Constitutional Crisis Trumps Legislative Battles

The Colorado constitution is a self-defeating mess.

So some of the most critical government work performed in the state in 2008 will not be done by the General Assembly. Rather, it will be done by the committee asked to deal with the state’s constitutional crisis.That’s right, crisis.

More than health care reform, more than funding for transportation or higher education, the competing mandates of Colorado’s amendment-packed constitution portend disaster.

In many ways, the Select Committee on Constitutional Reform appointed by state Senate President Peter Groff wields more power than the entire legislature.

The six people on the committee must come up with suggestions to fix it, and whatever changes are made will affect the state for decades after the fights over affordable health care, reliable roads and quality colleges end.

“The most serious constitutional issues facing the state involve conflicting provisions within the constitution; the unintended consequences of constitutional amendments; and policy matters that are, for all intents and purposes, permanently frozen in the constitution,” Jim Griesemer, the chairman of a recent constitutional study at the University of Denver, wrote.

DU’s 2007 Colorado Constitutional Panel made sweeping recommendations for constitutional reform that will be among the options the committee on constitutional reform considers.

Among the DU panel’s most important recommendations were calls to make it easier to have citizen statutory initiatives placed on the ballot, while forcing constitutional amendments to face more pre-vote scrutiny. The panel’s reasoning was simple: Statutes can be tweaked to adjust for changing times. Amendments cannot.

For that reason, the DU panel called for an extended 18-month process for putting amendments on the ballot. The process includes several levels of review, more explanation of costs, public hearings at the Legislature and recommendations by the Legislature on citizen-initiated amendments.

The most controversial of the recommendations gives legislators the ability to “craft revised proposals jointly” with citizens before those constitutional amendments go on the ballot. Failing that compromise, the DU panel thinks legislators should be able to offer competing amendment proposals on the same ballot.

The select committee doesn’t have to take any of the DU panel’s recommendations. But in appointing University of Colorado President Hank Brown, former state legislators Norma Anderson, Stan Matsunaka and Penfield Tate, and current legislators Abel Tapia and Brandon Shaffer to the committee, Groff made clear that he believes something must be done soon.

“A constitution should be the moral guidepost by which a state’s progress and journey are measured,” Groff told the Senate on its opening day last week. “A constitution should be a thoughtful list of principles and obligations of citizens. However, Colorado’s (constitution) has become a laundry list of detached and contradictory provisions offered by special interest groups …”

According to the DU panel, Colorado’s constitution is now the third longest in the country and “nearly nine times as long as the U.S. Constitution.”

That is because the Colorado constitution has been amended 35 times in the past 17 years, while the U.S. constitution has been amended 27 times in 217 years.

The clutter alone is a call to action.

But the real problem stems from contradictory demands. Amendment 23 requires automatic funding increases to K-12 education, while the TABOR amendment — the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — limits total annual increases in overall government spending. The result in the state’s recent economic downturn was the gutting of funding for higher education that left Colorado’s public subsidy to its colleges and universities among the worst in the country. The devastation was such that the state’s institutions of higher ed still get hundreds of millions of dollars less in public funding than their academic peers in other states.

This is the worst of the contradictory amendments. But there are others. By overloading the constitution with amendments that cannot be changed, Coloradans have created a self-destructive mess.

Cleaning it up will be neither easy nor popular.

What it will be is necessary.

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Jim Spencer

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