Colorado’s constitution has become a “dumping ground” for special interests, and the time has come to rein in the process for amending the state’s chief governing document. That was the message from Gov. John Hickenlooper and a coalition of bipartisan business interests Wednesday as they launched a petition drive to change the way Colorado’s constitution is amended.
Lawmakers and advocates held similar press conferences at four other locations in Colorado: Fort Morgan, Breckinridge, Alamosa and Craig.
The campaign, Raise the Bar, seeks voter approval for a constitutional amendment in November that would make it harder to change the state constitution.
Several supporters noted the U.S. Constitution has just 27 amendments. But the Colorado constitution now has 150, dealing with issues that can and do change.
Take campaign finance, for example. Sen. Pat Steadman, a Denver Democrat, noted during Wednesday’s news conference that Colorado’s campaign finance system is embedded in the constitution, with specific dollar figures and rules, but these rules change all the time, especially in the wake of decisions handed down by federal courts.
And the legislature can’t do anything to fix the problem when a constitutional amendment becomes unconstitutional, as was the case with some of the state’s campaign finance amendments, Steadman said.
The ballot measure would raise the threshold for voter approval of a constitutional amendment from the current 50 percent plus one vote to 55 percent.
In addition, those who want a constitutional amendment would have to obtain at least 2 percent of the signatures from residents in every one of Colorado’s 35 Senate districts. Currently, both statutory and constitutional amendments can get on the ballot with 5 percent of signatures that can be fully collected along the state’s populous Front Range. That leaves out the voices of people on the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains.
In the past decade, voters have been sent about three dozen propositions to change the state constitution. Thirteen have won voter approval, with 11 of the 13 receiving 55 percent or more of the vote. The two that didn’t meet that 55 percent threshold? One raised the minimum wage in Colorado in 2006 to $6.85 per hour. Another proposal in 2008 barred certain government contractors from making campaign contributions to candidates or political parties.
But aside from the changes to the constitution, former state Sen. Josh Penry of EIS Solutions says campaigns to change the constitution eat up resources and cause all kinds of headaches.
Take the fight in 2008 between business and labor. Business groups wanted to a put a “right to work” amendment into the constitution. Unions fought back with four “anti-business” amendments of their own,
It occupied time, attention and political muscle for an entire year, Penry said. Lots of money was spent and wasted. In the meantime, he added, “you’ve cast considerable economic insecurity around the state.” (The “right to work” ballot measure failed 43 percent “yes” to 56 percent “no.”)
In 2010, a trio of citizen initiatives secretly backed by TABOR author and convicted tax cheat Doug Bruce would have slashed about $1.5 billion in property and vehicle taxes and put limits on government borrowing. Even Republicans who love tax cuts opposed it, Penry said, because it would have emasculated the state’s ability to build any infrastructure or even fund schools. Again millions of dollars and time was spent defeating them. “It’s no way to run a state government.”
Rep. Dominick Moreno of Denver also supports the measure. “Special interests are getting a killer deal,” he told reporters. “Why buy a state statute when you can buy a constitutional amendment? The constitution is a governing document, not a dumping ground for every issue.”
Allowing the same standard for changing a statute and changing the constitution creates a perverse incentive, Penry added.
Why 55 percent? As Penry sees it, the measure forces those who really want to make permanent change go to the extra trouble to collect signatures around the state as well as obtain a higher level of voter approval. The rules don’t change for initiatives that would change state statutes, he said.
So who’s likely to oppose the amendment? Critics are as likely to be as bipartisan as the measure’s supporters.
Jon Caldara, head of the libertarian Independence Institute, isn’t a fan. This amendment sends the message that the “citizens of Colorado need to be protected from our own stupidity.” He called the idea elitist and described it as “rich guy protection.”
The real reason for the measure is that the initiative process puts restrictions on government, and those in power don’t want that, he said.
Without the initiative process, the state wouldn’t have term limits, TABOR, open meetings and open records laws and its ethics law, he pointed out.
A change like this won’t hurt wealthy people who can put millions into amendment campaigns, Caldara said, citing as examples Phil Anschutz or U.S. Rep. Jared Polis. But it will make it much more expensive for grassroots campaigns, he said.
Then there’s the matter of signature verification should the Raise the Bar measure pass. Caldara said the Secretary of State would not only have to verify that the constitutional initiative had the total number of signatures required by law, but that it had enough valid signatures from each of the state’s 35 senate districts. If the petitions didn’t have enough valid signature from just one of the 35 districts, it wouldn’t get on the ballot.
“It’s an unworkable situation,” he said.
The law wouldn’t change for amendments previously put onto the constitution, such as TABOR. Penry explained that the laws in place at the time an amendment was put onto the constitution would still apply if an effort was launched to get that amendment off the constitution.
Caldara calls that sneaky.
The solution, Caldara said, is what he has been proposing for 30 years: a lower standard for getting statutory initiatives onto the ballot, rather than raising the threshold for constitutional amendments.
He’s not the only one who doesn’t like the proposal. The liberal group Colorado Common Cause doesn’t love it, either.
Elena Nuñez of Colorado Common Cause echoed some of the same reasons cited by Caldara. “It doesn’t make the process better, just more expensive,” she said Wednesday.
Nuñez also pointed out that voters have twice rejected attempts to change the initiative process as it related to constitutional amendments, in 1996 and 2008.
The campaign behind Raise the Bar has so far raised more than $250,000, with $100,000 coming from the Utah-based Colorado Dairy Farmers Trust. The trust shares an address with the Dairy Farmers of America. A call for comment on the donation was not returned by deadline.
Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver and current chairman of the board of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, also has kicked in $25,000. Colorado Concern, a coalition of business executives, has put in $50,000.
Photo credit: David Fulmer, Creative Commons, Flickr.