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Colorado’s petition process empowers citizens, no wonder the political establishment hates it so

Coloradans’ constitutional right to initiative and referendum have greatly improved Colorado’s political process. That right must be defended.

These critical tools have enabled we, the people, to debate and adopt policy—even controversial policy—that have allowed us to check the excesses of public officials and provide governmental balance. Though democratic processes are never flawless, after 100 years of experience, from reforming campaign finance rules to imposing term limits, there are good reasons the public favors petition power by a three-to-one margin.

One measure of our success is the deep hostility of many legislators, special interest groups and their lobbyists against the initiative petition process, made clear by the General Assembly’s attempts at “reform.”

In 1996, legislators placed Measure A on the ballot to require constitutional amendments proposed by citizen petition to garner a supermajority of 60 percent in order to pass, while the constitutional amendments legislators placed on the ballot would need only a simple majority. Voters overwhelmingly said “NO!”

In 2008, politicians again voted to “fix” the petition process by requiring constitutional amendments to pass with that same 60 percent supermajority, forcing citizens to collect 20 percent more signatures to qualify for the ballot and imposing an onerous geographic distribution requirement. Coloradans again voted it down.

In 2009, the Legislature struck again, enacting severe restrictions on the petitions through HB 09-1326, this time all on their own, without asking the people for permission. The statute currently is being challenged in federal court and many of its provisions have been suspended until there is a ruling on the case because of the likelihood they will be found unconstitutional.

In 2011, legislators were at it again with Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, trying to amend the constitution to enact that same old 60 percent vote scheme along with other hurdles for petitions. Early in the legislative session, large majorities of both chambers passed slightly different versions, but later couldn’t agree on the details.

As the 2013 legislative session is underway, legislators and special interests again are discussing how to make it tougher for Coloradans to use their petition rights. Recently, TBD Colorado issued a call for “reform” which suggests the same old anti-petition schemes that voters have rejected time and again. The group recommends mandating a 60 percent supermajority to pass constitutional amendments and hiking up the signature requirement to put an issue before voters.

How many times must Coloradans say no before legislators leave our initiative rights alone?

While those advocating a clampdown on petitions claim they seek to protect the constitution, they also propose to create a new, unelected constitutional “review commission” that would have the power to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. Would the commission’s members represent the interests of the people, who have consistently rejected attempts to limit petition rights? Or will it be another vehicle for powerful interests to propose unpopular ideas?

The legislature already has the power to refer measures to voters; indeed, nearly two-thirds of state constitutional amendments have come from the legislature, not citizen petitions. It seems they don’t oppose amending the constitution at all, just allowing citizens to make proposals.

There are reforms that would make the process better. Colorado can make improvements that would encourage citizens to pursue statutory initiatives rather than amending the constitution. Those changes would render statutory petitions easier to propose and also protect citizens from having legislators overrule popular votes.

Reject false “reforms” from politicians and special interests that place higher hurdles to citizen participation.

Dennis Polhill is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think thank in Denver. Elena Nunez is executive director of Colorado Common Cause


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