Is Colorado still a 'local control' state? 2022 legislative session sparks debate among leaders
Many officials proudly talk up the unique decision-making powers Colorado gives the smallest levels of government. Counties set and use their own property taxes. Cities and towns with a “home rule charter” can supersede parts of state law. Districts regulate and fund fire departments independently.
Some bills this session would shift more county and municipal powers to the state, leading to concerns about Colorado’s emphasis on local control going away.
“I think we still are (a local control state) right now. I worry what that might look like down the road, I really do,” Yuma County Commissioner Trent Bushner told KUNC. “Every year they just chip away a little more at it.”
Bushner is retiring from county government after 16 years. Much of that time, he said, was spent fighting “one-size-fits-all policies” coming from the legislature.
“Even when the Republicans were 100% in charge, usually somebody gets thrown under the bus,” he said. “When the Democrats are completely in charge, somebody is always getting thrown under the bus.”
This year Bushner is concerned about a bill to take ambulance service licensing power away from counties and give it to the state.
“It's going to really put more bureaucracy and more red tape,” he said. He’s particularly concerned that extra state rules will affect volunteers’ willingness to work EMS in remote areas.
While Bushner sees state legislators usurping local control with this bill, the state’s largest and very pro-local-control county association, Colorado Counties Inc., officially supports it.
When it comes to deciding what powers the state should or shouldn’t have, officials and advocates like Cathy Shull said “there is not an easy answer in every situation we're looking at.”
Shull directs Pro15, an advocacy group representing 15 northeast counties. In her view, if an issue only affects one city, county or district, and they bear the cost, then local officials should have full control over their response to the issue. But if the issue affects the locality’s neighbors, a higher government level should intervene.
As simple as that sounds, she said, the lines can be too “fine” to easily outline what should or shouldn’t be left to local control.
“When it's all said and done, there still seems to be a way that everybody seems to work it out,” Shull said. “It's just not as pretty as it used to be.”
According to University of Colorado Boulder political science professor Ken Bickers, since the turn of the century, political parties that gained control of a state’s legislature and governor's office have increasingly worked to “impose their policy preferences across the whole state.”
Bickers has seen this play out in multiple states, across party lines in his 19 years at CU. In Colorado, he points to a proposed law this session, SB 230, that would grant county employees union rights as an example of “a significant move away from local control.”
Counties can currently choose to accept unions either by a vote of commissioners or a ballot question. Only a few currently do.
The bill wouldn’t force all the counties to accept unions, just give employees the right to try to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. 75% of CCI’s 61 members oppose the bill.
Summit Commissioner Tamara Pogue is among those that actually support it. Partly because, she says, not allowing county unions statewide creates disparities that make attracting talent more difficult.
“I believe there are a lot of places where it is absolutely appropriate and right to have different counties making different decisions,” Pogue, who became commissioner in Jan. 2021, told KUNC. “I just don't think this is one of them.”
One of SB 230’s sponsors, Sen. Dominick Moreno (D), argued during a committee hearing last week that state law makes counties “agents of the state.” Pouge and other county leaders don’t dispute that, technically, counties are more “implementers of state policy” than cities and towns or districts.
“Over the couple hundred years of our existence it's morphed, though,” said Eric Bergman, Colorado Counties Incorporated’s policy director. “We feel like we are more like autonomous local governments. I mean, we're individually elected. We have our own budgets that we control. There's an incredible amount of autonomy there.”
Before moving to Colorado 16 years ago, Pogue worked state government-level roles in Maine and Vermont.
“When you are looking at these issues (from) a state lens, you're trying to find policy that really works for everybody,” she said. “Sometimes, being a little closer to the ground like local government is, you really have a little bit more direct experience with how these policies may play out. That gives you a better sense of where some of the unintended consequences might be.”
She’s not the only local leader with state government experience. Kevin Grantham was a state senator from 2011 to 2019 before becoming Fremont County Commissioner in Jan. 2021.
“When I was a senator, I always fought to keep the county's business, their business and the city's business, their business,” Grantham said. “I got to see up in Denver, firsthand, those that sought to take upon themselves more and more control.”
Andy Kerr also served in the state legislature, six years in the Senate and House each, before being elected to Jefferson County Commissioner in Nov. 2020.
“We try and balance out as lawmakers and as policymakers, this idea that, yes, we elect our local officials to make local decisions,” Kerr said. “And we also know that many, many of the policies and issues that we deal with don't end at our district or county lines.”
Kerr and Grantham crossed paths and, at times, butted heads at the state legislature over such issues. More recently, they testified on the county collective bargaining bill: Kerr for and Grantham against. But both say there’s room for dialogue despite their opposing philosophies.
“If we boil it down to Republicans and Democrats, control top-down versus bottom-up, I think we can we find these commonalities,” Grantham said, using the state Department of Human Services as an example. “There are some aspects of it I think are overreaching, that are unnecessary. But there are other aspects where we come together on trying to take care of those who are abused, those who are in trouble, are unable to take care of themselves.”
CU professor Ken Bickers says the ideal balance of city, county, state and federal government control is hard to pin down. While he doesn’t advocate for Colorado to lean one way or another, he said, consolidating power at the state level can have consequences.
“Moving policies away from local governments is moving it away from officials that the public, by and large, has the greatest confidence in,” he said. And increased state control, he added, can intensify divisive partisanship at the local level too.
Yuma Commissioner Trent Bushner says it’s not just that he thinks state control often does more harm than good, but that the county government’s closeness to its citizens is uniquely valuable.
“We really want to know what our constituents are thinking,” he said. “We don't want to bury our head in the sand. So I just think we, as a group in our county, do a pretty good job with that.”
Regardless of what bills pass this session, the push and pull between state and local control is expected to continue.