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He Always Plays His Bills

The brass at the Colorado High Schools Activities Association were worried. They professed to love Gabe Lane as much as everybody else did, and in 1996 everybody heard about Gabe, a mildly retarded boy who was ruled ineligible by the CHSAA to play football with his high-school team. His plight became national news. Like Chance the Gardener, Gabe even took some time to counsel a U.S. president and hobnob with the hoity-toity.

The folks at CHSAA thought of themselves as defending Gabe against hard-hitting high-school football players. They were also trying to keep in place the spirit of the rule that students age nineteen and older can't play high-school ball. Rumors began to circulate that coaches were scouring special-education classes looking for beefy twenty-year-old linemen.

Things turned ugly. No less than the president of the Colorado Senate, Tom Norton, threatened to make CHSAA a branch of the Colorado Department of Education, essentially stripping the 76-year-old agency of all power.

Then Jeff Wells decided to get involved.
Norton is the president of the Senate, but many senators say that Wells, a 48-year-old Republican from Colorado Springs, is the single most powerful legislator in Colorado. "I've heard that rumor," Wells says, smiling. He goes on to try to deflect such talk, but clearly, he doesn't mind the notion, especially as he contemplates the future. After four terms, Wells is thinking about a run for attorney general, because term limits will force him out of his cozy Senate seat next year.

Wells had no real reason or authority to jump into the Gabe fray, except that he had a solution.

It was a solution that was pure Jeff Wells. It illustrated to all insiders that he--not Norton, not CHSAA--was in charge. It left CHSAA administrators beholden to him. It created a few headlines about how he was Gabe's savior. It created a complex new regulatory arrangement that, considering the experience Wells gains from his regular work as an administrative law judge, he would be uniquely able to manipulate.

And it was also particularly good for one of his favorite constituent groups: the Jeff Wells family.

Wells's solution was a bill to create a new appeals process for CHSAA: When a person has a dispute with a rule, that person can take the beef to an outside group. Says CHSAA commissioner Bob Ottewill, "I think this is a positive move." CHSAA's appeals process was fine before, adds Ottewill, but he can see how outsiders would think the old process was insular.

That same bill also allows Wells to refine last year's club-sports law, which quietly whisked away the rule that prohibited students from playing for their high-school teams as well as for club sports teams. CHSAA had banned dual participation for years, mostly as a method of keeping students in school and coaches from fighting over students' time.

This year the Gabe bill, which awaits the governor's signature, will make some modifications to that law. And that's where Wells's family comes in: His son plays club hockey.

"I don't think any of the other schools even knew about [the club-sports provision of the bill]," says Gene Moses, the athletic director of Cheyenne Mountain High School, which Wells's son attends. Wells loves to brag about his son and his hockey skills, and he mentioned him often while working for passage of another bill last year.

Other schools may not have known about the change, but they knew at Cheyenne Mountain, where hockey is a big deal. That school recently won its record eleventh state championship in front of a standing-room-only crowd, but the team did it without the services of Wells's son. The school was not able to implement the rule change this year; next year, however, Wells's clout will pay off for his son and a handful of other players at the school. "Next year we'll have an earlier start, so we'll be able to work out an agreement between the coaches," says school principal Paul Martin. That is, Wells's son will have the chance to benefit from his dad's new law.

Wells insists that the law was not about his family but was inspired by the daughter of a friend of his who faced a similar predicament.

Wells, who passes a higher percentage of bills than any other senator, has also proposed and made into state law policies that specifically address student concerns at the University of Colorado, a school that both of his daughters have attended. For instance, two bills from 1995 and other amendments completely changed the way colleges collect student fees. Wells says these bills were sparked not by his daughters, but by his daughters' friends.

He adds that it would be "surprising" if some percentage of the bills he's proposed over his years as a senator were not born of personal experiences. "The impression," he says, "is that every time one of my kids whines I write a new law, and that's not the case."

 

While some lawmakers say this is the reality of a citizen legislature, others are uncomfortable with "personal grudge" bills. "To me, it seems inappropriate," says Tim Foster, who left the job of House majority leader last year.

While Capitol insiders have been snickering about Wells's family-friendly legislation for years, he has worked practically free from media glare. In fact, he has avoided much public scrutiny for most of his years in power, even though he is now the longest-serving Senate majority leader in Colorado history.

