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Special-interest groups often don't serve Colorado districts

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Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 11:54 AM

People tell me that they like hearing what it's really like to be a legislator.

So, I'll give you a bit of the bigger picture of being a legislator. With 10 years' worth of experience at the Denver Capitol, I've observed quite a bit by now.

So, with the upcoming election season, it's important to tackle the topic of special interest groups and their "scorecards" and pledges. These report cards and pledges are publicized to voters as if they are missives from on high.

I've watched lobbyists run around to make sure legislators know what bill will be a "key vote" for their special-interest group. Some legislators rely on that information in deciding how they'll vote, time after time. There are lots of ways to represent our districts, but this is an approach I've chosen to reject.

The fact that groups on the far left, like Conservation Colorado, or the far right, like CUT, will give me poor ratings isn't what guides me, although I realize some constituents would have me follow their chosen group with blind allegiance.

I've also rejected signing "pledges" put before me as the only promise I have made is to represent my district as a whole, to the best of my abilities.

Newspaper editorial boards and radio commentators join in the special-interest groups' praising or shaming games by selectively amplifying the scorecards or pledges that most match their own political leanings.

None of these groups, or their enablers, ask people to consider whether any single special interest group, (as diverse as the liberal ACLU to the conservative Americans for Prosperity), could possibly represent the complex interests of a district.

Instead, the special-interest groups rely on a voter's school-age experience of grades, often leaving out key pieces of information to the voters.

For example, the Durango Herald published an op-ed for a special interest group written by a local activist that contained false statements about my votes, but most of all, touting my low score as evidence of my disregard for the environment.

It's not a coincidence that all three legislators taken to the woodshed by this special-interest group are Republicans, any more than it's a coincidence that this group gave 100 percent scores to many legislators from the Democratic Party.

Because I didn't follow this group's very narrow and purposefully partisan agenda, but instead worked on my own conservation legislation, this former park ranger, with a demonstrated legislative record spanning a decade as a staunch advocate of forest health, watershed protection, improved air quality, and dealing with the contamination from legacy mines in our mountains, among other issues, doesn't value our environment.

Seriously?

Whipping legislators into line, especially inexperienced legislators, isn't new, but the power of the special-interest groups role in this "whipping" is growing, enabled by sympathetic media partners, at the expense of the citizens.

I'm an optimist and I believe Americans will work through these complex and challenging times much as we have in our nation's past.

That said, if the status quo is unacceptable and we truly want elected officials to use their best problem-solving skills, the loyalty and power given to special interest groups should be re-examined, most importantly by the voters and by those elected into public service.

Ellen S. Roberts serves in the Colorado State Senate. She lives in Durango.

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