Tougaw: Ban the use of public funds for private settlements

Ryan Tougaw

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.  

Most college students work while in school. With Colorado’s minimum wage being $10.20 per hour, students working part-time will earn about $200 a week. Nobody in college is claiming to be wealthy.

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However, college students still lose some of their light paychecks to certain taxes, like the flat 4.63 percent income tax and social security. The worst part is, some of it goes to terrible uses of taxpayer dollars.

An example of a grotesque use of taxpayer dollars is the use of taxpayer dollars in connection to the sexual misconduct allegations in the State Capitol.

Any waste of tax dollars should be off-putting, but the use of public funds on the misdeeds of public servants is a new level of terrible.

Let me be very clear here; I’m absolutely in favor of an investigation into sexual assault allegations at the taxpayer expense. It’s our job to keep our representatives accountable, especially if they’re going to abuse their power and commit reprehensible acts like sexual misconduct. What I’m against is the use of taxpayer dollars to settle these cases.

California’s legislature has spent $290,000 settling harassment claims since 2006. In 2015, Pennsylvania’s Rep. Thomas Caltagirone’s harassment claim was settled outside the state fat a $250,000 cost, paid for by the legislature.  Any waste of tax dollars should be off-putting, but the use of public funds on the misdeeds of public servants is a new level of terrible.

Even in Colorado, taxpayers have spent around $250,000 investigating several misconduct allegations over the past few months. This is a good step forward. Investigation is a good step toward accountability. 

Colorado has also joined the ranks of many other states that are considering institutionalizing a new sexual misconduct policy. While these are good steps, the solution will never come from inside the government itself.

These emerging stories demand a higher degree of speculation from the taxpayers. While this does not warrant an Inquisition-esque crusade into the legislature, it means that we need to be holding our representatives accountable for their actions.

In early March, after numerous sexual misconduct allegations, Rep. Steve Lebsock was expelled from the Colorado state house in a 52-9 vote. Lebsock’s case is an example of what internal legislative investigations can yield if given time and clear evidence, but their power is not limitless.

The best way to combat this worrying trend is to keep these people out of office. They’re there as a result of public elections. If they’re content to use taxpayer dollars to settle personal cases of misconduct, they should also be content with being voted out of office immediately come the sequential election.

Taxpayers should be supporting legislation that stifles or bans altogether the use of taxpayer funds to settle personal matters, like making public these settlements or setting up committees specifically designed to examine conduct. 

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This kind of legislation would expressly ban the use of public funds to settle private matters, including sexual misconduct settlements. The idea that legislators can dip into campaign funds and taxes to pay their legal fees and penalties is a gross perversion of taxpayer-government trust.

Taxes off the top of what really is a relatively small college student paycheck are bad enough; using them to settle personal offenses is another matter entirely that should not be tolerated or legal.

Columnist Ryan Tougaw can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @rjtougaw