Jack of all trades

A day in the life of Steamboat's Republican senator


— The phone never stops ringing. The lobbyists have questions, and the people back home want answers. Their inquiries, hurriedly scribbled on pink slips and yellow Post-it notes, add to the clutter of an already crowded desk.

One woman pleads for more money for regional libraries. A man would like to chat about a bill that died on the Senate floor yesterday. Some high school students are coming for a visit, and tomorrow's 7:15 a.m. meeting to iron out differences about Colorado's water is still on.

When you answer to 132,000 people, your time is not your own.

State Sen. Jack Taylor spends four months out of the year working from a small office on the third floor of the Capitol building in Denver. The Steamboat Springs Republican has served in the Colorado General Assembly since 1992.

He juggles a number of responsibilities to his colleagues in the Legislature and the people who elected him.

State lawmakers don't have the luxury of staffers waiting at their beck and call. More often than not, it's a do-it-yourself operation. Taylor has learned how to be a one-man band: receptionist, scheduler, analyst, messenger, tour guide, cheerleader and spokesman.

Colorado's fiscal crunch brings a new intensity to his juggling act.

"In the 11 years I've been here, I've never seen anything like this," Taylor said from his Denver office last week. "The pressure's been on since the beginning."

The beginning of the end

Lawmakers returned to the Capitol in early January with a reported $850 million deficit hanging over their heads. The state constitution requires the General Assembly to send Gov. Bill Owens a balanced budget, so there's no wiggle room for deficit spending.

With the end of the 2003 legislative session only weeks away, legislators are scrambling to put together the 2003-04 budget.

The homestretch is not always pleasant. Symptoms of the worst budget crisis in Colorado history ripple through every part of Taylor's day.

"People start looking forward to going home around this time," he said.

Taylor is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. It's a role he approaches thoughtfully.

"This is where the public is heard," he said. He is responsible for overseeing the biweekly meetings and giving people airtime on pending pieces of legislation.

Taylor doesn't tolerate anything or anyone who doesn't show respect for the process.

Last week, he took two colleagues to task for talking during a woman's testimony about income tax credit check-offs for senior support services. He politely inquired if the two men cared to share their conversation with everyone or take their exchange outside. The chatting ceased.

Less is more

Taylor isn't a big talker. His colleagues don't associate him with the windy and robust appeals often delivered on the Senate floor.

The reserved lawmaker avoids the microphone unless he has something telling to say.

"People get tired of listening to you talk," he said.

While other senators take turns arguing the merits of legislation, Taylor quietly rallies support or opposition for the bill.

He disappears and reappears on the Senate floor during debates. He describes it as moving inside and outside the glass.

Outside the glass windows and doors of the Senate chambers is a crowd of lobbyists waiting to talk to lawmakers. Men and women employed by special interest groups are not allowed on the House or Senate floor. They loiter around the glass windows and doors, waiting for lawmakers to emerge from the forbidden territory. When Taylor finds himself tasked with shoring up a vote, he leaves the floor to seek out lobbyists' help.

Sometimes, the vote goes his way. Sometimes the vote disappoints.

When Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, proposes taking a plan to voters for funding a 948-bed, high-security prison and medical school in Colorado on Wednesday, Taylor goes to work.

He rounds up enough "no" votes to defeat the amendment, 20-15.

It was a wider margin than he anticipated, Taylor said. He doesn't count people who are sitting on the fence when the vote is called.

Win some, lose some

After the Senate votes to move the rest of the agenda items over to the next day, Taylor files through the glass doors for lunch. Hearty handshakes and congratulatory pats on the back welcome him.

Taylor graciously accepts the appreciative gestures. He savors the moment of victory, knowing not every roll call brings the desired outcome.

"You've got to pick your battles," Taylor said. He's learned to invest his time and energy in issues he feels are deserving.

While the amendment's defeat came by way of heavy Republican opposition, not every issue is partisan. Taylor seeks out help from both sides of the aisle. The rural lawmaker knows when to draw on the support of other elected representatives with similar agricultural backgrounds.

When the support doesn't materialize, he accepts the setback and sets his sights on something else.

"If you didn't, it would drive you nuts," Taylor said. "I learned early on that if I can't vote against your bill today and you can't vote against mine tomorrow, and we both can't go out and have dinner at the end of the day then neither of us should be here. We may disagree, but I may need your vote tomorrow."

Sticking to the schedule

Tomorrow comes early for the veteran lawmaker. Committee hearings convene at 7:30 a.m. but other meetings with constituents or lobbyists sometimes bring him back to the Capitol earlier.

Taylor doesn't bother with an early morning commute; his hotel is a few blocks from the Capitol, and the close proximity allows him to walk to work.

During the day, too, he never wanders far from the stately building, choosing instead to take his lunch at nearby eateries that can cater to his tight schedule.

He glances at his watch before he orders his favorite lunchtime offering, the "po' boy catfish sandwich," off the menu at The Red Room restaurant.

"Can you get this order out quickly?" he asks. He knows the waitress by name. The day's floor session wrapped up an hour past schedule, so the lunchtime crowd is long gone. The absence of other customers permits the waitress to bring him his order posthaste. But Taylor can't stay for long. His 2 p.m. committee hearing begins in 15 minutes, followed by a visit from the children of his constituents.

A group of students from Aspen County High School dropped by the Capitol for a hands-on civics lesson. Taylor briefly summarizes what just transpired in committee but stops short of a full description. The teenagers are growing restless. Maybe it is best to let the students quiz him.

A dark-haired young man takes him up on the offer. The inquisitive student wants to know whether tardiness to hearings and floor sessions is grounds for impeachment.

Taylor tells him impeachment is not a probable recourse, but reminds him that voters can always give tardy lawmakers the boot at election time.

The work continues

It is mid-afternoon before Taylor finally finds time to make it back to his office. He plops down in his swivel chair, takes his boots off and props up his feet on the desk. He glances at the messages piling up on his desk and sighs. There's much work to be done. Many people are expecting return calls, and tomorrow's agenda requires some reading.

A knock at the door breaks his concentration. Lobbyist Micki Hackenberger wants to talk to Taylor about backing a measure that would allow Colorado parents to sign liability waivers and releases for their minor children.

Two more women appear at his office door a few minutes later to sell their legislation to the senator.

Now it's time to listen and learn.

The pink slips and Post-its will have to wait.


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