The Corporate Takeover of Colorado

January 9, 2017

Amendment 71, Colorado, Colorado Care

oil and gas coloradoGuest post by Phil Doe*

Two important things happened in Colorado on election night.

The people overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal that would have brought a universal, publicly financed, single-payer health-care system to the state. And after months of a carefully orchestrated and costly propaganda campaign designed to create doubt and even self-loathing, the people went on to revoke their rights to write constitutional law and participate forcefully in state government.

The universal health care proposal, Colorado Care, was well vetted and had as its chief spokesperson, Colorado resident T.R. Reid. He a former Washington Post bureau chief, PBS Frontline health care documentarian, and author of the 2009 best seller, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care. Early on, the book was reportedly going to be titled, We’re Number 37!, a reference to the dreary ranking the World Health Organization had given health care in this country.

There are roughly 200 countries in the world. No numbing chants of “we’re number one” on health care from U.S.A. firsters. It isn’t an Olympic event or a war. All western European nations rated better, as did Cost Rica and the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Then throw in Saudia Arabia, UAE, and Morroco for good measure.

Despite the fact that 6 percent of the state’s population, about 352,000 people, is still uninsured under Obama’s privatized mandatory health care plan, the magisterially misnamed Affordable Care Act, and despite public knowledge that health insurance rates in the state were about to go up by 25 percent, the people voted it down by a whopping 79 percent vote against.

In somewhat of an aside, it is worth noting as reported in Counterpunch in 2009 that T.R Reid publicly distanced himself from the private health care recommendations made in his second Frontline documentary, “Sick Around America.” They had been added after he had fulfilled his program responsibilities to Frontline. He said the program’s conclusion that a privatized health care system would work in America ran counter to his research that indicated basic health care had to be a nonprofit concept, for that’s the way the world’s best health care systems worked. The privatized system, or profit before service model, is employed almost exclusively in third world countries and the United States.

The woman making the case for privatized mandatory insurance on the Frontline program was Karen Ignagni, the chief lobbyist for the health insurance industry. She was later to have a major role in the final dismal product, the ACA, which was crafted in the offices of Senator Max Baucus, by staff that had previously worked for the health insurance industry.

Howard Dean, then the head of the DNC, characterized the senate version of the ACA as “… just an insurance company bill. The insurance companies, actually, literally did write it. There were two senior staffers in Max Baucus’s office, one who used to work for United Health Care and one who used to work for WellPoint, who wrote the bill.”

The Affordable Care Act was signed into law in early 2010.

Baucus reportedly received over $5 million from health industry interests over his senate career. Obama made him ambassador to China for his good works.

It is against this backdrop that the people’s effort in Colorado to control costs and provide health coverage for all was fought and lost.

The reasons for the defeat are several. First off, the Colorado Care initiative was opposed by the major newspapers in the state. The Denver Post in an editorial said there were too many unknowns, it would be too costly, and that it could result in an exodus of doctors and insurers if rates were too low. One can only surmise the severity of the apoplectic fit the Post’s editorial writer would have suffered had he had been confronted with the unknowns and prospective costs of the 1935 Social Security Act.

Naturally, the ruling elite were also opposed. Private health care is their investment cake. Governor Hickenlooper said at a closed door meeting with the business lobbying group, Colorado Forum:

The single payer issue … I mean, I don’t know what (unintelligible) cost it’s going to be huge. I can’t imagine there’s any chance that it will pass. But I can tell you there are a couple large health care related companies that are looking at moving their headquarters here, and they saw that, that that’s going to be on the ballot, and, and they paused. So I know you guys are looking at why is everything so easy to get on the ballot, I’ll carry that flag in a second.

These remarks, though badly formulated, bordering on illiteracy, do display his well-documented devotion to private interests over the public interests he has sworn to protect and his undisguised disdain for the people’s right to legislate. It is worth noting that earlier in the year Hickenlooper had chosen to replace his departed Lt. Governor with a health care executive, Donna Lynn. Just right for our man at the Capitol and a timely stealth fighter against a single payer system, she had been the regional president of Kaiser Permanente with its 725,000 customers and a revenue base of over $7 billion.

Previously, she had been the chair of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, and in 1994 had served as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s director of Office of Operations. She is also a member of the Colorado Forum and Colorado Concern. Both organizations are reserved for the state’s business pooh-bahs, the latter having such star-chamber affectations that only latter-day undershafts are members, and only, of course, by invitation. Both organizations opposed and actively campaigned against the people’s single payer initiative, which, incidentally, would have been the first in the nation.

