Ever since Gov. John Hickenlooper began his TBD Colorado initiative last spring, the results it was intended to produce have been unclear. Not surprisingly, as the collaborative listening and agenda-building effort has progressed, the outcome has remained elusive. That is not altogether encouraging for Coloradans eager to understand the priorities the state’s lawmakers will tackle in the year to come.
It is not for lack of good intention, by the way. Hickenlooper has a strong track record of seeking widespread comment from his constituents as to what their concerns and priorities are. That is wise practice that lawmakers of all affiliation and branches of government would be wise to practice.
But gathering comments does not replace the role of leadership and agenda-setting for those same lawmakers. Instead, those decisions can be shaped and informed by constituents’ concerns to various degrees. Deferring too much of the decision-making, though, can be seen as shirking the responsibility that comes with representative government, creating a murkiness subject to all sorts of interpretations.
TBD Colorado gathered comment from 1,200 Coloradans through a series of 60 meetings across the state. It so far has produced a relatively strong consensus that transportation, home services for the elderly and disabled, and more funding for early childhood education are priorities the state should pursue. There was also widespread support for a modest income-tax rate increase to fund these efforts. That was not enough for Hickenlooper to run with, however, and he has deferred announcing how he will proceed until a final report is issued in November.
Fair enough, perhaps, but, in the meantime, there is growing skepticism about what – if anything – will come from the process. In view of that lack of clarity, there is too much room to insert partisan musings. Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, is among those wondering what is really going on and is questioning whether Hickenlooper is just preparing the state for a tax-increase proposal. That is a legitimate question, as are those curious about whether TBD Colorado will produce an agenda that Hickenlooper acts upon in 2013. After nearly six months, it is time to answer these and all questions about the initiative.
Civic engagement is a good thing, but not just for its own sake. As was made all too clear during the La Plata County comprehensive-planning process, asking for residents’ suggestions and then doing nothing with them or, worse, doing the opposite, does little to instill confidence in lawmakers or public processes. Avoiding this fate requires that such processes have clear goals, concrete timelines and actionable results. They also require lawmakers to take that action – or at least attempt to.
Alternatively, elected officials can set and pursue their own agendas, based on values, campaign promises, political platforms – whatever. That requires a boldness that lawmakers will have to answer for at their next election. However uncomfortable, that accountability is the nature of holding public office. Hickenlooper should bridge that gap now by incorporating the TBD Colorado input into a bold and clear agenda.