Thursday, April 30, 2009

Greeley ought to make good on its namesake's promise

The collapse of New Frontier Bank in Greeley adds another betrayal the town needs to make up for to its namesake, Horace Greeley, the pro-labor, anti-slavery newspaper editor from New York who is most often remembered for a quote he may have never used:

"Go west, young man, go west."

It's not my chore here to argue the origination of the famous quote, but it is my choice to invoke it in taking to task the establishment of Greeley for three particular sins over the past decade.

New Frontier Bank's failure, according to a piece written in The Northern Colorado Business Report's April 24 edition, was a product of lax bank practices that were first noticed by Greeley real estate broker Carroll Miller, an investor in the bank who foolishly failed to cash out of it once he spotted problems way back in 2004.

Instead, Miller tried to convince board members of the bank that its practices were not healthy and needed to be corrected. Miller told the newspaper he didn't know much about Larry Seastrom, founder of New Frontier, when he invested, and until he observed bank practices that concerned him Miller apparently had no doubts about Seastrom's leadership.

As a matter of full disclosure, I should say here that as editor of ColoradoBiz magazine, I travelled with Larry Seastrom and our magazine wrote about him favorably, and we gave no indication in our coverage that Seastrom's leadership of the bank could have future negative consequences for either investors or customers.

Seastrom was replaced as part of the bank's closing earlier this month. I left the magazine more than a year ago and have had no contact with Larry since our travels together.

The fact is, at least from my knowledge of Seastrom, he was mostly interested in helping people in and around Greeley make the most of the state's business growth during the decade, and he pursued that end aggresively in order to build the business of his bank.

But good intentions are not the real stuff of good business, and the aggressiveness of New Frontier's pursuits are what got the bank in trouble.

Horace Greeley, who was one of the founders of the modern Republican Party, probably would be appalled.

Just as he probably would have been appalled at Greeley's past anti-Hispanic bent and prosecution of illegal immigrants during the past decade; and the helter-skelter sale of mortgages to people who obviously were not qualified, and who made Greeley the nation's capital for foreclosures, serving, too, as the canary in the mine of the nation's housing collapse.

Those are the three sins the town and region around Greeley should now feel obligated for making amends to Horace Greeley's memory and reputation. "Go west, young man," was not an exhortation to make victims of the poor and illiterate, it was a call to the young to seize opportunity where it was offered in the United States of the 19th century.

The New Frontier at the time was where Greeley the town now stands.

The people of the region ought now make good on their namesake's promise.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Do it in your twenties!

And I'm talking about something more than making babies.

My biggest mistake in life, I can say without regret and from the perspective of sixty-two years completed, was not throwing myself into a "literary career" while I was still in my twenties, rather than now, as I am doing, in my sixties.

You have to do the thing you love when you are in your 20s because no matter how much or how little you make at the time you start that career, it sets the tone for your life's work, no matter how long you live.

If you are ever going to make any money in your life -- and I mean big money -- you have to start making it in your twenties even if the money then doesn't feel like "big" money.

This is the advice I have given my daughters, and it comes from the experience of having chosen to work for pennies in my early business career as a journalist, and never having been able to move up through the salary ranks during a 40-year career as a writer.

If it sounds like I'm whining, perhaps I am. But what I'm really whining about is my choice to pursue journalism as a day job while trying to practice my craft of writing literature on the side.

If I could have done it -- and that's still entirely a matter of speculation -- I should have concentrated on making my reputation as a writer of literature when I was young, unmarried, and could afford to be poor.

Had I established a reputation then, my income over the years might have risen much higher.

Of course, it's all a crap shoot.

My non-fiction books, short stories, poems and novels (if I ever get one written) could just as easily have not sold when I was young as they are not selling now.

But at least then I could have kicked myself in the ass at age 40 and done something more lucrative.

As I said, I have no regrets. I still like myself, and, had I done things differently, I might not have emerged into my sixties feeling that way at all.

