Colorado is a unique place. The first state to legalize recreational marijuana was able to do so because of how easy it is to change the state’s Constitution. Colorado is also a place prone to arcane budget battles because politicians must ask voters, through ballot measures, to OK tax increases— all because of a ballot measure called the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
Those two ballot measures — the pot measure passed in 2013 and TABOR passed in 1992 — are the most well-known of the many different amendments Colorado voters have made to the state’s Constitution.
This year there could be a new one: A ballot measure to amend the Colorado Constitution, which, if passed, would make it harder to pass ballot measures to amend the Colorado Constitution.
A group called Raise the Bar: Protect our Constitution is behind the measure. The idea grew out of a larger group called Building a Better Colorado, a heavy-hitter organization with bipartisan big-name backers like Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Republican Attorney General John Suthers.
Last year, the group had taken its show on the road, holding public forums and soliciting input on Facebook about ways to make Colorado, well, better. One of those ways is an effort to scrap the state’s presidential caucuses for a regular primary election.
Another issue Building a Better Colorado came up with was to make it harder to change Colorado’s Constitution. Now they have handed that effort off to a cadre of well-known political hands in state politics.
Josh Penry, a conservative former lawmaker and oil-and-gas consultant, is working with Joe Megyesy, his former spokesman who worked in conservative outreach in support of the marijuana legalization effort and on LGBT issues.
Together they’ll try to gather enough signatures to get their ballot measure to hinder future ballot measures on the ballot.
“We think our Constitution is our founding governing document,” Megyesy told The Colorado Independent. “It should serve as being the playbook to governing, and not the place for special interests to run policy experiments.”
What the measure would do to make future measures harder is require those seeking signatures to gather them in all 35 Senate districts throughout Colorado. Currently ballot measure committees can gather signatures anywhere, which usually just means along the densely populated Front Range. The measure would also make passing a ballot measure harder by requiring a vote of 55 percent or more, not just a simple majority.
Megyesy says these higher hurdles are a way to give more of Colorado a voice in how the state is governed. Issues that affect rural Colorado— think livestock, water, natural resources— can wind up on the ballot because enough city slickers on the 16th Street Mall in Denver and on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder signed a petition. But also, at it’s core, the measure really is about just making it harder to amend the state Constitution.
“The constitution should be more protected than it is now,” Megyesy says.
Also working with the group is Greg Brophy, a former Republican lawmaker and ex-aid to GOP Congressman Ken Buck. For the first time Brophy’s being compensated to work on a ballot measure, he says. But he hasn’t been paid yet as the group still has to start raising money.
“We anticipate funding from a broad range of folks,” he said.
Brophy said eventually all donors to the group will be listed because of Colorado’s disclosure laws. But in Colorado, the source for all money spent on ballot measures isn’t always disclosed. Entities can donate to nonprofits, and those nonprofits can fund ballot measures. But the entities who fund those nonprofits do not have to come to light. And until the measure actually becomes a ballot measure, sources of funds raised up until that point can remain in the dark.
The U.S. Constitution has had 27 amendments to it since its drafting, and Colorado has had 150 in roughly half that time, Brophy points out as his reasoning for getting involved.
“We’re getting support from every end of the political spectrum because a lot of people have figured out that this is a sword that cuts both ways and it’s almost like the old mutually assured destruction from the Cold War,” Brophy told The Independent. “People say wait a second, we can’t have this because we all have too much to lose. If we lock someone’s shiny bobble up in the Constitution, it can’t be easily adjusted or changed.”
Nationally, there are more than 50 ballot measures slated for the November 2016 elections in states around the country, according to the left-leaning DC-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. They range from gambling to gun safety, legalizing marijuana, ending the death penalty, banning fracking, to banning plastic bags.
Working in the ballot-initiative process can be brisk business for some. Nonprofits can rake in fundraising for causes, and in Colorado a cottage industry has sprung up around the signature-gathering process where people are paid to convince others to sign petitions in the parking lots of big-box retailers and along busy pedestrian thoroughfares. You might not be a “real Coloradan” until you experience your first solicitation to sign a petition.
Asked if the new ballot-measure-to-hinder-ballot-measures group would try to get all the signatures they’ll need from all 35 Senate districts as they want future ballot measure committees to do, Megyesy had a simple answer.
[Photo credit: Phil Roeder via Creative Commons on Flickr]