Owens: Preserving a Legacy, Defending the Barricades

Yesterday, as promised some members of the Rocky Mountain Alliance sat down for 30 minutes with Gov. Bill Owens. The Kestrel has already posted his thoughts, while Joshua was in attendance, too.

While we talked about a range of issues, mostly stemming from his State of the State Address earlier in the day, the Governor gave the sense of a leader committed to defending and extending his legacy in his final year in office.

Much of his speech and much of his conversation reflected on the seven years of progress his office has made in infrastructure and technology development, as well as key fiscal and education reforms. Working opposite a Democrat majority in the representative chambers, Owens is prepared for another onslaught of unacceptable legislation. Last year he wielded the veto pen 47 times, but he observed that the late timing of most of the 2005 vetoes slipped most of the Democrats’ efforts below the radar.

Of special interest to me is the area of education. I asked the governor what specific areas he anticipated there to be opposition legislation designed to undo his reforms in this very significant area of the budget. He first pointed to attempts to come after the authority of the Colorado Commission on High Education (CCHE), ably led by Rick O’Donnell. When staffed by reform-minded people like O’Donnell, Owens said, CCHE has been a force for effecting positive changes in postsecondary but also K-12 education. A key example is the effort to set high across-the-board standards for college admission, which has contributed to the Governor’s larger accountability platform. He says that Democrat legislation will seek to weaken CCHE.

Owens said that the teachers union (aka Colorado Education Association) may well be gearing up to get done as much as it can in the session before an election might end their brief friendly majority in the legislature. He pointed to a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Merrifield that would gear the licensure of school principals towards promoting more teachers exclusively to fill those positions. I share the Governor’s belief that the schools need more leadership from people outside the profession, from skilled business managers and the like. Merrifield’s legislation sounds like an effort to placate the labor interest group that helped finance his campaign.

But overall, Owens said the opposition is “playing it close to the vest.” It’s clear, however, that he stands determined to defend the gains in charter schools, testing accountability, and other key areas of education reform.

While Owens is committed mostly to playing defense and does not have an ambitious agenda, he is eager to ensure that money from Referendum C funds transportation projects and higher education. The Governor said that he shares the view of his party’s legislative leadership, Minority Leaders Stengel and McElhany, that no new government programs should be added unless they can be shown through consolidation to save the taxpayers’ money.

Owens is set to stand tall against the forces that would “storm the barricades” and undo the work of reform that has marked his seven-year tenure as the state’s Chief Executive. He also emphasized that he wants to exert his leadership to bring the party together for the tough 2006 elections and help the GOP regain the House and/or the Senate. The Governor has thrown his weight behind Bob Beauprez to be his replacement but would prefer for the sake of GOP unity to use that influence in as low-key a manner as possible.

(Update: Joshua’s extended commentary on this issue can be found either at View from a Height or Holtzman v Beauprez. In the absence of time or energy to construct better prose, let me add an “I second that motion” to his comments. It would be healthiest to let the primary play out on its own. I especially like the statement: “If John Kerry in 04 or the British Tories over the last decade hold any lesson, it’s that electability isn’t enough to get you elected.” Read the whole thing for context.)

More commentary on these and other topics are sure to appear on these pages in the coming weeks. Until then, I’d like again to extend my personal thanks to the Governor and to his Deputy Press Secretary Mark Salley for arranging this meeting and sharing their time.

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