A Beautiful State With an Ugly Fiscal Landscape

09/17/2009 05:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are too many wonderful attributes about Colorado to list in my inaugural contribution to this space, but a quick rundown might look something like: lots of friendly people and fast friends to be made, M&D's barbeque, skiing in May, biking in December, the view atop most any peak or mountain pass, no humidity, no doubt that Colorado is a beautiful place, and no question that people who live here care deeply about our state.

But we have an ugly side too. Thy name is revenue.

For years and years, investment in Colorado's future has been slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) eroding, in large part because of a tendency to relinquish revenue through tax credits, tax expenditures, corporate loopholes, and a variety of other exemptions that have not been measured for effectiveness, held accountable, or thoroughly examined in fifty years. We were hit hard in this recession because we hadn't fully recovered from the last recession in 2001. Why? Revenue, or rather, the lack of it. We're 47th in the country in investing in key areas like education, health care, higher education, and transportation. Why? Probably because we're 49th in taxation.

A tangled web of statutory and constitutional provisions have long undermined our fiscal strength and prevented investments in our future -- investments that fuel job creation and economic growth. The more immediate and perhaps more important challenge is that there is not enough revenue to fund the kind of public sector our state has created.

There are some folks who think this is a good thing, that a lean government is a good government. But this isn't about size, it's about service. Large or lean, good government is government that works for those it serves.

When you contrast what works in Colorado with what doesn't, the matchups are, well, mismatched.

Our economy relies heavily on tourism and the moving of people from DIA to the mountains, yet we have awful road and infrastructure problems.

Our state is home to one of the highest number of college graduates in the country, yet compared to other states, we have limited early childhood learning opportunities, we're 48th in investing in K-12 education, and Colorado families pay more to get their kids to college than many other neighboring states.

We have tremendous open spaces, city parks galore, terrific municipal multi-use paths, and world-class state and national parks and wilderness areas; yet oil and gas companies are basically bleeding the land dry in the Western Slope, and getting a $300+ million tax break each year to do it.

We are home to a burgeoning high-tech and renewable energy economy, but our own state government can't get people the food stamp benefits or health care assistance they need because of a lack of resources and its own failed efforts to computerize how people receive those benefits.

We're the 7th wealthiest state in the country, yet we rank in the bottom ten states in five out of six safety net areas (unemployment, food stamps, housing assistance, health insurance for poor adults, and health insurance for poor kids), one in five households can't afford to make ends meet, and from 2000-2006 we had the fastest growing rate of child poverty in the country.

There are many beautiful things in Colorado. We have great people, terrific communities, innovative businesses, world-renowned natural resources, and for the most part a Mile High standard of living. We are also home to an incredibly engaged and active electorate that includes a startling number of organizations dedicated to critical issues like education, health care, higher education, and advancing opportunity for all.

But we also need to face some ugly facts. Despite all the beauty that blanket brochures and the affluence visible in many areas, there are an awful lot of people who can't make ends meet, who don't get the care they need, who won't have the opportunities they should, and who simply never get a fair shake. For many, there are barriers abound -- geographic, generational, cultural, racial -- to getting that fair shake. And some of those barriers are tied directly or indirectly to revenue.

The good news? Growing recognition by an unprecedented coalition spanning various interests is coalescing around the need for a new direction on how we fund our future.

Hopefully this will lead to a lot of coherent and constructive conversation in this space and elsewhere about what kind of Colorado we want. Maybe we can have a comprehensive tax study for the first time in 50 years, to figure out if our revenue system is fair, equitable, and sustainable. Maybe we can put aside hyper-partisanship and TABOR worshiping, and figure out a fiscal system that makes sense. Maybe we can modernize how we invest in our kids, our communities, and our future. And maybe, we can shape a government -- big or small -- that works for all Coloradans.