Independence Institute’s Californians of the Year include a rancher from the eastern plains who voted to save rural hospitals

The libertarian-leaning Independence Institute deploys “Californian” as an insult as it seeks to define acceptable political opinion.

District 1 Senator Jerry Sonnenberg. The first day of the Colorado state legislative session. Jan 11, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

legislature; copolitics; politics; legislative session; capitol; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

California is the enemy of the Colorado conservative, whose job it is to stop liberals from turning Colorado into East California. Look no further than the tweets of Republican gubernatorial candidates.

In that spirit, the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute has named five Coloradans as nominees for the inaugural Californian of the Year Award.

The besmirched include U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, considered by many to be the Democratic front-runner for governor, and state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from the eastern plains who was a key figure in a historic compromise that saved funding for rural hospitals — and, according to conservatives, violated the spirit, if not the letter, of TABOR. (Update: Sonnenberg was named the winner.)

The other nominees are: Christine Berg, mayor of Lafayette, who supported a ban on advertising soda on children’s menus (parents can still order sugary drinks for their kids; they’re just not listed on menus geared to kids); Brandon Rietheimer, author of the successful Denver Green Roof Initiative; and Aidan Cook, a guy who wants to stop mutton-bustin’ at the National Western Stock Show.

The nominations suggest Berg is expanding the nanny state, Rietheimer is saddling businesses with crippling regulation and Cook hates fun. Polis is nominated primarily for his support of moving Colorado entirely to renewable energy, but his presence on this list also reflects an attack line we can expect to see throughout the gubernatorial campaign.

What’s Sonnenberg doing on this list?

The TABOR purists associated with the Independence Institute think that the budget moves contained in Senate Bill 267 should have gone to the voters. That bill took the hospital provider fee out of the regular budget and created a separate enterprise fund for it. The provider fee is a fee (or tax, if you will, but technically a fee) on hospital beds that gets matched by federal dollars and returned to hospitals to offset the costs of providing care to Medicaid patients. The fee had been bringing in so much money that it was pushing the state over revenue limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Creating an enterprise fund meant legislators didn’t have to choose between cutting the fee (and losing the federal matching dollars so vital to hospitals, particularly those in rural areas) or cutting other areas of the state budget in order to pay for relatively modest refunds to taxpayers. TABOR doesn’t apply to enterprise funds, and separating the hospital provider fee into an enterprise fund had been a goal of Democratic lawmakers for several sessions. Some of the rural Republicans who voted for this bill described a difficult decision that came down to the needs of their constituents. The Colorado Hospital Association estimated as many as 12 rural hospital could close if the bill weren’t passed.

The bill also contained $1.8 billion in borrowing for road repairs and construction, with a focus on rural roads. That debt will be financed with certificates of participation rather than bonds and doesn’t need to go to the voters. The bill reduced the TABOR revenue cap but not by nearly as much as it allowed spending to grow. Many on the right denounced the bill.

For Jon Caldara, this is all of a piece.

The executive director of the Independence Institute thinks mandating green roofs — even with voter approval — takes Colorado in the same ideological direction as not putting the hospital provider fee changes to a vote of the people.

“What could be more Californian that passing massive tax and debt increases without going to the people for approval?” Caldara said. “California has driven its budget off the rails by spending. California has put nannyism at a high level in so many ways. I want to bring forward that, oh my god, we’re turning into east California.

“The question is, on a political level, are you a Coloradan in your heart or are you a Californian in your heart? I think people know what that means. Do you fight for people’s right to make their own decisions, or do you fight to take away people’s right to make decisions?”

Interestingly, Americans for Prosperity Colorado hasn’t gone after Sonnenberg for his vote. The conservative group backed by the Koch brothers gave the Republican from Sterling an A in its recent lawmaker report card.

The Independence Institute will announce its winner Wednesday. I asked Caldara how the winner would be chosen, and he said it would be done by a panel of Californians that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the California Raisins.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.