Another factor leading to the initiative’s defeat was that Democrats under the leadership of Hickenlooper and one of his devoted oil industry toadies in the legislature, Democrat Lois Court, had passed legislation the year before that required any citizen initiative to carry a declaration revealing how much said initiative would cost the state. The original intent was to show any citizen foolish enough to vote for restrictions on fracking that billions in state revenues would be lost to the state as a result, but it fit the single payer issue seamlessly. The first sentence of the ballot question read as follows:

SHALL STATE TAXES BE INCREASED $25 BILLION ANNUALLY1 IN THE FIRST FULL FISCAL YEAR, AND BY SUCH AMOUNTS THAT ARE RAISED THEREAFTER, BY AN AMENDMENT TO THE COLORADO CONSTITUTION ESTABLISHING A HEALTH CARE PAYMENT SYSTEM…….

In a country where, according to the Federal Reserve, almost half of American families would have to beg, borrow, or steal if they were confronted with an unexpected bill of $400, how many of the voters in these families would be brave enough to tax them selves more in the face of such a fearsome and fraudulent question?

The ballot question is deliberately misleading because the language is blind to impacts on public costs. It is concerned only with the state budget. Properly viewed, what the state mandated language disguises is that the $25 billion is roughly what is being paid out now by citizens to private insurers. There would only be a transfer of those costs to the state to administer. But even so, the real question is, can there be savings by making health care a public system? According to the analyses done by the proponents, the savings to citizens could be as much as $7 billion annually. This possibility is nowhere to be found in the ballot question. The process herein described starts to fit political philosopher Sheldon Wolin’s concept of inverted totalitarianism, where government, rudderless in a sea of corporate cash, becomes the savage servant of corporations.

The money devoted to defeating the single payer initiative is eye stopping. State records show that the health industry and others ponied up about $5 million to defeat the initiative. The money was given to what is called an issue committee. These committees are required under state law, so that gifts and expenditures on any ballot issue or candidate can be tracked.

Called “Coloradans for Coloradans,” the campaign organization’s co-chairs include Colorado State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican, and former Democratic Governor Bill Ritter. Inverted totalitarianism anyone?

The chief contributors were of course the health care providers. Anthem (Blue Cross Blue Shield) gave $1 million, United Healthcare and Centura piled on with another $700 thousand. Other health care plunderers, banks, law firms, various chambers of commerce, and real estate interests did their part. Significant monetary supporters were Focus of the Family, the reactionary, tax-exempt religious group headquartered in Colorado Springs. Encana Oil and Gas gave $25 thousand even though the Canadian corporation had sold off most of its Colorado oil reserves in a massive fire sale after posting over $5 billion in operating losses in 2015. John Elway, the football idol turned football executive for the welfare bloated Denver Broncos anteed up $1,000. Public financing of football stadiums for millionaire players is good. Public financing for health care for all is bad.

The people advancing a public health option for Colorado citizens have vowed to fight on, but another election night result interferes mightily.

On November 8, the people also voted to disenfranchise themselves by approving a corporately sponsored ballot initiative called Raise the Bar. It establishes that before the state constitution can be changed 55 percent of those voting must approve, thus enhancing the one percent’s cupidinous drive for complete control over what civics teachers used to call the democratic process. The initiative also ordains that before any constitutional amendment can even get on the ballot 2 percent of the registered voters in each of the state’s 35 senatorial districts must approve, thus creating a geographical requirement for a statewide issue. One person, one vote be damned, and two elections required to make sure you really meant it.

It was the 2 percent requirement that caused even the corporate worshiping Denver Post to jump ship, but to no avail. The Raise the Bar initiative passed with 55 percent of the votes.

Representing nothing more dignified than a de facto revocation of the people’s right to legislate. as even the Post seemed to understand, Raise the Bar will be contested in the courts. Twice in the 1960s SCOTUS struck down attempts to create regional voting preferences on the grounds they were an assault on the equal protection clause and the principle of one person, one vote. SCOTUS also warned Colorado on two later occasions it was not to interfere with the people’s right to legislate, for that right was a fundamental right, superior even to the legislature’s.

The most bitter irony in Raise the Bar’s successful campaign is that corporate America used the initiative process to steal that right from the people for whom it was intended. Without the free reign of money in American politics, the corporate interests would have failed.

The initiative itself was the spawn of the pooh-bahs at Colorado Concern, but since only citizens can bring an initiative, Colorado Concern hired two erstwhile legislators as their front men, one a Democrat, one a Republican. One of their go-to propaganda tools was to tout all the bipartisan support, bought or not.

The Republican, Greg Brophy, had been a state senator and had run for governor but was employed as chief of staff for Rep Ken Buck, one of the Republican tribe of science questioning lawyers in D.C. Brophy took a leave of absence to speak to the people about an initiative he didn’t write and knew little about. He was paid $10 thousand a month to do so. Some measure of the man might be gained from the family photo. It shows all the Brophy clan smiling broadly as they hold military arms at the ready for a battle unknown. Brophy did not serve.

The Democrat, Dan Gibbs, was mostly a prop for the claim of bipartisanship. His pay for never being there is unknown. As a legislator he is remembered best for his many efforts, along with those of former senator Mark Udall, to hoodwink the feds into giving millions to Colorado so they could save the beetle-infested pine forests being destroyed by climate change.

