Aaron's Real Opinions:

The Real Meaning of Ritter's First Veto
by Aaron Harber
February 11, 2007 - Print Article

Part 1: How HB 1072 Took Everyone By Surprise

Governor Bill Ritter shocked the Colorado political world when he exercised his first veto and killed House Bill 1072, which would have repealed the section of the Colorado Labor Act requiring a supermajority vote second election for an all-union or “union shop” workplace. Colorado is the only state in the nation with such a provision. All other states are either right-to-work states - where union shops are prohibited - or are states which allow union shops without such a second vote

Organized Labor wanted to eliminate the requirement while Colorado businesses, for the most part, preferred the +60-year status quo. It was not an issue widely discussed during the election so it was not on the radar of most political operatives focused on the new 2007 legislation session.

Everyone was surprised by the Governor’s veto for a number of reasons. First, Ritter has a strong union background and was endorsed by most unions in his campaign. Second, he had indicated to union leaders he would sign such a bill if it came before him. Third, with 19 out of 20 Colorado private sector employees not participating in unions, the importance of the bill seemed negligible.

Despite the fact most businesses would never be affected by HB 1072, even if it were signed into law, once the General Assembly appeared to be steamrolling the measure, the business community mobilized quickly and communicated its overwhelming opposition to the measure in no uncertain terms.

Labor leaders and their Democratic allies in the Democratically-controlled State House and Senate, quickly pushed the legislation through - making it one of the first bills to emerge from the General Assembly in the 2007 session. Even the vast majority of business leaders thought it was a foregone conclusion Ritter would sign the measure. They assumed the legislation would become law and the parties would have to move on to other, more substantive issues.

Labor saw the measure as “payback” for their extraordinarily strong support of Ritter’s candidacy. They felt they were “owed” by Ritter and many legislative Democrats. And they had every reason to feel that way after having strongly supported Ritter’s candidacy and that of almost every Democratic candidate in Colorado.

Labor operatives viewed HB 1072 as setting the right tone for the Legislative Session and as a way to demonstrate the wisdom of their 2006 political decisions. The business community saw it in a diametrically opposite way - i.e., setting the wrong tone and giving its political opponents too much momentum for additional legislation businesses would view as nefarious.

Part 2: Why Ritter Vetoed HB 1072

Organized Labor was caught by surprise when Governor Bill Ritter vetoed House Bill 1072 because, in their opinion, during the campaign, he opined he would sign such legislation. The Governor said as much himself in his veto message - the first veto of his embryonic administration. He could not have been pleased that, before he even warmed the chair in the Governor’s office, he was faced with such controversial legislation which did nothing to promote the detailed agenda which had been the crux of his campaign.

HB 1072 didn’t appear on Ritter’s screen as a major issue until it already was flying through the legislative approval process. He just had barely moved into the Governor’s office when the General Assembly already was off-and-running. As a result, HB 1072 wasn’t on the Governor’s radar screen at an early enough stage.

While some felt this demonstrated failure on the part of the Governor’s legislative staff, the reality was that staff still was being organized when Labor and some of its Democratic supporters began the bill’s approval process.

What upset Ritter wasn’t the content of HB 1072 itself; rather, he was displeased with the process of how supporters were trying to ramrod the legislation through the General Assembly with no real input from him and with opponents summarily waved aside. This was not the example he wanted to set for his administration.

Ritter’s philosophy was and is to move away from pure power politics where people say “We’re doing this because we can.” Instead, his goal is to bring everyone to the table to discuss the merits and flaws of potential legislation. His message was he wanted processes which built consensus - not destroy any hope for harmony. The approach used by Labor and Democrats with HB 1072 did the opposite of what Ritter desired. He felt they unnecessarily and recklessly were tearing the carefully woven fabric of Ritter’s broad electoral coalition.

Ironically, had Labor and the Democrats taken their time and brought Republicans and businesses into the discussion in a serious way at the beginning of the process, they probably would have ended up with a bill similar to HB 1072 and the Governor would have signed it. Ritter stated he continued to support the basic objectives of the legislation and argued in his veto message how he remained convinced HB 1072 appropriately would have removed an unreasonable barrier in Colorado law.

Unfortunately for the bill’s proponents, by bullying their way through the process, they increased the opposition to what could have been a relatively benign piece of legislation. The reality was few businesses would have been affected by the passage of HB 1072 but the tactics used to pass it ignited the business community in a manner which probably would not have occurred had the proponents’ approach been more inclusive. Ritter’s response was to remind the bill’s proponents that “process” was just as important as the ultimate legislative outcome.

Part 3: Behind The Scenes With HB 1072

The behind-the-scenes lessons were many for Labor, for the business community, for the Democratic leadership in the Statehouse, and for rank-and-file Democratic legislators when Governor Bill Ritter exercised his first veto. And the messages he sent were significant, especially given the likelihood he will be Colorado’s Governor for the next eight years.

Ritter’s indirect message to the leadership - including Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, House Majority Leader Alice Madden, Senate President Joan Fitzgerald, and Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon - was that their job was to protect him. In the case of HB 1072, they had failed. The Democratic leadership serves as traffic cops for legislation and this bill was speeding along right from the start at far too fast a pace. There were no governors placed on it and, as a result, it flew through the hearing and approval process.

