Getting into gear at the Capitol


    By Senator Roberts
    SUN Columnist

    Things are moving into first gear, here in Denver at the Capitol.

    A couple of years ago, we passed a law called the SMART Act (plenty of joke material there, I know), that was intended to increase legislators’ familiarity with the vision and strategies of Colorado’s state agencies and to give us an opportunity to ask questions of agency directors and their key staff.

    I was in the legislature when the bill proposing this new approach was passed. The bill reflected the frustration of many legislators that we weren’t provided enough background on how effectively the agencies served the people of Colorado. While a slower and more cumbersome start to a new session, under this legislation, we now receive more information on agency strategy and goals. We’re also expected to engage in a critical analysis of the agencies from the legislative perspective.

    The agencies are part of the executive branch and, ultimately, are under the direction of the governor. Yet, this heightened legislative inspection period is time well spent. It’s our main way of learning what a governor and agency directors have in mind and whether we in the legislative branch agree with the priorities as stated by the executive branch.

    As any proactive business owner knows, discussion of different views can be valuable and lead to better solutions. The same is true for those in government. Legislators interface with the agencies’ impacts through the experiences of our constituents. The transparency and accountability brought by this increased scrutiny is worth the extra legislative work and time committed.

    Each legislative committee has certain agencies to concentrate on, particularly at the front end of the session. For example, I sit on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and we have oversight of three large state agencies: Colorado’s public health department, the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing (HCPF) that oversees the Medicaid program and the Department of Human Services.

    Going through this process also helps legislators prepare for the budget bill later in the session as we go into that process with a greater understanding of what the agency budget requests are for. It also shapes our votes on whether to support, or seek to amend, those budget requests.

    I’ve mentioned before how the total of state spending on healthcare is rapidly approaching the currently largest area of Colorado’s spending, that is, K-12 education. HCPF is the state agency principally affected by the implementation of the federal health bill as well as the governor’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility. They have their hands full this coming year and it’s my job to critically evaluate the many ambitious projects before them. We are doing the same with the other two agencies overseen by this committee.

    Critical evaluation of current policies is an essential part of our political system and falls mostly to the minority party due to a majority party’s inherent reluctance to criticize party leadership. This evaluation can be spun as partisan bickering, and sometimes is, but that may also be a superficial assessment.

    Occasionally, a difference in approach arises less over party philosophy and relates more to the differences between the executive and legislative visions. I credit our country’s founders for designing a political system aimed at stimulating the success of best thoughts rather than just the status quo.