Once you’ve been elected to the Colorado legislature, you realize how much smarter and better informed you are than the average voter.
From there, you soon develop an itch to do something about the pesky initiative process, that relic from the original, pre-MSNBC Progressive Era which makes it way too easy for the average voter to fool around not only with statutes but with the state constitution.
Every few years lawmakers try to do something about it. But they have to be careful, because it can backfire. Voters like the process.
After a six-year gap, the itch is back in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 1002, which would (1) double the number of signatures required to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot and (2) require that the signatures come equally from the state’s seven congressional districts. Currently, initiated statutes and amendments each require valid signatures amounting to 5 percent of the total vote in the last secretary of state’s race. Since 2010, that total has been 86,104.
Oh, there’s a third element: If you want to repeal any part of a constitutional amendment passed prior to 2015 (read: 1992’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) you need only the current signature total. (Because of the single-subject rule passed later, you can’t repeal it all at once.)
Think of HCR 1002 as the son of 2008’s Referendum O, a far less ambitious referendum. It would have required only 20 percent more signatures for an initiated constitutional amendment and, as a sweetener, 20 percent fewer signatures for a statute. Though unlike current law it did require some geographic distribution of signatures, only 8 percent had to come from any single congressional district.
Modest as that legislative proposal was, it still lost by 5 percentage points that November. The tougher new version is going to be a hard sell to the people.
But it is likely to make the 2014 ballot, even though that would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber. It has bipartisan sponsorship in the House and Senate, and according to Charles Ashby of Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel, 48 of the House’s 65 members — including 15 Republicans — are co-sponsoring it.
HCR 1002 breezed through the House State Affairs Committee Monday on a 9-2 vote, more or less in inverse proportion to the testimony. There were 3 witnesses for it, 15 against and a couple whose views were indeterminable, as they were honing their axes on unrelated issues.
Testimony is often irrelevant in legislative committee hearings. Witnesses are flapping their gums at lawmakers whose votes have long been committed to sponsors or lobbyists and who aren’t going to be swayed by mere numbers and logic to the contrary.
Still, it was fascinating to see the odd alliances forming. Representatives for the League of Women Voters and the Colorado Farm Bureau spoke in favor of the measure; opponents included Colorado Common Cause, the Colorado Public Interest Research Group, Food and Water Watch, Local Control Colorado — plus the Colorado Union of Taxpayers and the state Libertarian Party.
It would have been fun to watch these ad hoc alliances scramble and regroup if committee chair Su Ryden, D-Aurora, had suddenly decided to take up a bill on, say, fracking.
There’s little incentive to pass a statute instead of a constitutional amendment since the legislature can, and has, changed an initiated law immediately and unilaterally, said Elena Nunez, executive director of Common Cause. On the other hand, lawmakers can prevent the people from putting a statute to a popular vote by adding a “safety clause” at the end. If lawmakers want to more initiatives to be statutory, she said, they should pass a referendum that would prevent any legislative changes to them for seven to ten years.
The loudest, most outspoken witness against the measure was Thad Tecza, a retired political science instructor at the University of Colorado and a longtime proponent of the initiative. He noted that there were no initiatives at first, “but after watching you for 50 years, they put a citizen check on your power.” Responding to lawmakers’ complains that the state constitution is too long compared to the federal one, he said that’s because the legislature has plenary powers and the federal government is limited in what laws it can pass.
He also dismissed the idea that there are only 27 amendments to the federal constitution. It’s constantly being amended in the federal courts by decisions rendered by “unelected judges,” he said.
Tecza wasn’t surprised by the pending legislation. “The only thing greater than the people’s distrust of government is the government’s distrust of the people,” he said. Although he described himself as “a flaming liberal,” he said he had “no problem with TABOR whatsoever.” People will approve bond issues and tax hikes when they see the need. “The people make as many good judgments as legislators do.”
Several witnesses suggested that doubling the signature requirement for constitutional initiatives won’t bother the wealthy interests who can afford to pay petition circulators, but will put a great burden on citizen groups who have to depend on volunteers to get most of their signatures. To get the requisite number of legal signatures, they have to collect about 50 percent more than the minimum.
A preliminary vote on the measure is scheduled in the House for Thursday.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.