Colorado: A Governing Success Story


Inner dome and presidential portraits in the Colorado State Capitol building in Denver.

© Nagel Photography/

As a former state legislator from a historically conservative district in Massachusetts, I know that Americans want and expect their tax dollars to be spent wisely. When I was first elected to office, lawmakers at all levels of government too often were using anecdotes and supposition to evaluate existing policies and draft new legislation. Ten years later, I am heartened that state leaders across the country are part of a growing trend of using data, facts, and evidence to make policy.

Today, leaders in Colorado are doing just that to ensure that state funds are expended on programs that bring the greatest return on investment and serve the public interest. Under the leadership of Governor John Hickenlooper, legislators have worked to craft bipartisan legislation, review budgets, improve services, and build public confidence in the performance of government. In particular, the state has improved its electoral process; begun analyzing the effectiveness of tax incentives it gives to businesses; and rigorously assessed the costs and benefits of its programs in adult criminal justice, juvenile justice, child welfare, and behavioral health systems.

The Pew Charitable Trusts released a study this year that analyzed Colorado’s Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act of 2013, by using the state’s own data and a survey of more than 1,500 voters. The law requires that all voters receive mail ballots (although they can still vote in person); established county-run voter centers where all eligible Coloradoans can register, update their information, cast votes, and drop off completed mail ballots; authorized in-person same-day registration; and shortened the state residency requirements for voter registration.

Initial evidence indicates that the law has helped drive down costs, with counties spending an average of $9.56 per vote in 2014, compared with $15.96 in 2008, and all but three counties spending less per vote in 2014 than in 2008. And the people of Colorado overwhelmingly like their options, with the report’s survey showing almost identical high rates of satisfaction with the voting experience by mail and in person—95 and 96 percent, respectively.

More recently, under the leadership of Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, the state built the Accountability in Colorado Elections (ACE) tool to make key elections data available to the public. The interactive tool, which can transform data into charts and maps, makes Colorado the first state to display comprehensive registration and election data in a single, centralized, online location.

Colorado also has placed under the microscope tax incentives, which are meant to encourage businesses to create or retain jobs and grow the economy at a cost to the state of millions of dollars annually. In June, the Colorado General Assembly, led by its bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, voted to require regular, rigorous, independent evaluations of economic development tax incentives, as part of a comprehensive review of all state tax exemptions, to ensure that they are worth the investment, meet their goals, and obtain the best results for businesses, workers, and taxpayers.

Each of these evaluations, conducted by the state auditor’s office, provides key information to policymakers about an incentive, such as its cost-effectiveness compared with other options for achieving the same goal.

And two summers ago, Colorado partnered with the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative, a project that uses an innovative evidence-based policymaking approach and cost-benefit model to help states identify and invest in policies and programs that have been proved to work. One example of Results First’s work in the state: Following an analysis of the state’s adult criminal justice, juvenile justice, and child welfare programs by the Colorado Office of State Planning and Budgeting that was guided by the Results First model, and with the support of the Joint Budget Committee, the state will re-purpose $2.4 million per year into a new evidence-based community corrections pilot project for at-risk offenders.

The bottom line? Colorado is becoming a model for the nation in demonstrating that when elected officials use available tools and solid evidence to evaluate and improve public policy and practices, citizens win.

Tom Conroy is a vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts.