Steamboat Springs Oct. 2 was a gorgeous Thursday in my hometown of Backbone. Golden aspens under a cobalt sky framed the town square as folks gathered for the big debate on this year's ballot issues.
The principal gave a prayer and led the flag salute. A state senator chaired the meeting. "Deciding on 18 proposals is a chore," he said, "but be grateful you can. We in the Legislature don't know it all. Sometimes your common sense beats our expertise."
"Most of the time," cracked the mayor, who then introduced the debaters. Rob Rightley, a rancher from Gunnison and former Romney volunteer, would take the conservative side. Lou Leftwich, onetime Denver law partner of Bill Ritter, would take the liberal side. By the coin toss, he went first.
Leftwich's opening joke about Sarah Palin and the Eskimo obstetrician fell flat. Muttering something about the heat, he peeled off his suitcoat and started again. "Friends, the Colorado Promise is at risk. The governor's recent budget cuts put even more urgency on these ballot issues. This is our chance to be patriotic and tax ourselves, as Joe Biden has said."
Leftwich pushed hard for Amendment 59, to prevent future billions in TABOR refunds to taxpayers, and for 58, to hike taxes on oil and gas by $321 million. Schools and colleges would benefit from both, he noted. He also urged support for 51, raising $186 million in new taxes for the developmentally disabled, and for 50, higher gambling limits with another college payout. "Do it for the children," Lou pled.
When the Denverite said these are tough times for working people, the crowd warmed. But he lost them again with his pitch for Amendments 53, 55, 56, and 57 as a package. His slogans about mandatory health care, safe workplace, job security, and CEO accountability were scarcely uttered when catcalls of "Labor union power play" and "Trial lawyers' full employment" rang out.
Probably wishing he was on the golf course, Leftwich attempted to finish strong with Referendum O, the measure making constitutional amendments harder to pass by petition. "If you're tired of these crowded ballots, Ref O is for you. Do yourself a favor," he said, and sat down to polite applause.
Rancher Rightley ambled up in his jeans and boots, Stetson in hand, and squinted at the crowd. "Lou, you couldn't be more wrong about all nine of those turkeys. The first four are a money grab, and we absolutely should not tax a faltering economy. The next four are job-killers. Why would we attack employers with a recession coming on? This isn't France, Mr. Leftwich.
"As for Referendum O, requiring signatures from outside the Front Range does sound good. But with all the liberal, big-government stuff clogging up Colorado's constitution, this is no time to put the thing farther out of reach from we the people for needed reforms. I say heck no on O." Raucous cheers as Rightley beamed.
"So is it no on all 18 of them, Rob?" the mayor prodded. Well, the rancher said, he hoped Backbone voters would support Amendment 46 for colorblind laws, 47 to curb union power, and 48 to protect the unborn. Plus 49 to keep government neutral in partisan politics, 52 for better roads, and 54 to reduce corruption. "Six good'uns, and not a nickel of new taxes," drawled Rightley.
Someone asked about Referendum L, on age eligibility for the legislature, as well as Refs M and N, the constitutional housekeeping measures. As the rancher and the lawyer shrugged in unison, "Whatever," the rains came.
As everyone scurried for cover, the senator checked his Blackberry and yelled, "The unions pulled 53, 55, 56, and 57." Lou shook his head. Rob pumped a fist and said the beers were on him.
John Andrews of Centennial was president of the Colorado Senate in 2003-2005. He is now a Claremont Institute fellow, a member of the Conservative Leadership Counsel of Northwest Colorado, and host of Backbone Radio, Sundays at 5pm online at 710knus.com. You can email John at firstname.lastname@example.org