Retiring lawmaker’s regret: I had to cut programs I believed in

/ Colorado News Agency
Sep 28th, 2010

IMG_1157Making budget cuts to programs held near and dear to term-limited Sen. Moe Keller was not the swan song that she envisioned 18 years ago when she first became a member of the legislature in 1992. Yet, the realities of 2010 foreclosed on keeping those programs intact, and Keller was one of a handful of key decision makers who wound up determining their fate on the Joint Budget Committee.

“I found in 2008 and 2009 that I had to cut programs that I believed in,” said the veteran lawmaker from Wheat Ridge.  “That was stressful. I really tried hard to protect both developmental disabilities and mental health from the majority of the cuts, but they took some hits.  I had to look at the entire budget, and it has to balance in the end, and that became the priority for me. “

Long before Keller sat on the budget committee, and before she became a two-term senator in 2002, she found her legislative niche in the House advocating for mental health issues, the developmentally disabled and child welfare.

Keller was first elected to the House of Representatives a few years after a six-year stint on the Wheat Ridge City Council.  As a freshman legislator and in the ensuing years, Keller gravitated toward issues that she felt strongly about. It was also personal for Keller, who has a sibling with schizophrenia.

“I know what it does to the person and I know what it does to the family,” said Keller.  “In 1997, when Marcy Morrison carried the first parity law (for mental illness) schizophrenia was included and I jumped on it and co-sponsored. “

Morrison left the legislature after that term and Keller made a vow to keep the momentum going surrounding mental health issues.

“I just decided, that’s going to be my mission,” said Keller “And it has been ever since.”

As a young woman Keller found her calling as a teacher of the deaf and heeded that call for several decades.  When her two children became of school age, Keller embarked on a 25-year career working with the deaf in Jefferson and Denver county schools.  Some of those years overlapped with serving on the city council and as a state representative. Getting into politics however, was not something that Keller had ever envisioned, and even after serving on the council, running for a house seat was daunting, says Keller who readily admits it “just kind of happened”.

“It scared me actually, because I thought, ‘Oh this is getting to be hardball,’ ” recalls Keller. “It was really intimidating to me.   When I was in high school and college, I was on the debate team, and in college, student government, but I never really said, ‘I’m going to be a senator someday.’ ”

In 2004 Keller, at the urging of her peers, and, says Keller, with considerable hesitancy on her part, was installed by a vote of her Democratic caucus as a member of the Joint Budget Committee.   Being on the time-consuming  committee required a shift in priorities for Keller, dictating that her focus be realigned from legislation in general to the budget.

“At the end of the day, you have to have the constitutional requirement of having the balancing of the budget fulfilled,” said Keller. “There’s a difference between working on a bill with a narrow focus and working on the budget with a much larger focus. “

The last few years have weighed heavily on Keller, who says distributing $7.8 billion is not as easy as most would think, especially when expenditures far outpace revenue as they have in recent years.

“It’s always difficult to be the policy maker, especially when you have limited resources,” says Keller. “It’s one thing to have limited resources, we’ll always have limited resources, we’re never going to have enough, but when you have to reduce as drastically as we did–$2billion—over a two-and-a-half-year period,  when you only have $7.8 billion in the general fund, that’s quite the chop.”

Battles over limited, and indeed shrinking, resources were not confined to party lines.

“In 2008 and 9, I was not only fighting the Republican caucus, I was having to fight my own caucus,” said Keller.

Doing battle however was something that Keller could do with finesse, according to the GOP’s Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, of Littleton.

“She was a scrappy legislator and a formidable debating opponent.  I always admired Moe because even though we disagreed, which was most of the time, she brought real intellectual heft to her work as a senator,” said Kopp.

As for the future, Keller plans on applying her acquired skills from the legislature to her new role as vice president of public policy and systems advocacy for the Colorado branch of Mental Health America, a nonprofit to promote access to mental health services and promoting legislation to that end.

She’ll carry with her a sense of regret over the decisions that had to be made in light of the budget.

“We’ve had to retrench on progresss that we’ve made with services for the developmentally disabled, progress we’ve made with serving individuals with a mental illness, and progress we were making with covering children under healthcare.  I’m very sorry about that,” said Keller.

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