While Wells has gotten little notice during his fifteen years in office, other senators and some lobbyists know that he has made use of every one of the tools given to the majority leader, who officially controls the calendar and officially or otherwise has his finger in most key decisions made on the second floor of the State Capitol. He doesn't discourage that perception.

In a recent airing of the cable-television show Capitol Hotline, Wells was asked about the leadership of the Senate. While he talked in great detail about the role of the majority leader, he never mentioned the name of Senate president Tom Norton--his putative leader and a candidate for governor.

To Paul Weissmann, who left the Senate last term, Wells "is kind of like the kid in high school who's smarter than everybody else, and he lets everybody know that he's the smartest."

Even people who count themselves as friends of Wells's say the smartest-kid-in-class label sticks. Becky Brooks would know. Before becoming a lobbyist for the Colorado Education Association, she was a teacher for sixteen years, and she remembers students like that.

"Jeff is a lot like those really bright kids that you have to keep occupied, because if you don't keep them busy on constructive things, they'll find something else to occupy their time," Brooks says. Wells even bragged to Brooks once about his habit as a high-school student of cutting class every Monday and still getting the best grades in the class.

As a legislator, he doesn't seem to have strong ideological beliefs; he just likes the legislature in much the same way that he enjoys gambling or college football. He was one of the senators who saw no ethical problem in accepting free tickets to CU football games and once even took an expense-paid trip to the Super Bowl. Lately, however, Wells's friends say the game in the Capitol hasn't been challenging enough. Several other senators say the single word that best describes Wells's attitude in the Senate is boredom.

But when he's involved, his smarts are used for more than just remembering Robert's Rules of Order or football statistics. Current senators and others who work with him talk about his nearly maniacal need for control, but they don't want to say anything on the record, fearing retribution. Many, though, agree with this assessment by Weissmann: In spite of Wells's insistence on controlling legislation, he is fair and will make time for senators having trouble with the process, regardless of party. "Overall, he's fair," says Weissmann. "He can be a prick about it, but he is fair."

But Weissmann's last and most enduring memory of Wells centers on an incident that he says was anything but fair.

Weissmann had been frustrated at the end of last year's legislative session because the Senate had not yet confirmed Rabbi Steven Foster, an advocate for gay rights, to the Civil Rights Commission. Foster's name had been on the calendar for weeks, but Wells controlled that calendar, and nothing had happened. Weissmann, who knows something of parliamentary rules, decided to pull a little-known procedural maneuver that forced a vote. That was at 6 p.m. the last day of the session. The state constitution says anything done after midnight is invalid.

"He just flipped," Weissmann says of Wells, who immediately halted all action on the floor of the Senate. Wells took a three-hour dinner break so he could figure out how to respond to this upstart motion. "He had to show everybody that he was in charge," Weissmann says.

At 11:30 p.m., with only thirty minutes remaining in the session, Wells made a rare floor speech. First he made a deflecting move by blaming Governor Roy Romer for "playing games" with the Foster nomination and somehow creating this last-minute problem. Then he played a game of his own.

"I was told if I vote against him," Wells said to his colleagues, "I might as well give up on any future political career plans I might have in the state." With the rabbi himself in the audience, Wells went on: "I was told if I vote against him, there would never be any more Jewish money that would be contributed to any campaign that I might have."

 

Foster was confirmed that night, and these days, he is not eager to criticize Wells for the incident, although he does allow that it was a "vile kind of thing to say."

Wells himself says religion should not have come up that night. "That debate should have had nothing to do with religion," he says. Other senators agree, but they point out that Wells was the only one to talk about "Jewish money" on the Senate floor that night. Many in the room were disgusted. "It's a good thing that was the last day of the session, because there would have been a lot of bitter feelings about the entire incident for a long time," said Mike Feeley, the minority leader and a senator from Lakewood. "It was the ugliest moment I'd ever seen on the floor, and it was a shameful moment for the Senate."

In his own defense, Wells tries to deflect the criticism to the person who allegedly said those things to him that night, although he refuses to say who it was.

In hindsight, Steven Foster thinks the problem may not have been anti-Semitism or even the anti-gay sentiments probably found among some of Wells's constituents in Colorado Springs. Some of the problem may have been sparked by Foster's failure to pay a courtesy call to Wells during the session. "I had talked to Senator Norton, and I didn't know that I had to talk to Senator Wells, too, and I think that was part of the deal," says the rabbi.

Wells said as much that night from the floor: "To date, I actually have not met [Foster]. For some reason, he still hasn't decided to come by during any of the times that we were doing this."

