Editor’s note: The Berthoud Recorder posed questions to the two declared candidates for the Republican nomination in U.S. Congressional District 4 and the currently seated District 49 State Rep. B.J. Nikkel of Loveland. The following is a transcript of a phone interview with candidate Tom Lucero of Berthoud and e-mail correspondence from Rep. Nikkel. Rep. Cory Gardner’s response will appear in next week’s edition.
University of Colorado Regent Tom Lucero
Berthoud Recorder: What is your past experience with advocating for governmental transparency?
Tom Lucero: It’s in two places that I’m an advocate for transparency not only at the University of Colorado, but also with the Clean Government ballot issues in 2008. We were one of two successful states with ballot initiatives, and that initiative had two components to it. One to deal with no-bid government contracts, to open it up to competitive bidding. And the second piece to the ballot initiative that we really thought put it over the hurdle [with the public] was the idea of a statewide data base for all government contracting, so we thought that was huge –– that really resonated with the people.
At CU, when I first got on the board, there was a culture of lack of transparency. We knew what our rights were under the law for open records requests, and we made it as difficult as we could for reporters and individuals who wanted access to the University of Colorado budgets, and some other pieces of data and information. It was really a culture that was there long before I got on the board, and then I had an opportunity to publically go out and say this is wrong. It was an interesting case left over from the 1950s –– the McCarthy era in the ’50s and ’60s –– when the FBI went in and investigated supposedly communist professors on the University of Colorado campus.
Well somebody asked for those documents to be released, and the University fought ‘em tooth and nail. And I was one of a couple of regents back then who said this is absolutely ludicrous ¬¬–– we’re trying to protect documents from the 1950s. If the University made a mistake back then we should own up to it and bring those documents to the light of day. Just the historical value of this, so rarely do you come across pieces of information like this that.
Where [this culture of lack of transparency] really got the University in trouble was during the football recruiting scandal, and during the issues as they related to Ward Churchill. We took a bunker mentality where we made it as difficult and as hard it could possibly be to be transparent with the press, and with the public. And when we hired Hank Brown … at that particular point in time the organization was about to sue Channel 9 News. And Hank said this is absolutely crazy –– why would a public institution be suing the media to prevent them from getting information? And so overnight, Hank flipped the switch and said if you want something, if you want anything, we’re creating a new culture and a new mindset and a new attitude at the University of Colorado. And to see that come from the leadership of the university, and to see the impact that it had, was truly refreshing. That for me was the final piece in believing that good government and transparent government and doing government in the light of day was the best way to conduct your public business.
Recorder: If you are elected, what kind of legislation or what kind of strategies would you use to bring more transparency to the Fourth Congressional District?
Lucero: Well I think first and foremost, the president had a great idea when he actually campaigned on it and then he got elected. But for whatever reason, he decided to let go of that part of his campaign pledge, where all legislation needs to be posted and visible to the public in, I believe the time limit was 48 hours, and personally I’d like to see that time limit extended because I think the public has the right to have input in the legislation.
As an elected official, I’m the first one to say that I don’t have a monopoly on ideas, and it’s great to have feedback from individuals in key particular areas when something impacts them –– they tend to be subject matter experts –– to have the opportunity to get their feedback. I think that that would be a tremendous first step.
In addition to that transparency, I would love to see a simplification. I would love to sponsor legislation and bring the type of legislative process to Washington, D.C. that we have in Colorado, where we have a single subject [per bill], and get rid of the “Christmas tree” legislation that we see going on. All too often politicians in Washington are trying to sneak pet projects in the door, and nobody ever finds them because they’re buried in legislation. It’s an add-on here and an add-on there. So those would be two of the first steps I would love to see impacted once I’m elected.
State Rep. B.J. Nikkel (Dist. 49)
Berthoud Recorder: What is your past experience with advocating for governmental transparency?
Nikkel: I was the prime sponsor of House Bill 09-1288 last session, which is supposed to put the state’s “checkbook” online. In other words, all of the state’s departments whose expenditures and revenues go into the state’s Financial Data Warehouse, those individual expenditures and revenues are supposed to go online via the Transparency Online Project (TOP).
The bill was not easy to pass as the Governor fought me at every committee hearing through a handful of legislators, who tried to kill it on his behalf. It was dubbed “the bill that wouldn’t die” because it looked like it might get killed at every committee hearing in both the House and Senate because of these few legislators attempts to help the Governor kill it.
The governor issued an executive order just prior to House Finance Committee hearing the bill. The executive order created the Transparency Online Project, but his order only put aggregated sum totals online and provided no real information about what the lump sums were for. And, like all executive orders, it can be rescinded at any time.
My bill, on the other hand, is supposed to put individual expenditures and revenues online with detailed information –– like a checkbook would, on who spent the money, how much the expenditure was for, and what it was for. Because executive orders can be rescinded, I wanted it placed permanently in state statute so the taxpayers would have the assurance of forever having that transparency in state government. In spite of the attempts to subvert or kill the bill, which I believed to be very important to Colorado taxpayers, I successfully navigated it through House Finance Committee first, then House Appropriations by making the arguments above. My senate sponsor, Sen. Mike Kopp shepherded it through the Senate and ultimately it passed out of both House and Senate with a unanimous vote. And, in the end, in order to make peace with Governor Ritter, I even wrapped his executive order into the bill, in order to give him some credit for it. To me, it was not about the credit –– it was about giving true transparency in state government to the people so they can see how their money is spent.
Recorder: What kind of legislation or what kind of strategies do you plan to use in this legislative session to bring more transparency on the state level?
Nikkel: Unfortunately, as the situation currently exists, the Governor and his administration are still putting up obstacles to true transparency in state government. The representatives and senators in the legislature believed we were going to get true transparency in passing HB 1288, but the Governor’s administration has taken it upon itself to block true transparency for taxpayers.
The information the governor’s state controller, David McDermott, has so far given to the Office of Internet Technology in order for them to create the Web site is extremely lacking in detail and very vague. Thus far, they are only posting aggregated sum totals on state departmental spending on the TOP Web site (see www.Top.State.co.us). I’m extremely disappointed in the Web site and the amount of information the governor’s administration and state controller have made available to the public and I have communicated that to them. As it is, the Web site and information provided does absolutely nothing for transparency in state government.
I cannot tell you why Gov. Ritter and his administration blocks true transparency and do not want taxpayers to have full access to those individual expenditures and revenues. Seeing so many obstacles placed in the way of creating transparency in state government, it does make me wonder what it his administration has to hide in not fully complying with House Bill 1288. It’s hard for me to force them to comply with this law. There are no repercussions for non-compliance –– other than not re-electing someone who hinders transparency and replacing the administration with someone who welcomes and encourages it.
So, because Governor Ritter’s administration refuses to comply with the spirit of the law in providing detailed expenditures and revenues outlined in HB 1288, I am forced, on behalf of taxpayers, to follow up however I can, to ensure Colorado taxpayers ultimately get the Web site and the transparency they deserve. I am trying to work with the governor’s Office of Internet Technology and the state controllers office to give taxpayers the details on government spending, but so far to no avail.
Thus, I do plan to sponsor another bill next year to tighten up the language in the bill and outline exactly what the state controller must do to provide this information to OIT. I believe my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will support that effort because frankly, they expected it in the first place.