And the bill had no direct relation to Ritter’s “Colorado Promise,” which should have been the nearly exclusive focus of the leadership in the early days of the new session. Ritter’s priorities are what he calls the “New Energy Economy,” the reformation of health care, how to better fund education, and improving the State’s transportation system. HB 1072 addressed none of those priorities so Ritter “spanked” his own party with the veto because they should have known better.

For the same reasons, Ritter also wasn’t happy with the bill’s sponsors or its rank-and-file supporters. These Democrats were focused on making points with their Labor supporters instead of protecting the Governor. To shoot out a bill at full speed on a controversial issue with no substantive warning to the Governor was a disservice to him. Ritter’s veto sent a message saying, “Keep focused on our top priorities or else I will keep refocusing you.”

The Governor also was not pleased with the Republican legislators’ or the business community’s response to HB 1072. The bill’s opponents made wild-eyed arguments that its passage would be the death knell of economic development in Colorado - the lynchpin of Ritter’s agenda. Opponents claimed the bill’s proponents were anti-business and would damage the entire State by making Colorado appear to be pro-Labor and anti-Business. The reality was HB 1072 would have likely had little or no impact on any business looking to expand in or relocate to Colorado.

Opponents of HB 1072 also began talking about retaliating by sponsoring a constitutional amendment to make Colorado a right-to-work state - endeavor which would have further divided Coloradans and likely be doomed to failure anyway. It made them look like spoiled children, even though they had a legitimate beef with the bill. It was their lack of participation in the legislation which motivated Ritter to veto it.

The reality was HB 1072, if it had been signed into law, would have been a blip in the economic world of Colorado. It simply affected too few workers to matter and was unlikely to cause the wildfire spread of unionization anyway. The facts proved unionization in the private sector had been declining for years in Colorado. HB 1072 would not have changed that trend.

Nevertheless, many opponents of the legislation took a “Chicken Little” approach and elevated the issue to great political heights. The Governor was inundated with calls, e-mails, letters, and personal communications from the business community expressing vituperative opposition to the measure. This seemingly extreme approach made Ritter even unhappier because it moved the discussion further away from the calm, reasoned approach he wanted everyone to use.

In the end, however, even with the veto, there were political “winners.” Democratic legislators could argue they accomplished their goal of “paying back” organized Labor and Republicans could argue they helped “save” the business community. Of course, it was Ritter who did the latter. It is unlikely either side came out with a significant advantage although the veto may have cleared the way for a new kind of political behavior at the Statehouse – “being nice.”

Part 4: The Message Behind The Veto Message

Governor Bill Ritter’s first veto of his nascent administration was simply a message - “Involve everyone in important decisions and play fair.” That message was meant for everyone as it exemplifies the different approach Ritter wants to take in politics and government.

While Labor leaders argued Ritter had abandoned them and had broken his campaign promise by vetoing legislation he once said he would support, Ritter’s point to them was he made a many promises - not just the one Labor wanted to conveniently remember.

Ritter made a number of “bigger” promises which were detailed during his campaign in the “Colorado Promise.” The message sent by his veto to Labor, to the business community, to legislators, and to everyone in the State was that he would not allow anyone to cherry-pick specific promises; rather, he always would consider his actions in the broader context of the largest commitments he made and he would always do what he believed was best for Colorado. In the case of the latter circumstance, Ritter also recognized that situations change and he had to be prepared to accommodate those changes as well.

Ritter reminded his detractors he also had made a promise to conduct business differently in Colorado. He wanted to provide leadership to help move Coloradans away from the internecine politics of destruction which continues to run rampart through America and, instead, create a new model for political discourse.

The Governor made it clear his objective was to involve everyone possible in all major discussions and work hard to find solutions which made sense and which were palatable to as many entities as was reasonable. Ritter was not promising to make everyone happy all of the time. He also was not guaranteeing there were solutions to every problem which would satisfy all the parties involved.

What Ritter had promised and what he wants is a process which simply honestly attempts to involve everyone, which allows people to have a seat at the table, and which gives them a chance to be part of the process. He wants a process which promotes reasoned discussion and mutual respect. He has recognized certain decisions will please some people at times and disappoint those same people at other times. His focus is on trying to make certain everyone is involved in the decision-making process and they understand why a certain decision is made, even if they disagree with the decision. The approach used by many involved with supporting or opposing HB 1072 violated the most basic tenets of Ritter’s underpinning philosophy and, as a result, his veto was appropriate.

What is next? HB 1072 is likely to be resurrected at some point in time in some form. When the new version is brought forth, there will be hearings and people will be treated respectfully. It is likely compromises will be made and whatever legislation results probably will be signed this time by the Governor. It also is possible the supporters of HB 1072 will conclude it actually is not an important bill, given other priorities, and their resources would be better-focused on those higher priorities. No matter what happens, Governor Ritter’s veto sent a clear message instructing the General Assembly and all Coloradans on how he wants the State’s business to be conducted.

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