Wells now says he disagrees with the notion that the fight was really about challenging his authority. "If it was strictly an authority issue," he says, "I could have delayed it, and we wouldn't have voted on anything else that night." He blames Weissmann for starting the fracas, which caused at least a half dozen bills to die for lack of time to vote on them. At the same time, Wells takes credit for getting some other bills out.

Still, even fellow Republicans were surprised that Wells seemed to lose his cool that night. "He always seems to stay a step ahead of the process," says Senator Mike Coffman of Aurora. "I think the process got ahead of him in that case."

For someone whose vocation is counting, Wells has the background. He has a math degree from Duke University and wears a gold watch with "DUKE" clearly visible on its face. After earning the undergraduate degree, he moved back to Florida, where he had grown up, to get a master's in business administration and a law degree.

Wells denies that political ambition was tugging at him back then. He says he didn't really think about law school until after he was half done with his MBA. And he says he didn't think about politics after law school, although one of his first jobs was drafting bills for the Florida Legislature. He came to Colorado--where his parents had settled--and took a job in a law office that handled a lot of work for El Paso County.

He insists he still had no thoughts of politics when his secretary urged him to run for the state Senate in 1982 in a newly created district that had no incumbent and no GOP candidate. His first race was a close one, but he won. He survived a primary running for his second term and has been unopposed since.

As a second-term senator, he recalls, he had no aspirations to leadership, but he adds, "I was perceived to be the leader of the moderates." That's moderate Republicans. In 1986 the Republicans had such a huge majority in the Senate that there were three known factions among the GOP. He was in the middle group, and it was that group that propelled him to majority leader, a job he has held ever since.

Of his work, he says that it is important to keep legislation moving--not just to keep the flow even, but also to keep the staffers occupied. "It's an art form," Wells says.

Perhaps no single topic of legislation illustrates that art form better than school finance.

Colorado splits about $3 billion, the biggest chunk of the state's budget, among its public schools. While much of that money comes from local property taxes, the amount of tax that any of the state's 176 school districts can collect and spend is set by a formula developed almost exclusively by Wells.

 

The formula used to divvy up the money, he likes to point out, is "exceptionally complicated." Even his friends admit that they differ with Wells's approach. "I don't think it has to be so complicated," says Senator Joan Johnson, a Democrat from Adams County who has made occasional trips to Central City with Wells to play video poker.

Because it is so complicated, it is also malleable to Wells's wishes. Funding for Colorado Springs school districts jumped significantly after the Public School Finance Act of 1994 overhauled the formula.

One day last session a senator from a district that is tied for lowest in the state in per-pupil funding made a motion that struck at one of the more head-scratching aspects of school-finance formula: the J-curve, which was added to the law in 1994.

Under the J-curve, small districts get extra money because they are inherently less financially efficient: A district with only a few hundred students has to spend more per student on libraries, cafeterias and the like. But the same formula that gives extra money to small districts because they are small gives extra money to big districts because they are big. As one school district official puts it, the large districts are "rewarded for being inefficient." So it is the middle-sized districts that end up at the bottom of the curve and get less money per student.

According to the state, the J-curve helps those large districts "that face higher costs because of their size." That's not geographic size, however. Cherry Creek School District is 120 square miles and gets an extra $122 per student. At Cherry Creek High School alone, that adds up to nearly $400,000. The school system in Fort Collins sends buses to all corners of its 755-square mile district, yet it gets no extra dollars for being "large," because it is at the bottom of the J-curve.

When an amendment surfaced last year to phase out the J-curve, Wells made it clear that he would have no tinkering with his formulas. "The next amendment we'll hear is to cut funding to your district," Wells was heard to say to the senator making the proposal. He said it loud enough for several senators to hear. They did not consider it an idle threat, and the amendment was quietly killed.

Still, Wells is respected by political friends and foes. He earned the trust of Ray Peterson, the minority leader opposite Wells in the 1980s. In fact, Peterson says, Wells took some criticism from Republicans for helping Democrats too much, usually by amending bills to try to save them. "He was known as 'the Great Amender,'" Peterson says.

Another nickname may be more telling. After trying to tell the Senate about one particular year's incarnation of the school-finance bill, some lobbyists called him "the Music Man." "It was said in a complimentary manner," says CEA lobbyist Brooks.

The lobbyists, clearly beholden to Wells, did not mean to imply that, like the fictional Professor Harold Hill, he was a con artist. But like the professor, he clearly has the Capitol humming his tunes.