Raise the Bar, according to the Secretary of State’s records, spent about $5.6 million in manufacturing propaganda, most of it oil and gas money. Actually this process goes back several years to when the oil industry began its campaign against the people’s rights to protect themselves and their children from fracked wells in their backyards and neighborhoods. Overall they have spent at least $27 million on ads, newspaper plants, politician buying, and propaganda mailings preparing for their final conquest of the state at the ballot box. The fracking industry is dead, but they carry on spectrally, hoping for the day oil, with all its inbred destruction, will once again become profitable. That day is unlikely to ever come, but they don’t know how to build solar panels, so they toil on, resolute and defiant of the public good.

The biggest lie used by the corporate propaganda machine was that the people were destroying the state constitution by making changes to it willy-nilly. This claim is dishonest at every level of examination. First of all, the state constitution is the people’s working document. It is a declaration of how the people are to govern themselves. It has to change, as Jefferson knew, if it’s not to become a religious relic. It is now the province of the high priests of capitalism, for, in most cases, only they will have the money and machinery to change it.

Secondly, they claimed that people had changed the constitution 115 times since the citizen initiative was added to the constitution in 1910. In fact, the people, ever cautious about making changes, had approved of only 47 constitutional changes. That comes to less than one change every two years. Significant among those changes are the right to the citizen initiative itself, term limits, home rule for cities, annual funding for the acquisition and protection of public lands, campaign finance reform, limits on taxation, school funding mandates, and the decriminalization of marijuana.

None of these could have ever come out of the legislature, for they are conceptually too bold, too controversial, and too forward looking for a badly fractured, poorly schooled, and fear-biting legislature. It would be more accurate to dub them the grease gun brigade because mostly they spend their energy squirting a little grease on old special-interest programs to keep them sputtering along. Rarely do new matters of real statewide importance escape committee rooms. It has been the citizen’s initiative where most real issues were first addressed and later decided at the ballot box.

That the citizen initiative is perceived by the moneyed interests as supremely important to their hegemony is perhaps illustrated by the fact that over $90 million was spent on this year’s initiatives, most of it corporate. By comparison only about $7 million was spent directly on state legislative candidates, the guys and gals that write the laws and debate ponderously for 5 months at the Capitol. Another $47 million was spent by PACs and campaign committees in support of their state candidates for office.

More was spent on the Washington delegation, but even there it was substantially less than what was spent on the initiatives. Democratic Senator Michael Bennet was the big spender, raising about $18 million to get reelected. He basically had no competition, his unknown Republican opponent raising about $3 million; yet he found it difficult to rise victorious, receiving slightly less than 50 percent of the vote.

The corporate money knows the threat is in the people. That’s where they put their oppositional money, and apparently they knew Bennet, the former corporate lawyer for Phil Anschutz, would have a hard time overcoming himself, so they threw a pot in his direction, too.

In the short term the corporate takeover of the initiative process will be challenged in the courts, almost certainly. And there is talk of trying to make a less used form of the initiative, the statutory initiative, more citizen friendly. The people have used the constitutional form of the initiative most often because it cannot be interfered with by the legislature. The statutory initiative is like any law, it can be overturned by the legislature in the next election cycle. That is why it has not been used more often. Moreover, if you are going to mobilize citizens to collect roughly 120,000 signatures and run the gauntlet of corporate challenges, you are going to want the permanency that only a constitutional initiative affords.

So what could the legislature do to help reinstitute the people’s right to legislate, a right the court’s have said is a first right, a right not to be interfered with, a right superior even to the legislatures? Well, they could resolve to not interfere with any voter approved statutory initiative for a reasonable period of time, say 3 to 5 years. They could authorize electronic petition gathering to get the initiative on the ballot, thus modernizing the process while greatly increasing regulatory efficiency and reducing costs for both the people and the state. They could use this electronic signing process to simultaneously register voters. They could insist that ballot titles are readable and contain less than 15 words, as is the requirement in Oregon. They could invite the public to the legislature to discuss these and many other potential and necessary reforms.

Alas, none of these things are likely to happen. Well-regulated grease guns are easier.

**********

phil-doe*Phil Doe is environmental director for Be The Change, and has been fighting for Colorado’s water for most of his adult life. He served as Bureau Chief and Environmental Compliance Officer for the Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of Interior and was featured as a whistleblower on 60 Minutes. A former professor of English literature, he has published op-ed features in Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, Colorado Central Magazine, and Counterpunch. His past grassroots efforts opposed the Animas-La Plata water project in southwest Colorado. He is a registered citizen lobbyist at the State Capitol and testifies at the federal and state legislative level on natural resource issues. He serves on the board of the grassroots group, Be the Change, and directs their environmental issues program, with a current focus on horizontal hydrofracking.

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