WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- Bill Owens is the first Republican chief executive to lead Colorado in over a quarter century. First elected in 1998 with a winning margin of just over 8,000 votes, the former state treasurer has developed into one of his party's most innovative state leaders.
Colorado has changed dramatically since the 1970s, as a population surge generated political support for liberals who advocated a "slow growth" approach to development, typified by former Gov. Dick Lamm and former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth, both Democrats.
A former state legislator, Owens has been a leading voice on education reform, government streamlining, and making the state a haven for high-tech industry. Gov. Owens shared his thoughts on the state of the nation with United Press International.
Q. The Bush Administration has been called "a governor's administration." There are governors and former governors in significant positions in and around the White House -- former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot at the RNC and former Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft at the Department of Justice, just to name two. The president leaned very heavily on the nation's GOP governors to win his party's nomination in 2002. How much influence do governors have over Bush administration policy-making?
A. First off, the Bush administration makes its own decisions. But I can state for a fact that they meet with the governors, talk with us, and listen with us a lot more then his predecessor's administration did.
We have regular conference calls with the White House, with Tom Ridge, with John Ashcroft, with Ruben Barreles of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, with Christine Todd Whitman at EPA -- they are always bringing us into the loop, many times on a bipartisan basis.
Q. Is it a consultive relationship, one where they are running ideas by you and you all have an opportunity to tell them about the interesting things you are doing at the state level?
A. It is. It's not just, "We're here in Washington, and here is what we are going to do." Many times it is, "Here is what we are thinking of doing. What do you think? What do we need to be doing to make your job easier?" We've heard that a lot. The issue of the National Guard at airports: That was a top-down decision but it was quickly changed to be more state friendly.
Q. How was it changed?
A. They broadened the usage of the troops and expanded their role and mission. Initially, they weren't to be allowed outside the terminal, they weren't to be allowed to help with the car checks. Their role was to be at the security gate backing up the people working the magnetometers. They broadened that because, as the governors worked with them on the policy, we said "If you really want us to secure the airport, you have to let us have more flexibility with these guardsmen," and they did that.
Q. The issue of homeland security is going to be important in the coming months, especially to governors. How is the relationship between Gov. Ridge's Office of Homeland Security and the different states going? Do you really have the opportunity to consult and offer opinions, to craft what is best for Colorado rather than a one-size fits all model dictated onto the states from Washington?
A: Yes, we do have that flexibility, though it is still a work in process.
For example, my director of Homeland Security, a 20-year FBI special agent who is charge of Colorado's Department of Public Safety, was back in Washington with all the other directors (in January), meeting with Tom Ridge. I know that in many cases what the feds are going to be doing is providing equipment and funding for local needs.
As a conservative, I am not usually the one first in line for funding from the federal level but, in this case, they do have funding available and it is going to be given to states to help enhance what is called first responders.
Q. What do think are the kinds of things that need to be done? What do you want to do with Colorado and what do you want the federal government to make it easier for Colorado to do to protect the state?
A. Here's what I really want the national government to do. I want the national government to defeat the terrorists in their homes so we don't have fight them in ours. It is literally impossible to protect every public installation in Colorado 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for that random terrorist. We have skyscrapers that could be considered vulnerable if the right bomb was placed in the basement.
The real role of the federal government is to do what it is doing in Afghanistan and Yemen and maybe Somalia and hopefully Iraq, and Indonesia and the Philippines -- taking out these terrorists in their homes. That is going to be the best thing the federal government can do.
Secondarily, there are some things that we can do better and, frankly, are already doing better. First of all there is communications, the sharing of information. I have the White House's word, I believe it was Tom Ridge who told the governors that if there was ever a specific threat tied to a state, the administration would tell that state's governor, tied to the appropriate security restrictions. These broad security alerts have not been state specific and it has been frustrating, although from my perspective very understandable --if you don't have that information you can't give it.
I'd rather be warned about it and have it not happen than see something happen if they have information and they fail to send out an alert.
Federally, they can help us with better information and, as they are doing, they can help us with our first responders. That is where the money they are giving to states (is) really being passed through to the fire and police units, better communications systems and, mostly, equipment. There is not much in terms of hours, which are being absorbed by local police and fire departments, which is their responsibility.
Q. Changing topics, I know there are a number of innovative things that are happening in Colorado that you want to encourage other governors to look at and replicate. One of them is the unique approach your administration to the idea of endangered species.
A. In Colorado we've established the nation's first endangered species hatchery. Our purpose is very simple -- we are going to breed the fish and aquatic amphibians that are endangered in Colorado and put them back into their environment. We are going to supplement natural efforts with man's assistance. The reason is that we can be much more effective and we can return these lands to their rightful owners much quicker by assisting nature in its course.
I'd like to see this approach repeated nationally -- by states and even perhaps by the federal government. The Endangered Species Act has evolved from a well-intentioned effort to save species like the American Bald Eagle into an effort to control land use.
It has become very clear over time that, for many in the radical green movement, the Endangered Species Act is not about saving species, it's about controlling people's lives and property. We can't depend solely on natural efforts to improve habitats and other efforts to bring these species back. We have to start to breed them ourselves.
Q. You have also been taking the lead on government streamlining, in particular the protection of worker paychecks. How did you get to the approach Colorado is now taking and what are the results?
A. We ordered a review of all the withholdings the state took with their permission from employee paychecks. We withheld funds from paychecks for literally hundreds of reasons. After a through review and following state statute, we now restrict those withholdings to just a handful that are clearly in the state's interest.
Among the enterprises we no longer withhold are labor unions. For legal reasons, I'd point out, a labor union member can now go to a bank and get that withholding done where 20 or 30 years ago that was impossible.
The result is that we have seen about a 50 percent drop in our state public employee union. They have laid off all 17 of their field personnel. This is going to force that union to be closer to its membership. Clearly, a large number of its members were not willing to pay the annual dues when those dues had to be publicly and directly collected.
Q. Are there other organizations that have also lost the privilege of the state doing the withholding?
A. Absolutely. That's exactly what it is -- it is a privilege to have the state withhold from an employee's paycheck. I've limited that privilege to those instances where it is clearly in the state interest to do so. We've dropped the withholdings from scores to just a handful.