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As the promoters of a sweeping education referendum in Colorado look to Election Day next Tuesday, they worry about many factors, including what kind of voter turnout they can expect in an off year and whether Americans in an anti-tax era will choose to pay more, as the referendum calls on them to do, even if the money is guaranteed for kids and schools. They worry about something else, too. Obamacare. It’s their unlucky timing that they’re asking Coloradans to give the government an extra $950 million a year at a moment when the botched Obamacare rollout is in the news and being easily—and inevitably—cast as an example of government incompetence. I wrote about the referendum, on what’s called Amendment 66, in my Tuesday column, which provides details on the tax increase and the shrewd grab bag of education reforms it would buy. I absolutely think they’re worth the price. And I quoted the savvy chief architect of the education overhaul, Mike Johnston, a young Democratic state senator who has become a deeply admired figure among education reformers nationwide. In one of our telephone conversations, Johnston noted that he makes four or five speeches to voters about Amendment 66 every day, and that over the last week, people in his audiences have begun, with some frequency, to bring up the Obamacare rollout. The proposed Colorado education overhaul includes a promise of greater transparency: specifically, that parents can go to a web site and navigate it to see exactly how much of the state’s allotment of funds for their child is being used for classroom instruction versus administration or something else. This would be a new service. “I’ll get questions from groups when we talk about the transparency we want to provide,” Johnston told me. “They’ll say, ‘I hope it’s not being done by the same people who are running the Obamacare site’.” These aren’t just little barbs, he said. “The impact of both the shutdown and the Obamacare rollout is that it’s become very easy for people to lose faith in the effectiveness of government,” he said. That’s one of the truly infuriating and insidious aspects of the Obama administration’s bungling of the web site, and it’s a consequence that could linger long after the web site is fixed. At a time of great skepticism about what big government can provide and how fully it can be trusted, the Obama administration let its signature policy add to those doubts and become fodder for people who maintain that government must always be shrunken and that all genius dwells in the private sector. The rollout will potentially undermine faith in much more than just the Affordable Care Act. My colleague Michael D. Shear articulated this well in a story in The Times over the weekend. He wrote: In his biggest and most important speeches, the president often talks with passion about a “smarter, more effective government.” He has called on Congress to embrace and pay for a “21st century government that’s open and competent.” And he has vowed to work to “rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government.” But in the pursuit of that lofty goal, Mr. Obama faces determined opposition from conservatives who view government as the problem, not the solution. And to succeed, he must win over an increasingly skeptical public whose trust in government has eroded over decades. A survey last week by the Pew Research Center found that just 19 percent of Americans trust government to do what is right just about always or most of the time. The breakdown of the federal HealthCare.gov Web site could emerge as a test of Mr. Obama’s philosophy, with potentially serious implications for an agenda that relies heavily on the belief in a can-do bureaucracy. Michael Dimock, the Pew center’s director, said that the longer the problems persist, the more they could bolster what he called the “almost American value that government is inefficient.” On the heels of Shear’s story was another fascinating report from another colleague at The Times, Trip Gabriel, who notes how far state governors are separating themselves from what’s happening in Washington. Here’s a snippet: Ever since Republicans in Congress shut down the federal government in an attempt to remove funding for President Obama’s health care law, Republican governors have been trying to distance themselves from Washington. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin schooled lawmakers in a Washington Post opinion column midway through the 16-day shutdown on “What Wisconsin Can Teach Washington.” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, with a record of bipartisan support at home, remarked after a visit to the nation’s capital, “If I was in the Senate right now, I’d kill myself.” Those governors are beating up not just a Democratic administration but also their Republican kinfolk on Capitol Hill. And they’re doing something bigger in the process: trying to make sure voters don’t conflate state governments with the federal government. These governors know that there may be big things they want and need to get done, and if voters turn off on government in general—on all of it—then voters won’t follow them when they need for that to happen. Johnston, in fact, said he’s experienced firsthand the way voters can fail to make distinctions between different levels of government and can see government as one big morass, one big mess. During the federal shutdown, he said, he sometimes fielded questions about whether, as a state senator, he had the day off. Of course he didn’t. To this point, he said, the shutdown has had a much more corrosive effect on trust in government than the Obamacare rollout, though the latter hasn’t helped matters. He worries that the two together have made the challenge of selling Amendment 66 tougher than it might otherwise have been. “The big question is: do you trust government to be good stewards of your money at this time in American history?” he said. “And the context in Washington makes that doubtful.”
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