Part of his repertoire is Trojan Horse legislation. The Gabe bill qualifies--it's actually more of a put-CHSAA-in-its-place and a my-kid-the-hockey-player bill. But Wells's biggest hidden secret from 1996 was the e-mail bill.

When a student reporter at Metro State asked for copies of all e-mail from several state officials, lawmakers realized that open-records laws needed to be brought into the electronic age to prevent people from finding out too much.

But what few saw and fewer reported was the section of the bill that created a new category of documents known as "work product" and then banned all entries in that category from public view.

"The net effect of this legislative maneuvering is that citizens can find out less of what their elected and hired officials are doing," wrote Jay Brodell, a journalism professor at Metro State. "Plus, a little more of the political process has been hidden from the cleansing power of the public spotlight."

The other classic Wells technique is one he may have learned while studying gambling: holding his cards close to the vest. Invariably, school finance and other Wells bills don't come up until the last days of the session, when senators have little ability to keep track of the flurry of measures that must be passed before midnight on the 120th day after the opening bell. "His favorite tactic is to wait until the wee hours of the session," says Tim Foster. "Unfortunately, it can lead to mistakes in legislation."

 

Wells says the only reason school finance finishes so late each year is that he is waiting to see if new money can be added into the formula at the last minute. The delays cause unending frustration among the 176 school boards and budget directors in Colorado's school districts. By state law, districts' budget year must begin July 1, but because of Wells's tactics, they don't find out how much money they will get in the new year until about May 1.

While school districts complain about this delay every year, Wells still insists on tinkering until all the bets are in. He regularly spends much of his commute to and from Colorado Springs mulling over school finance like a gambler figuring the odds of drawing a third ace.

Most of Wells's gambles pay off, especially for him. There are no other senators and only a couple of people in the state who can claim to have invented a game approved by the Colorado Division of Gaming for use in casinos.

As he deflects his political aspirations, so he deflects his clear penchant for gambling. Wells says he invented "Colorado Hold 'Em Poker" only in the process of teaching himself a computer-programming language, although he can't remember the name of that language. He says that he makes more trips to Central City for meetings than for gambling and that he can't even remember the last time he played cards. Still, Wells once played in poker tournaments around the country, and in October he attended the World Gaming Conference.

He recently issued a press release (rare for him) saying that because his game has been approved for use in Colorado, he won't vote the one or two times gambling-related matters come up in the Senate. It was a move that removed him from the remotest possible conflict of interest and helped him get some free press for himself and his new game. He says he isn't spending much time trying to market the game, but he created a corporation, Colorado Hold 'Em Ltd., and is applying for a federal trademark.

When asked if a fascination with rules binds the various areas of his life--gambling, legislation and his work as an administrative law judge, a high-school football referee and club-hockey timekeeper--again he deflects. And he uses his familiar technique of saying things through someone else's voice: "I had a friend say to me once, 'Have you ever noticed that with all your jobs, you're in charge?' I suppose there's something to that."

As for Wells's future, he doesn't tip his hand. But that hasn't stopped him from attending GOP functions around the state and eating rubber chicken with groups such as the Colorado Press Association. It is the attorney general job that most fascinates him, because it would give him another opportunity to work in the world of rules, laws and control. "It would be true to say that I haven't ruled it out," Wells says of a run for AG.

He says he is also enjoying his work as president of the Council of State Governments, in which he gets to meet with the heads of other organizations and work on such wonky problems as a too-short comment period for proposed EPA regulations. These days he's more likely to brag about being called to testify in front of a congressional committee than about being a big winner in Vegas.

Even in a building filled with people who love to put their names on bumper stickers, Wells stands out as the one who wants all the members of the band to know that he's the professor and everyone should sing his tunes. Sometimes he gives that impression through offhand comments, like his casual mention of one CHSAA-related bill that was started by Senator Bob Schaffer, now a GOP congressman. "It was all screwed up, so he asked me to fix it," Wells says.

Other times, he just tells people that he alone is fighting the good fight. What bothered him most about the CHSAA in the fight over Gabe Lane, he says, was the organization's unwillingness to work with families and local school boards. Even school-board members who do not count themselves as friends of Wells's say the CHSAA has worked with imperial control for years. "To me, [CHSAA's] audacity was amazing," Wells says. Perhaps it takes audacity to know audacity.

"I actually think," says Wells, "that I'm on the side of truth and justice here.


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