06/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Paul Weissmann Interview

Note: This is different from my previous interviews. Rather than interviewing on the issues central to Paul's efforts, I put together a set of questions about how the state is fundamentally run - where the government is trying to go and how it's trying to get there. As this is a new approach for me, please comment with any suggestions on how to do this better.

I met with Rep Weissmann [D - House Majority Leader] at The Blue Parrot (great restaurant in Louisville) yesterday afternoon where he works as bartender. It was definitely impressive how he could handle orders (granted it was a slow period) and an interview at the same time. Aside from the fact that I ordered a beer and got a Pepsi (just kidding)...

Question: What is the state's strategic plan?

Answer: With the recession "it's getting through fiscal year to fiscal year." Prior to that had five year windows measured where we are and what to shoot for. This was focused on spending a bit more now to reduce larger costs down the road. Big example, the changes in corrections which take more money now, but hopefully lead to reduced prison populations down the road. He also listed wellness care and pre-natal care in Medicaid.

Paul also commented that the state lags the economy by about 2 years. The federal money runs out, commercial real estate lags the economy by a couple of years, and unemployment lags. So the state will be hurting this year and next - at a minimum.

My $0.02: A strategic plan should be much more than what can we do now to reduce costs in the future. The biggest question should be, what should the state be trying to accomplish. For example, having "affordable" higher ed available is a goal. Having 50% of our children graduating from college by age 23 is a strategic plan. Working at a strategic level is also valuable in tight times like this, because it helps you determine what to fund and what to cut.

Question: How does the state measure improvement?

Answer: Look at it program by program. For prisons you look at the recidivism rate (presently 20% are back within 3 years). For K-12 you look at the drop-out rate - "all indications they're not working". They've tried to put systems in as part of the budget process to better measure programs. Paul specifically called out that it's not just a measure of did you graduate from high school, but are you ready for the next step be it college, trade school, a job, etc. (He nailed a key point of measuring with this.)

Rep Weissmann then discussed improving efficiency. His primary example is OIT as a way the state changed how it operates to improve its productivity. By consolidating all systems under one department and having people who better understand how to manage IT, they have found some savings. (More on OIT below).

Question: How much must the state save residents for each dollar spent on a program?

Answer: "It's a program that saves more than we're putting in to it." We used the example of a new program where insurance changes are reviewed before they go in to effect. Rep. Weissmann says that when they measure this new program in a year or two, they'll look at the cost, and if it's less than what was saved for the people of Colorado, then it's successful. He also pointed out, and this is so true, "a lot of this is a gut reaction of the legislators at the time." And part of it is the department's position on if something is worth it (my guess is they all think all their own programs are great).

Paul also has a proposal to look at taxes, tax extensions, tax credits, etc by the same measure. We have this complex tax system but the state has never looked at what we get, if anything, for each of them.

My $0.02: I think looking at the return on various tax items is a superb idea and, if done right, will be major. But on the measure of which programs are successful enough, the state has limited funds. If a program that saves the residents $1.05 for every $1.00 spent is funded, that means another program that would save residents $30.00 for each $1.00 spent never gets funding. I think the state needs to set a range where if it's less than 10:1, then a program is ended. If it's greater than 30:1, it's gold. And those in between are evaluated carefully.

I am not saying this is the only measure. Many programs return a social good also and that should be taken in to account. But a lot of what the state does is a straightforward measure in this way - and should be evaluated by this criteria. And do so in a way that we end up with the programs that give us the most bang for the buck.

Question: How much will the state spend to save a life?

Answer: "That's a question I can't answer." We will put in more money on pre-natal care than we will put in for a guard rail on a highway. Paul then discussed the large amount we spend pretending to have a death penalty. He is very impassioned on this subject seeing it as a total waste of funds to no benefit (which gets back to my point above of measuring the cost/benefit ratio of each program).

Question: Should the state have a collaborative or antagonistic relationship with business?

Answer: They tried to consolidate all of the business/state interaction to a single office, both to make the process more efficient, and to have an office that would "sort of be your lawyer and sort of be your tax advisor." Paul, in a very professional way, tore in to the "desk jockeys" that are focused on not doing anything they might get called out for rather than giving people answers.

I asked why the one stop shop didn't work. Rep Weissmann's answer was "I don't know." Paul also had some nice words for Don Marostica and what he is doing for businesses in this state.

My $0.02: Yes! Yes, yes, yes! It is a shame the one stop shop was not implemented because this would be of substantial help to small businesses in the state and boy could we use the additional jobs we would see if something like this was effectively implemented. (I'm also curious what Don Marostica does for small business in Colorado - I'm a small business owner and we've never heard anything from OEDIT.)

Question: what about high overhead taxes like the business property tax, etc.?

Answer: Boy, nobody likes this tax. Paul tore in to it worse than I would. He sees the business property tax being phased out over the next 5 years - it's mostly a local not a state tax issue.

