12/16/2010 05:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Senator Michael Johnston Interview

First off an apology, I forgot my recorder and so was not able to record the interview. So we're going by my memory and a couple of notes I made. Consider all "quotes" to be paraphrases.

We started off with Senator Johnston asking me about my idea to address TABOR, etc. He was interested because most every Republican I have mentioned it to finds it an interesting alternative and so it might get wide support. The idea is to eliminate all budget restrictions in the constitution and replace it with a limit that total state revenues from all sources cannot exceed X% of the state GDP averaged over the previous 3 years.

Michael's first response was why not a percentage of total state income (fine with me). But he then discussed that an approach like this would let the legislature then adjust different revenue sources without having to take each change to the voters. He was a bit plaintive about the fact that in no other state do they need to go to the voters at all, but did accept that in Colorado the voters insist on being asked.

My first question was on SB-191. I said that passing the legislation was the easy part, implementing it effectively is the hard part. Michael said he's recently learned that and plans to stay heavily involved in the process as it moves through the Governor's Council, then to the Board of Education, and then back to the legislature.

He said the Council is doing a great job with everyone, including the CEA members, are working diligently to build a really good system. So he is continuing to pay attention to this and realizes he's just started down this path.

I next asked what he's going to focus on this year. Three main areas. The first is to give instate tuition for undocumented children who live in Colorado. He was very passionate in his discussion about how it is the right thing to do and is of benefit to the state of Colorado. (He's right on both counts.)

Second was energy where he is introducing three pieces of legislation. First is a bill to make it easy for homeowners to get a loan to improve the energy efficiency of their house and then split the savings in the monthly utility bill with half going to pay off the loan and half they keep (nice incentive). He agreed virtually all homeowners can do this today going to their banks, but this will make it a single step and that ease means more will do it.

Second (on Energy) is to have all buildings, residential and commercial, when sold or rented get an energy use rating so that the purchaser or tenant knows what their probable utility bill will be. He says he particularly likes the system Washington state has in place. The idea is that facilities that have high energy usage will have a stronger incentive to improve as the bad rating will make it harder to sell or rent the building.

Third (on energy) is to improve the transmission lines in the state. Senator Johnston says between wind and solar potential in this state, we have enough to power all of California. But that power needs a way to get to California. He wants to modernize the grid (it presently is antiquated) and set up a system to carry all the excess power we can generate to California.

I asked about getting it through the states between here and California and he discussed how the states are going to work together to create a transmission super line, but he then said that he had not discussed this with any other states. (So good idea, but I think there's quite a bit of homework remaining for this one.)

I next asked Michael what he'll do after his terms are up. He said he hadn't given it any thought and that 7 years will be the longest he's ever held a single job. (The way he put this and acted, I think he was being truthful.) He then offered that if he went back to being a principal after this, he would be very happy. I observed that those are two different roles, the principal is an executive while the Senate is legislative. He agreed but said they each had their advantages.

My $0.02: Senator Johnston in passing SB-191 had arguably the most impact of any single legislator in the last session. And he did that as the most junior member. To a lot of people heavily involved in politics that screams fast track and they're figuring he's on the road up and is eyeing what's next - governor, department head, etc.

I think it's a lot simpler, he's in the legislature to improve the lot of the people of Colorado through the legislation he passes, the services he protects, etc. He's focused on the job he can do there, not on using it as a stepping stone. And I think this makes him a much better and more effective legislator.

We then switched to asking what Republicans he looked to to find common ground. He first listed Josh Penry and said he will miss him as Josh was really good to work with. He next listed Senator Brophy and said while they tended to widely disagree, Greg was always thoughtful, willing to listen, and would look for compromise. And finally he listed Nancy Spense as a moderate he could find common ground with in many cases.

And then the flip side, what Democrats are so locked in to their views that there's no point in working with them. I got a look of "is any politician dumb enough to answer a question like that" and said none of them. He said that all of them were open-minded and that they are a good group. (Hey, it was worth a shot.)

I next asked about the Fed's actions addressing the depression. He talked about how ARRA stopped states and local governments from being devastated and that many would have been forced into bankruptcy. He then discussed the upcoming compromise bill saying that while he wasn't thrilled with it, he supported it, then launching into a discussion about how many people in his district are dependent on the unemployment insurance extensions in the bill.

