Which would you rather study, the state constitutions or accounting? State constitutions or the collected works of Ward Churchill? State constitutions or almost anything else?
Most of us would choose “almost anything else.”
After all, shouldn’t state constitutions be simple, pedestrian documents, the little brothers and sisters of the U.S. Constitution? So what’s to study?
In the case of Colorado’s lumbering, unwieldy, self-contradictory pastiche of a constitution, quite a lot.
Colorado’s constitution is one of the most easily amended in the nation. That fact did not escape the attention of activists, mischief-makers, politicians and do-gooders who, in just the last three decades, have succeeded in amending our fundamental document 50 times.
Virtually every amendment was driven by special interest groups whose only interest was pushing their specific agenda. If the provisions of their amendment conflicted with other sections of the constitution, that was just too bad.
After all, what could be more important than (pick one) tax limitation, K-12 education, open space, historic preservation, residential property tax rates, municipal annexations or “ethics in government?”
Nothing, of course! Look at the constitution — it’s just the written record of transient issues that briefly seize the attention of the public and give special interest groups enough traction to pass their favorite amendment.
And now these issues, and the long-forgotten passions of long-forgotten politicians, are figuratively preserved in amber like long-dead mosquitoes. The only difference is that these mosquitoes still bite.
Our constitution, thanks to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights from 1992, the Gallagher Amendment from 1982 and Amendment 23 from 2000, simultaneously mandates shrinking government, lowering tax rates and increasing spending. It doesn’t work.
Imagine a 50-mile commute in a gas-guzzler with a five-gallon tank and only a reverse gear. That’ll give you some idea about the gyrations that our state elected officials have to go through to create a budget. Rational decision-making is an unavailable luxury — they just have to maneuver around our loony constitution and do what they can.
As I’ve written before, there didn’t seem to be any way out of this particular box, other than by convening a state constitutional convention, a process that would be time-consuming, unwieldy and impractical — and one that would put the entire constitution in play — at the mercy of the very interest groups that created the mess in the first place.
But now, House Speaker Andrew Romanoff has floated a fascinating idea, one that could potentially clean up the constitution in one fell swoop.
Romanoff has suggested suspending the so-called single subject rule, which limits proposed constitutional amendments to a single subject, for the 2008 election.
That would allow the legislature to craft a sweeping amendment, which would resolve the conflicts that make the constitution literally unworkable. Properly structured, such an amendment should draw bipartisan support.
To draw such support, the Democratic majorities in the legislature, as well as the Democratic governor, would have to create a “coalition of the sensible” — one that would exclude the shrill partisans of both left and right. They’d have to engage the elder statesmen of both parties, like former Republican legislators Chuck Berry and Norma Anderson, not to mention former governors Dick Lamm, Roy Romer and Bill Owens.
Most of all, they’d have to work respectfully and collegially with the business community, which understands, perhaps better than any other group, the disastrous effects of illogical and unequal taxation.
Will the Dems have the courage to rework Gallagher, so that commercial property owners no longer bear such a disproportionate share of property taxes? Will they remove the automatic escalators in Amendment 23, as well as permanently removing TABOR’s notorious ratchet? Will they make it more difficult to amend the constitution in the future, and revive representative government in Colorado?
For a comprehensive reform amendment to pass, it’ll have to be fair and equitable, and be perceived as such.
It won’t be an easy task, but it’s one that may affect all of us, for good or for ill, more than anything that the legislature has done for many decades.
And speaking of Ward Churchill, it looks as if our long educational nightmare is finally coming to an end. The evidence is in — and University of Colorado President Hank Brown has made the recommendation that most of us in his position would make — to fire Professor Churchill.
But there’s still something disquieting about the whole process.
Churchill, it appears, had been guilty of academic misconduct for many years before his notorious 9/11 piece came to light.
Absent the glare of negative publicity surrounding it, it’s clear that the transgressions for which he’s about to be fired would never have been uncovered.
And it’s just as clear that, regardless of the steps that the university might take to prevent another such incident, no professor will ever be investigated as thoroughly and exhaustively as Churchill.
I seriously doubt whether there are more than a handful of similar miscreants lurking in the groves of Academe, but that’s not the point.
The villain here is tenure, which, under the guise of academic freedom, creates a privileged class of employees who can neither be fired, nor effectively disciplined nor even demoted. This has given rise to a two-tiered system, in which teaching assistants and “adjunct faculty” (i.e., miserably paid temps with no benefits) do much of the work, while the tenured profs get one-year sabbaticals with pay, and, like Churchill, may publish inane papers in obscure professional journals that few read.
Obviously, that’s not universally true. Lots of tenured profs are serious scholars doing important work, as well as dedicated teachers. Absent tenure, they’d still be employed and probably doing better.
Tenure creates an artificially restricted market for college professors, which may well depress salaries for highly qualified younger professors.
Imagine if, in law firms, tenure was the rule. The brightest graduates from law school wouldn’t be making $150K right out of school — like newly minted PhD’s, they’d be fighting for jobs that pay $50K.
And as for the journalism business — well, we don’t have tenure, but we do have modest salaries … so I guess we won’t be seeing former Professor Churchill’s byline any time soon.
Especially in the Business Journal!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.