How an obscure theory helped prioritize Colorado budget

By Brian Eason


Midway through the Colorado legislature’s 2019 session, the appropriations committees in each chamber became the legislative version of purgatory.

Dozens of bills went in. Few came out. By the start of April, the backlog totaled more than 100 bills carrying a cumulative price tag of more than $120 million. And the supporters for each bill were fighting for a piece of the same $40 million that budget writers set aside.

This year, the limited pot of money forced unenviable decisions for the Democratic majority with the power to set spending priorities — like whether addressing the opioid crisis is more important than reducing the cost of health care, or choosing between making college or housing more affordable.

“We have this problem that we are always trying to solve every year,” said Rep. Chris Hansen, the Denver Democrat in charge of the House Appropriations Committee. “…What should we prioritize for funding?”

To find an answer, Democrats attempted a novel approach to public policy: quadratic voting. The obscure economic theory is designed to do what seems impossible at the state Capitol — limit the influence of politics and self-interest.

The experiment made the Colorado House one of the nation’s first test cases for the theory in the political realm. But the question is: Did it work?

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