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Constitutional conflicts and consequences 

click to enlarge House Speaker Andrew Romanoff
  • House Speaker Andrew Romanoff

Next time, on Oprah: When constitutional amendments collide!

Colorado's constitution is unlikely to be featured on a television talk show. But perhaps it should be. The conflicts and ambiguity that characterize our state constitution carry serious and often unintended consequences.

Take our state budget ... please. One corner of our constitution requires automatic, real-dollar increases in K-12 spending. Another provision demands periodic slowdowns in the collection of state revenue. The net effect: Discretionary programs, like financial aid for college students, get squeezed out.

Voters have added 47 amendments to Colorado constitution's in 25 years. The U.S. Constitution has been amended just 17 times since the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791! The U.S. Constitution, in 4,500 words, sets the structure of government, the form and functions of its branches, its range of power. The Colorado constitution, 10 times as long, is a hodgepodge of rules and regulations on subjects ranging from mammalian traps to medicinal marijuana to the minimum wage.

Why has it been amended so often? Who cares? And what, if anything, should we do about it? The Colorado constitution, unlike its federal counterpart, is relatively easy to amend. No state makes it easier. Amendments can be adopted by a simple majority of the voters.

Constitutional changes reach the ballot by initiative or referendum. This year, initatives require valid signatures of fewer than 77,000 registered voters. That figure, the same for statutory or constitutional proposals, represents 5 percent of votes cast for secretary of state in the last general election. Constitutional referenda require two-thirds support in the House and Senate.

The result: a ballot the size of the phone book. A record 14 measures hit the ballot last year; nine were constitutional. Only Oregon and California have seen more constitutional initiatives in the past 100 years.

Many citizen groups place proposals in the constitution for better protection from legislative interference. In 1996, Colorado Common Cause initiated a statutory measure to limit campaign contributions. The proposal passed, but a year later the Colorado House and Senate substantially altered the measure enacted by the people. Common Cause returned to the ballot in 2002 with a constitutional initiative. Dozens of other initiatives have evolved the same way.

The disadvantage of a cluttered constitution is not merely cosmetic. No law (or lawmaker) is perfect. Measures embedded in the constitution are far tougher to change. Last fall's Amendment 41 was designed in part to prevent lawmakers from taking lobbyists' gifts. But one section prohibits public officials, public employees and their immediate relatives from accepting a "thing" of more than $50 in value from virtually anyone. A fierce debate over 41's intent and effects sent the gift ban to court, and a temporary injunction blocked the measure.

The risks of ambiguity, shifting priorities and contradictory demands make the constitution a treacherous spot to conduct the state's day-to-day business.

What can we do? A bipartisan group of legislators is hosting town meetings across the state, including next Monday in Colorado Springs, to address that question. At least three solutions are worth exploring:

Give citizens an incentive to take the statutory route. Most states impose a higher threshold of signatures to initiate constitutional changes. Some require a higher number of votes, or two separate elections. Another approach would shield statutory initiatives, requiring a supermajority of the Legislature to modify them.

Give proponents and voters more facts on amendment costs and consequences, and more time to consider them. There is no substitute for an informed electorate.

Hold elected officials accountable. Ballot measures should operate as a safety valve for representative government, not an excuse for legislative inaction.

Only half the states guarantee the right of initiative or referendum. Colorado is justly proud to rank among them. The challenge we face is balancing our interest in direct democracy with our need for constitutional order.

Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, is Speaker of the Colorado House.

Town Hall on
Constitutional Reform
Monday, June 25, noon
Penrose Library,
20 N. Cascade Ave.
For more information,
contact 531-6333.

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