Monday, March 4, 2013, was unlike any day I’ve experienced in my 12 years testifying at the Colorado State Capitol. During my tenure, I’ve had numerous opportunities to participate in legislative processes from draft proposal to signature of a bill making it law.
I’ve witnessed many hearings and observed citizens, law enforcement, and special interest groups share opinions on a variety of proposed laws. I’ve witnessed very controversial bills set in a process to allow full access from supporters, opponents, and citizens to be heard by their legislators. On numerous occasions, bills similar in nature were set for hearing on different days to ensure opportunity for anyone to participate in the deliberative process. On Monday, this didn’t occur. Instead, gun bills were simultaneously scheduled and of 25 plus sheriffs, only one could testify per bill. Hearings were split so bills heard simultaneously were on different floors, even though all were heard by senate committees. Rules for testimony changed three times from Thursday afternoon through Monday at 10:30 am, when hearings began.
Historically, any citizen would be allowed to speak if they arrived at the Capitol early and signed up on testimony records. Although sign up sheets were in place and citizens including myself signed up, we were completely disregarded. Minutes after I signed up to testify, I learned a different process would be utilized and testimony was based on three categories: experts, preferred witnesses, and public witnesses. No explanation was provided to define expert or preferred witness. I was told this decision was made by the senate president and the chairperson of the hearing committee. Additionally, experts would have no time constraints and all others would be restricted to three minutes. I was completely disheartened at what I was witnessing and this was exacerbated when I learned experts included an individual that was not a resident of Colorado who had no credentials to qualify as an expert except his spouse was a victim of the Tuscan Arizona shooting. He admitted he had not read the proposed bill and could not speak to any specifics regarding this bill. He encouraged Colorado to adopt universal background checks and close the gun show loophole, both of which already exist. Sadly, he testified with unlimited restriction as voters and taxpayers of this state sat helplessly as they were denied the right to testify during committee hearings.
My colleague, Sheriff John Cooke, testified in opposition of the “Universal Background Check” bill on behalf of most sheriffs while staying within the three minute constraint. Fortunately, I was allowed to testify because a member of the legislature listed me as an expert witness. I was honored and brought statistics and facts as it related to the national insta-check system (NICS); the probable criminalization of law abiding citizens and the unenforceability of this particular bill. I offered other options knowing we all share the common goal of reducing violence. I was proud to represent my constituents and the majority of our sheriffs. That pride was quickly diminished as I departed the hearing room and witnessed hundreds of citizens who would not be given the opportunity to testify. Although they expressed their sincere appreciation for my comments, I recognized the injustice that was unfolding before my eyes. Citizens of Colorado were prevented from participating in the legislative process. Their rights had been overridden by the agenda of a few members of the State Senate.
As I made my way out of the Capitol, I was shocked at the number of people who attended these hearings. It’s estimated the number of people in attendance reached 1,000. I spoke to several and was told they just wanted their voice to be heard. Many of them had never been to the Capitol, let alone testified on any bill. Some brought their children as a lesson in civics and sacrificed a day at work to participate in the law making process. Unfortunately, what they hoped for never happened.
Due to a prior commitment, I could not stay for the remaining bills. Later, I phoned a member of our legislature and expressed concern for what I had witnessed; changing of rules, time limits, new classification of speakers to establish priority and most of all the number of citizens who made the journey to the Capitol in hopes of being heard. I was told the rules did change several times and that this was very unusual. These changes were driven by the majority leadership, Senator John Morse, and the chairperson of the involved hearing committee.
I am not sharing this because of the outcome of the hearings that day; rather I am sharing this because of the process implemented and the faces of all those citizens that were never permitted to participate in the process. Government is supposed to be by the people, for the people and on this day, they were crushed and kicked to the side. Special interest coalitions and hand picked experts with no relevant expertise trumped our citizens.
To add insult to injury, the following Wednesday, I received an email containing the following language from a member of County Sheriffs Of Colorado: “…I have been advised by a reliable source at the Capitol that the Dems are seriously not pleased with the CSOC positions on the gun bills, and given the potential for a real salary bill to be introduced as you shall see from a follow-up email from” (an unnamed sheriff), “support of SB197 would put us in a more favorable light for salary bill support from the Dems. I do not believe we would be sacrificing our principles or positions on the other gun bills by supporting SB197.” “…Please let us know what you think on this proposal ASAP as I need to get a letter from us to the Senate Dems before the close of business today.” As I see it, senate Dems have made it known, “sheriffs, obey or no pay for you.” The first word that comes to my mind is extortion. Again, I’m disheartened that the pay of sheriffs is threatened to gain compliance with the majority party leadership. Local elected officials’ pay is set by the legislature as stated in Colorado Law. The previous governor’s process brought the need for a pay increase before the legislature and that legislature is attempting to buy compliance. I have great admiration for my fellow sheriffs; they are true professionals with high morals and principles. Having served with many of them for years, I can say they are men of honor with a passion to serve and do what’s right. I will not speak for them, but I personally will not concede to these threats, stand by while coercive acts such as this go without mention, nor will I compromise my values and beliefs for a justified pay raise based on studies performed by a bi-partisan commission formed by the democrat leadership. To be clear, this salary recommendation would have no affect on me, as I am term limited. Setting salaries is the responsibility of the legislature. This authority should not be used as a tool of coercion, but unfortunately it appears to have become such a device and there is nothing to suggest otherwise.