‘O’ say can this save Colorado’s constitutional mayhem?

(Photo/turtlemoon, Flickr)
(Photo/turtlemoon, Flickr)

Of all the items on Colorado’s monster-sized ballot this year, Referendum O is the only one that seeks to save voters from contending with similarly massive ballots in the future.

The measure, which was referred to the ballot by the Legislature, will make it harder for residents to amend the constitution through the initiative process and easier for residents to bring forth less-permanent changes by way of state statute. But the real impetus for Referendum O is the notion that Colorado’s constitution is immensely cluttered. Plus, in addition to “O,” just this year voters will be considering 13 other measures.

“Just take a look at the ballot this year,” says Sen. Abel Tapia, a Pueblo Democrat who co-sponsored Referendum O. “This year is a perfect example of how easy it is to change our constitution.”

Coloradans have had the power to amend the state constitution since 1912. “There was a feeling that government was corrupt and people should have their own outlet for creating laws,” says Chris Ward, a principal fiscal analyst with the state legislative council, adding that several states passed similar policies at that time.

In 1912, a record 32 measures appeared on the Colorado ballot, making this year’s 18-question ballot the second-longest in state history. But while the petition-gathering protocol — one that currently requires a campaign to gather a relatively small number of signatures to appear on the ballothas allowed for public input, it has also created conflict within the constitution itself.

By way of example, Rep. Al White, the Winter Park Republican who also co-sponsored Referendum O, cites Amendment 23, a 2000 constitutional change that required kindergarten through grade 12 education receive a slightly greater amount of money each year from the state budget. Problem is, the 1992 voter-approved Taxpayers Bill of Rights puts limits on state spending, which means that education has eaten up a larger and larger share of state money over the years.

In addition to conflicting measures, says White, “There are any number of issues that should not be in the state constitution,” such as gaming regulations, medical marijuana laws and a ban on the trapping of fur-bearing animals. “These should be in statute and not in the constitution,” he says.

Yet while Referendum O won’t clean up the constitution, it will urge residents to steer clear of altering the constitution, and instead adopting changes to state statute. That change, proponents note, could dramatically alter the content of the ballot. For example, 14 of the 18 provisions this year seek to amend the constitution, while four others — Amendments 51, 53, 57 and 58 — address state statute.

“We have to stop making it worse before we can start making it better,” says White.

Referendum O changes state procedure in several ways. First of all, it increases the number of signatures needed to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Today, a resident-initiated campaign must garner a number of signatures equaling 5 percent of all the votes cast in the last secretary of state election (76,047 for 2008) to qualify for the ballot. But under Referendum O, a campaign must collect an amount of signatures equaling 6 percent of votes cast for governor (93,497 for 2008).

The referendum also mandates that resident initiatives gather signatures all over the state, so that “not all of the signatures are gathered on the 16th Street Mall in Denver,” as White says. Under Referendum O, a campaign must gather a minimum of 8 percent of the signatures from each of the state’s seven congressional districts.

Referendum O also allows the public to review the text of the initiative before it is placed on the ballot.

While the measure seeks to make it harder to propose constitutional amendments, it opens up the statutory process. Under Referendum O, residents’ campaigns will gather 4 percent of the amount of votes cast for governor in the last election (62,331 in 2008) in order to put a statutory change on the ballot. That is slightly less than currently required.

Unlike the constitutional initiative requirements, Referendum O has no geographical restrictions on where petition circulators gather signatures. And the referendum allows an extra three months for statutory campaigns to gather signatures.

“We are making sure that it is a thoughtful process,” says White.

Referendum O has enjoyed broad support from rural groups that want more buy-in on state initiatives. And White says that businesses like it since it combats measures that could dramatically affect them, such as the seven union-related questions on the ballot this year. One state group, the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado, has urged its members to vote no on every ballot measure this year except Referendum O, citing “significant problems” with the pro- and anti-union questions.

While the referendum hasn’t faced much opposition, Rep. Douglas Bruce, a Colorado Springs Republican, has voiced his discontent. Bruce, who used the initiative process to pass the Tax Payers’ Bill of Rights, says that Referendum O amounts to “raping the bill of rights,” and indicates that the Legislature considers the people of Colorado to be “dirty, unwashed private citizens” unfit to petition.

Yet in spite of those comments, Tapia expects the referendum to pass. “There are some very contentious issues on the ballot,” he says. “This is not one of them.”

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