So to all you young people: Make your choices whatever way you decide you must. Just remember the advice of an old man who has been there:

Do it in your twenties!

(This is Chapter Two of a book I am writing online called : "Traitor to Myself." It's intended to be about some of the lessons I have learned in life.)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Royal tiff in the Springs

How can the state let that happen?

That was my first reaction to reading the story in The Denver Post this morning about the dust up over a public-private partnership in Colorado Springs that is intended to keep the headquarters of the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado.

Great story, Jason Blevins.

So I fired off an e-mail to Don Elliman, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, to ask my question.

Elliman answered graciously, but first allow me to briefly outline the problem, according to Blevins in The Post.

A three-way deal between the city of Colorado Springs, the USOC and a developer, Land Equity Partners, has gone sour because the developer has been sued by investors, the city has refused to go to a lousy bond market to borrow nearly $21 million it planned to contribute to the project, and the USOC has failed so far to lease a redeveloped downtown building in the Springs that is to serve as the committee's national headquarters.

That would make it seem state government has had no role in the controversy, but Elliman said his office was asked to participate and made a commitment to the project. What's fallen apart has so far been beyond the state's control.

"We agree the USOC is a very important presence in Colorado, and we certainly want to retain it," Elliman anwered. "As you are well aware," he said,"we have limited financial resources at the State level due to a host of constitutional and statutory constraints. If it were in our power to solve this deal, we would do so, but throwing large sums of money at it, beyond what we've already done is not an option."

So the answer to my question: "How can the state let this happen?" is evident. It couldn't prevent it.

Yet the importance of working out a solution would behoove the state to get active behind the scenes. Politics is exercised behind closed doors far more than in front of cameras, and economic development comes down to much more than holding news conferences.

That's why Tom Clark, of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., recently announced he was was going to start a blog that kept the public informed about the Denver Metro Chamber's own economic development efforts.

I've not yet been able to find the blog, but in an era of transparency brought on by the election of Barack Obama, I'm sure I'll find it soon enough.

Information is king and queen in a transgendered age that has been named for it. Of course, it can leave you royally screwed, too, but at least you know when it's happening.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Roar of the crowd saves Pinnacol money

Gov. Bill Ritter must have been listening to the crowd of anti-tax demonstrators outside his window when he pulled his administration away from taking the $500 million of Pinnacol Assurance surplus assets on the negotiating table for the state budget.

Ritter made clear that he doesn't want the state's institutions of higher education to suffer $300 million in cuts proposed by the Joint Budget Committee, but he ducked under the desk, as it were, when it came to taking the money from an employer favorite, Pinnacol.

It will be interesting to see if the governor will sign a bill that remains that would make clear Colorado state government controls Pinnacol surplus money, if indeed that law is passed by the legislature.

But in the meantime there are those anti-tax folks who were outside his window.

Democrats, progressives and liberals ought to take note of the crowd, which was estimated at more than 5,000 outside the Capitol. The Denver Post, the only major newspaper in town anymore, said the anti-tax "tea party" was one of a dozen held throughout Colorado and 750 reportedly held throughout the country. That kind of turnout cannot be ignored by incumbent politicians, even if their incumbency is as "young" as the Obama administration's.

What the rallies showed is conservatives -- from the now less-influential Christian right and Moral Majority, to the blathering talk show hosts who can still whip up a frenzy -- still hold power over some people, and the millions of voters who cast ballots for John McCain didn't lose their voices or their ability to make placards with Obama's election.

It was fun to read the Post's quote of demonstrator Bertha Holland from the rally. "It's pretty sad that I've lived 65 years and never had a reason before to protest something," Holland told the Post. But what is sad is that Holland never had the guts during 65 years of life to oppose her government on an issue before Wednesday.

Ritter is right to heed the demonstrators, and put the budget-balancing act on the backs of doctors and other less powerful special interests, like state employees, who are going to lose money in the budget deal no matter how it falls. He'd be wrong if he raises fees paid by the general public to the point they create their own opposition to his politics.

