During the 2008 general election, Colorado voters were confronted with 16 initiated constitutional amendments, all proposed by special-interest groups. A total of $70 million was spent prior to Election Day by advocates and opponents of the various measures.
Was this a sorry, chaotic spectacle reflecting California-style dysfunction, or a splendid example of citizen participation in government?
Colorado’s Future, a broad-based non-partisan group of prominent Coloradans from across the state, would like to know what other Colorado residents think of the process.
To this end, Colorado’s Future is convening 14 invitation-only meetings of private citizens in different cities to explore the problems inherent in the initiative process, and to find whether the existing system needs to be changed via yet another initiative. Each meeting is expected to have at least 200 attendees.
Six meetings have already taken place. A meeting is scheduled in Colorado Springs on March 31. The local convening core leaders include Jon Stepleton, Mike Miles, Mary Ellen McNally, Susan Edmondson, Jack Gloriod, Lorne Kramer and Richard Skorman.
“The model (for the meetings) is set up to reflect the entire community,” said Colorado Future’s coordinator Brenda Morrison.
Morrison, a Colorado Springs native who now resides in Denver, stressed that the organization is trying to avoid the “echo chamber” effect by inviting folks who usually don’t participate in such forums, and by deliberately failing to invite others who do.
“We’re not inviting any elected officials to any of the meetings,” she said.
Like most Western states, Colorado permits citizen-initiated constitutional amendments. The process had comparatively little impact on state government until 1980, when Coloradans, seeing the success of citizen-initiated constitutional change in California, began to bypass the legislature in favor of “direct democracy.”
As Colorado’s Future points out on its website, the new activism has both disempowered elected officials and created difficult dilemmas.
“Since 1980, our state constitution has been amended 47 times. In comparison, the U.S. Constitution has been amended just 27 times in over 200 years. … Several citizen-initiated constitutional amendments have resulted in unintended consequences. Those constitutional amendments that contain very detailed fiscal limits and mandates are more suited for statutory or “everyday” law so that as circumstances and times change, our government is in the position to act responsively. We suggest that there be procedural changes to the citizen initiative process, particularly when it is a constitutional proposal.”
While the organization’s website does not specify which of the many initiated amendments have resulted in “unintended consequences,” critics of the initiative process have long contended that the 1992 TABOR amendment, sponsored by Colorado Springs anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce, has made the state all but ungovernable.
As well as considering the initiative process, Colorado’s Future may also explore a separate initiative that would create a new process for reconciling apparently contradictory provisions of the state constitution.
Morrison expects that all of the meetings will be completed by mid-April. If a strong consensus in favor of change has emerged, Colorado’s Future will hold a meeting of the core leaders of all 14 groups in Denver, create a draft initiative, and submit it to the legislature for possible action.