Thursday, December 1, 2016

Highs And Lows

For those of us living here, the following statement shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Colorado’s economy is booming.

Click on image for larger view. 

According to’s findings in “2016’s States with the Best & Worst Economies,” released earlier this year, Colorado has the 5th best economy in the nation, and ranks in the top 10 across three key dimensions: Economic Activity, Economic Health, and Innovation Potential.

But do you know where Colorado doesn’t rank high? In what I’m going to call our human service infrastructure.

For example, let’s look at education spending. Colorado ranks 42nd in per-pupil spending when adjusted for regional cost differences. Or how about looking at spending on mental health? Colorado ranks 27th in state per capita mental health services expenditures.

And of course, as I have discussed many times before, Colorado ranks 48th in the nation in terms of fiscal effort for intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) funding.

So the economic rankings and the human service infrastructure rankings for our state don’t match up very well. That also should not be surprising to our state’s residents. Colorado, thanks in large part to TABOR, has some of the most restrictive tax and expenditure limits in the nation, making the State’s budgeting process an exercise in fighting over crumbs.

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about complaining about our lack of human service infrastructure in Colorado.

Instead, today I’d like to focus on how we are using the meager funds that are available to us.

There are many government officials and regulators in our State who care deeply about people with I/DD and work hard to make their lives better. When faced with an un-budgeable budget, some of these well-meaning folks have looked to find splashy, aspirational programs that make it appear as if we are moving forward and improving services. And while I don’t question their motives or their hearts, I fear that some of these programs divert our attention and resources away from where they are needed most.

It sometimes seems like we are trying to add bells and whistles to cover up major deficiencies in the funding and delivery of our services. You can add racing stripes to a 1971 Ford Pinto, but it is still a 1971 Ford Pinto underneath.

Perhaps it is time to take a step back and think about how we are spending our I/DD funding and why. It is unlikely that the human service infrastructure in Colorado is going to change any time soon, so we better be very smart and thoughtful about how we are using those funds. We need to be looking for real outcomes that benefit those we serve, not programs that make us feel good about ourselves while not really changing lives for the better.

Then again, what do I know?

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