But balance is a critical skill for a politician.

Balancing on a razor's edge is dangerous, but always entertaining folly.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pinnacol could be a hero

By the time I'm writing this, a House committee has approved the first of two measures sent it by the Senate that would lead to the transfer of $500 million in surplus assets of Pinnacol Assurance to balance the state budget.

And Gov. Bill Ritter has made it clear that $300 million in cuts to the state's institutions of higher education are unacceptable.

That's a good move on the governor's part; it signals to the legislature that lawmakers must come up with a way to make up the higher-education funding by re-writing the current budget as approved by the Senate, and leaves the raid on Pinnacol's assets as a viable way to do it.

There are other ways, and despite resistance of members of the Joint Budget Committee to considering elimination of tax exemptions to make up the money, or imposing salary reductions for state workers, the governor also has signaled those options are viable, too.

One way or another, Ritter, a good Democrat, has said the General Assembly should find a new way to balance the budget besides its traditional dumping of the chore on the backs of the state's college students and faculty. A state constitutional amendment now protects the backs of public-school students.

Pinnacol can afford to give up the money for the greater good. As a creation of the state, it would be nice to see the company figure out a way to help out.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Give and take, Part II

It's no surprise, nor improper, for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers to order up an opinion on the legislative plan to balance the state budget with surplus assets of Pinnacol Assurance. It is inaccurate to call the opinion a ruling, however, as The Denver Post did in its Saturday morning editions.

The opinion is just politics; how one plays the game. And, yes, Republican AG Suthers is trying to influence the Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.

If Suthers can keep the Democrats from passing a law to take $500 million in employer-paid workers' comp insurance premiums from Pinnacol, the AG's office won't be forced to defend the law when some taxpaying or insurance-premium-paying Republican businessman or woman challenges it in court.

As The Post pointed out in its coverage, which started on its front page, the challenge to the Pinnacol law before it is even enacted echoes Suthers' challenge of a Ritter administration policy last year that allowed the state to collect more tax money from school property taxes. That law passed despite a negative Suthers opinion of it; it was challenged and upheld by the state Supreme Court; and the tax money that was collected helped fund Colorado schools.

The same result probably would be repeated in the Pinnacol situation.

Pinnacol is a quasi-government entity created by the state to offer employers low-cost workers' comp insurance and it has done such a good job of that it has built up a surplus of assets -- some might call the money surplus business taxes -- that serve to overprotect Pinnacol's ability to pay claims as well as serve as equity to support Pinnacol's ability to offer the low rates it charges private businesses.

Pro-business people naturally suggest the money should be kept by Pinnacol to enable it to continue the business tax breaks they get via the low insurance premiums.

Democrats who argue the money belongs to the state are essentially suggesting it be used for the common good of all Coloradans, not just to enhance the state's business environment.

Still, Suthers' opinion has weight and ought to be considered.

Democratic lawmakers, however, need not treat it like a ruling, and probably ought to do the same thing with it they did with the property-tax law: Pass it; get the governor to sign it, let the law be challenged, and then collect the money after the Colorado Supreme Court rules it's okay. Pinnacol might even have more of a surplus by the time that all happens, and new funds could help cushion the pre-set hit.

It may be that the Supreme Court could throw its own opinion into the legislative debate and save a lot of people a lot of wasted time.

But the Court's decisions can be just as political as the AG's, and, in politics, timing is everything.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Give and take at the legislature

Cutting state-employee salaries rather than the budgets of the state colleges is a good idea, especially if state legislators take several hundred more millions of dollars from Pinnacol Assurance to plug the budget sink holes.

Generally, Republican lawmakers favor the salary cuts and oppose the Pinnacol raid, and Democrats, generally, mirror those positions in reverse, meaning they favor the raid on assets and oppose the salary cuts.

But Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter's administration has grown the state payroll, so he should be just as willing to cut back to save the state dough in its financial crisis.

At the same time, Pinnacol has grown its surplus by keeping the cost of workers-comp insurance low for businesses throughout the state. To give some of the money up for the best interests of all the people, shouldn't be too hard a political stretch. Ken Ross, president and CEO of Pinnacol, may already have seen that light on the subject.

Compromise is the height of lawmaking, so our legislators, who usually plum the debths of partisanship, should get together on this and work out a solution.

It would be refreshing to see it get done.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ward Churchill: Free speech trumps political backlash

Ward Churchill's victory in a Denver District Court Thursday not only represents another victory for the First Amendment, but a victory for all the people of Colorado.

And you can thank the jury for that.

So far, none of the jurors have explained their verdict which ruled Churchill's rights to free speech were violated by the University of Colorado at Boulder, which fired him. The jury awarded the former CU professor only $1 in damages, putting enough of a devaluing influence on the decision that attorney Scott Robinson wrote in The Denver Post:

"Free speech triumphs. But at least when it comes to professor Ward Churchill, it isn't worth that much."

Shame on Robinson.

As an attorney, Robinson knows, as so many people at CU knew, that free speech is worth every penny we spend on it because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that without it the republic would not survive.

Which is why the $1 Churchill won is not without significance.

I am currently reading (finally) Anthony Lewis' 1991 book, "Make No Law," about the New York Times v. Sullivan decision which gave the press and the citizens of the United States secure freedom to say and write what they like about public officials, unless they know what they say is wrong when they deliberately say it anyway.

Again, since the jury's not talking, you have to read into their verdict what you will (and be perfectly happy interpreting it whatever way you like since your right to do so is guaranteed by the First Amendment), and even write about it when your interpretation is all wet.

What I see in the jury's decision is a strong endorsement of free speech in the face of dire consequences from public officials, and yet a concern for Colorado's leading public university and it's money problems. The jury knew CU couldn't afford to pay Churchill a large damage claim for violating his civil rights, and yet, perhaps, also knew the state should be able to afford attorney fees since it was a former governor, a former senator in Hank Brown, the former CU president, and a former Republican Party chairman and candidate for governor, who forced the state into court to defend its woeful decision to fire Churchill in the first place.

Make no mistake: All these people knew the financial consequences to the state for trying to defend the university for making constitutional infringements on the civil rights of one of its employees, and yet they took no heed of the people of Colorado's financial plight, especially regarding one of its strapped institutions of higher education. They all had a political point to make, and damit, cost or no cost, they were going to make it.

Former Gov. Bill Owens remarked post verdict: "I think the $1 in damages accurately reflects the jury's appreciation for Ward Churchill's warm and endearing personality."

I'll always defend the old governor's right to say such a silly thing, but the people of Colorado, who will pay anywhere from a half million to a whole million in legal fees for an attempt to keep someone else from exercising the same right, ought to take Owens to task for having provoked the whole legal fiasco in the first place. Perhaps they should ask him to pay the fees!

Bruce Benson's comment is just as ridiculous considering the legal advice available to him. He said CU administrators -- he is current CU president and was once a candidate for governor and state Republican Party chair -- "strongly disagree" with the jury's decision and:

"It doesn't change the fact that more than 20 of Ward Churchill's faculty peers on three separate panels unanimously found he engaged in deliberate and repeated plagiarism, falsification and fabrication that fall below the minimum standards of professional conduct."

Neither, however, does any of that change the fact that Churchill has a right to say what he likes even when what he says is wrong, especially when he is speaking about government.

Benson knows that; and his attorneys at CU certainly knew that. Former Gov. Bill Owens should have known it, too, when he called on CU to fire Churchill.

You can forgive Owens, though, for not remembering it now. Now, judging from his statement, Owens believes First Amendment rights should be adjudicated on the basis of one's personality rather than on one's constitutional freedoms.