Senator Johnston brought up the very valid point that most on the right wing are screaming that the compromise bill is unacceptable, and to him that's a sign that it is a fair compromise - that both wings are against it. (That is a very good way to measure it.) He then added that once it is passed, the Democrats have to work hard to bring back the progressive wing.

I then brought up the question of does the state have a strategic plan. Michael said that yes, but that the governor has a plan, the Republicans in the Senate have a plan, the Democrats in the Senate have a plan,... He then discussed how Governor Ritter had a very clear strategic view on education and green energy - and did a superb job implementing that plan (very true). He sees the present strategic plan being to increase jobs in the state and continue to protect and support the people in the state.

Next up was the question of measuring the impact of state actions, improvements, tax exemptions, etc. Michael immediately jumped on the fact that none of the predicted negative impacts from eliminating some tax exemptions occurred and in fact companies like Pepsi that predicted layoffs actually increased hiring. (My guess is this is indicative of many in the legislature and so they will be very willing to eliminate additional exemptions - and ignore any predictions of negative consequences.)

He also said there is nothing in place to measure the impact of anything the state does. He agrees it is something the state should do. (Legislators have limited time and bandwidth - I think Senator Johnston will support anything along these lines, but he's not going to drive it.)

I then asked if state departments should be antagonistic toward business. His reply was "I hope not." When I took him through my experience with the Department of Revenue where they could not answer 2/3 of our questions and they told us to ask a tax expert (and left unsaid that they would then come after us if they disagreed) - he was very surprised. He started asking me questions about how the state could best give businesses clear answers so they could know they were correctly following the law. I suggested that they should provide answers, and live with that answer for a year - this was one of the two times he took notes, so maybe we'll see improvement here.

I next asked him what program he would end. Michael's first comment was that when the budget situation is this grim, everyone looks to what they will try to keep and silence is viewed as consent to cut. So legislators are focused on what to save. But he then after some thought said that he would support drastically reducing DARE (which I think is the polite way of saying end). He said that reviews of the program showed that it didn't have much impact (I have read that too).

Then the flip side, I asked what program he would like to create. He immediately said the career ladders proposal in SB-191. This is a program for the top teachers to document their best practices and then teachers who are new or struggling can look up what has worked well teaching the same subject, and makes use of the practices that best fit their situation. This is a part of the bill that was going to be funded by Race to the Top, but the Governor's Council can propose the state funding it and the legislature can hopefully scrape up the funds (that they saved from DARE).

My $0.02: There are a significant number of teachers who think Senator Johnston wants to fire lots of teachers. I don't think that is true at all and I think his answer here illustrates that his focus is on making teachers successful.

Next up was TABOR. Michael's first discussed the fiscal commission that is looking at this whole mess and he is interested in what they will come up with. He then thinks we will either need to do a one-time revocation of the one-issue rule (as an amendment) followed by an amendment that undoes TABOR and the other constraints (his first choice). Or they will need to put a tax increase on the ballot (his second choice).

I asked him if he was open to a constitutional convention and he said yes. However, he was not aware that this route requires three elections and that put a bit of a damper on his support for the idea.

I then asked about his level of constituent service (I heard a complaint). He apologized for doing poorly on it and said his goal now is to answer everything within 1 week. And he asked me to put out a plea - if you have sent him an email and not received a response, please resend your email. He did try to track down the complaint I heard but was unable to find it. (This is definitely not his strong suit but he is trying to do better.)

I closed out by asking if he had any advice for his fellow Democrats. Michael's reply was that no, he's still learning. (Clearly he does not view himself as an expert or major player.) He then went on to say they will have to work differently this year unlike last year when a D on the bill pretty much guaranteed passage (that's sad). And they will need to focus on growing jobs and providing core services.


Senator Johnston is personable, smart, & energetic, but so are many others in the legislature. What I think makes him stand out is he's focused on accomplishing his goals and fine that the job is short term. And he's clearly willing to put it all on the line to accomplish his goals. Michael is not in the legislature on the way to somewhere else, or to accomplish various items in the future - he's there to get some things done today and tomorrow.

I think this makes him a very effective legislator. And my bet is in 9 years he'll be a principal again putting the same focus and energy into his school.