I brought up the problem with taxing digital products. He brought up other taxes like on phone use that have the same problems. His guess is in 2 years we'll look back and see that we got almost nothing from the software tax. He then shot in to the various tax credits including the beautiful line "11 million dollars to the refineries yet they're not going to move anywhere." (When he said this I had visions of mechanical legs on the bottom of one of the refinery complexes standing up and walking the whole thing up to Wyoming.)

Very interesting item came up at this point. What credits they rolled back this session, what taxes they added, what they decided to start enforcing - that was all set by the Governor. There were other credits that Paul wanted to consider. Some that did go through he does not think will produce much (not true - they have produced a lot of pissed off businesses). "Hey we're the legislative branch, we can do it if we want... but you also need the guy on the first floor to sign it. And he wasn't willing to go other places."

Question: OIT?

Answer: Big problem with CBMS is you had people managing it who did not understand managing IT projects (very true). I pointed out that OIT is still not getting it done and Paul replied "they're getting closer, they really are." He also said the scope of the project has been reduced substantially. I think his view of OIT was best summed up by his final statement - "hopefully that will happen less often."

One interesting item that came up, state law has a "local preference" requirement for purchasing. And OIT is supposed to follow that. Interesting as I know of 5 local companies that OIT refuses to even look at their systems (one believes their system could fully implement CBMS today).

Question: Why has Higher Ed costs grown at twice the rate of inflation since 1980?

Answer: It's a financial fight for the top professors, and those professors are needed to bring in the research dollars. He also points out that the hyperinflation in higher-ed is not sustainable. But he had no magical answer here as all the other schools are doing the same thing.

My $0.02: This is a major problem and the present course is making higher ed less affordable every year. The legislature needs to step up on this issue.

Question: How do we fix K-12?

Answer: First off Paul is not a fan of NCLB. He brings up the very legit point that the kids have no incentive to do well on the CSAPs and in high school many just randomly fill in the bubbles. He also says that under our state constitution, it's not clear the state can put any requirements on local education. He is also a strong proponent of neighborhood schools. With a neighborhood school he then thinks you have a much stronger community to keep the kids focused.

Rep Weissmann did have a long discussion about what works in public school. It was very insightful and he focused in on needing people who are effective & care and programs that work. All really good. But I then pointed out that all of what he spoke to requires that you have the right people in there - and asked if he thinks the tenure reform bill will go through. He replied "No." What's interesting here is that Paul's opposition is to how the teachers are measured. But he does say there clearly are bad teachers, and the kids, the parents, and the principals know who the poor teachers are.

My $0.02: First off I agree that the students need to have an incentive to do well on the CSAP (or son of CSAP). I think we should add that if a student does not make proficient on the CSAP, they must repeat that class. Second, I think local schools are great if they are well run, but are a horrible trap if they are bad. Forcing students to local schools traps students and gives a school no incentive to improve because they get their kids regardless of the job they do.

A also think Paul is avoiding the central issue here. He does say that we have poor teachers who are easily identifiable. He does say that it requires quality teachers to educate our kids. He does agree our schools are not improving. But while he brings up legitimate criticisms with the proposed tenure reform, he does not propose any alternative. You can find fault with any proposal (that's the entire Republican plan in Washington), the trick is to improve the proposal so it will fix a serious problem we have.

Question: What can the state do to help small business?

Answer: The only thing the state should do is make sure there is an infrastructure (including broadband), and good education. Outside of that he doesn't see anything the state should do to create jobs. I suggested that his one stop shop idea should go on the list as that would create jobs. He did not see that it would (it would - not a ton , but some).

My $0.02: Speaking as a small business owner, I think his answer is really good. But... The one stop shop, or even a competently run Depart of Revenue, would lead to more jobs because less time/money/effort figuring out what we have to do for the state means more time/money/effort put in to sales. Increased effort in operations does not increase income. Increased effort in sales does - and that leads to additional jobs.

It's also interesting that he identifies education as key to the success of businesses in this state - it is. And Paul realizes that K-12 is doing a poor job and not getting any better. But on improving the system, a no on tenure reform and no proposed alternative.

On the plus side, Rep Weissmann is a strong proponent of simplifying the tax code and eliminating taxes that have a high overhead to compute/collect. He did not list this as something that would increase jobs (it would), he is working to get this done.

I then went in to a couple of questions specific to Rep Paul Weissmann.

Question: If you could pass one bill, what would it be?

Answer: His bill to eliminate the death penalty. And put those savings to the cold case effort.

Question: If you had one word of advice to new legislators, what is it?

Answer: Be honest. He meant this as be true to your beliefs as well as speak honestly about what you are doing. (Superb advice.) His full answer on this was quite long and very impassioned. The entire answer would be good listening for each new rep (podcast below).

Question: Is FastTraks coming to Louisville, Boulder, etc.

Answer: If we add in a surtax in the affected areas. It's unfair that everyone paid for all the rest and it will be just us paying for our part. But the rest of the district won't pay as they got theirs. And we got stuck with the short end of the stick. (Unfair - no shit. But it's an honest answer.)

Question: What are you going to do next.

Answer: He says he has no idea. The way he answered, I truly think he hasn't given it much thought yet. But I do think he will remain in public policy somehow/somewhere.

Podcast: Paul Weissmann Interview