This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

12/10/009 - 2010 initiatives undo public infrastructure

Last week, I wrote about civic literacy. One aspect of that is knowing something about our framework of laws, the United States Constitution.

Libraries are very much about the First Amendment -- freedom of speech. Sometimes, that gets awkward.

As I think Reggie Rivers once said, nobody minds if you stand on a street corner and profess your tender affection for butterflies.

The reason we need the First Amendment is to protect unpopular speech, to say things that are not innocuous or pleasant.

Here's a case in point. Last month, petition-gatherers stood outside several Douglas County libraries. Some of these folks were local.

Some were apparently from the west coast. A few of them claimed they were getting paid up to a dollar per signature. It's not clear who paid them.

None of these people were particularly sanctioned by the library. They just took advantage of their First Amendment right to stand outside a library and engage in free speech.

What were they gathering petitions for? Two state constitutional amendments, and one statewide initiative.

All of them strike much the same tone as 2000's "Amendment 21." That initiative, authored by Doug Bruce, attempted to reduce property taxes, by all agencies of local government, by $25 per year till the tax just ... disappeared. The state was supposed to pick up the lost money.

Amendment 21 was soundly defeated by the voters. They decided that the services they had already approved (such as fire protection) were still vital to their communities, and deserved local support.

The current batch of proposals does seem eerily familiar.

One proposed constitutional amendment requires, among other things, that all school districts reduce property taxes while "replacing the revenue with state aid."

At a time when the state is already cutting its support of education, and is apparently facing millions more in budget cuts as we climb out of a recession, that seems a little naive.

A second amendment bans many common kinds of public financing. If I'm reading it right, that would seem to include multi-year leases that had not been explicitly approved by voters.

Today, Douglas County Libraries rents library space in the communities of Louviers, Roxborough and Castle Pines. So I guess we'd have to have an election to okay that.

A countywide election costs about $100,000 these days. And if the voters don't approve the leases, those libraries would close.

The third proposal seeks to reduce both state and local revenues through a mix of means: cutting vehicle registration fees, lowering state income tax, and ending telecommunications fees.

Bottom line: various groups have estimated that when fully implemented, this initiative would cut state revenues by $1.7 billion, and local government revenues by $622 million.

Of course, the state will also be picking up the costs for reduced school revenues. Where the money is supposed to come from I cannot say.

So the library -- because it attracts such a steady stream of citizens -- became a prime location for people to launch an initiative that would almost certainly close libraries.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is free speech.

As my last column cited, a majority of American voters don't know much about the federal constitution. I bet even fewer can fathom the intricacies of the constitution of Colorado, which is already saddled with measures that require us to lower revenue (TABOR) while at the same time increase expenditures (Amendment 23).

See California for an excellent example of people who both want more services, and want to pay less for them. That approach -- not representative government, but government by initiative -- is behind the current batch of amendments, too.

It leads to bankruptcy.

However, each of these current measures succeeded in gathering over 135,000 signatures apiece. That means that they'll probably make it onto the ballot in November 2010.

What will be the cry to rally voters? "Lower taxes!"

But here's what that means. Worse schools. Worse libraries. Worse streets. Fewer police officers and firefighters.

It's hard to see how any of that is supposed to make our lives, or our business environment, any better.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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