oil development. Under the proposed guidelines, provisions that consider surface landowners, wildlife, and air and water quality broaden and balance the rules. That is an important ethic for long-term caretaking of the state's resources.
Aside from budgetary and gas and oil issues, the Colorado Legislature will have many challenging topics cross its chambers this session. The leadership of both houses will have its hands full managing the debates that will ensue.