Opinion: Confusing the constitution

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How often should the state constitution be modified?

Once every 100 years? Once every decade? Whenever the Colorado Buffalos make it into the NCAA tournament?

The right answer isn’t clear, but when you stop to count the number of times the Colorado constitution has been amended in the past decade and a half, well, then, folks, you have to wonder what’s up.

In all, there have been 35 amendments to the state constitution in the past 17 years. That’s an average of two a year.

Some see that as evidence that our democracy is strong, that the people in this state, thanks to voter referendums, hold the reins of power, not the politicians who can’t be trusted to do anything but raise their pay. Others see it as a sign of a system of checks and balances run amok, indisputable confirmation of best intentions hijacked by reactionaries on the left and right and run straight into a ditch.

It appears that on this question (among others), the people of this state are at a crossroads. Moving forward, we can either tackle what ails us, or stay on our current course and join California on the list of national embarrassments.

There are some signs that reform is the more favored route.

Colorado Concern, the group that includes El Pomar’s Bill Hybl on its executive committee, surveyed its members on the question of whether we should change the ballot initiative process in Colorado and whether we should make it harder for constitutional amendments to make it on the ballot.

The response? Absolute unanimity in support of making a change.

So, how to go about effecting such a change? Two years ago, Referendum O would have dealt with the issue head-on, a bipartisan push that would have made it more difficult to muck with the state constitution. (And no, it did not escape my notice that a constitutional amendment was proposed to correct the problem.)

But Ref O was one of 14 initiatives on the ballot in 2008 and, unfortunately, was eclipsed by other, more controversial issues, not to mention a historic presidential election.

Today, working behind the scenes to get the idea back on track is Colorado’s Future, a nonprofit led by Brenda Morrison. Morrison has been organizing meetings of civic and business leaders (but no politicians!) across the state over the past few months in places such as Grand Junction, Lakewood, Pueblo, Greeley, Granby and Steamboat Springs.

Late this month, she’ll hold another of these sessions in Colorado Springs.

The aim is to collect opinions on the matter and come up with a set of recommendations that receive the greatest level of support.

So far, the meetings have yielded five reforms that have received at least 75 percent support from the leaders in attendance:

Require increased financial and overall disclosure from groups filing initiatives, along the lines of what is already required of political candidates.

Require that signatures collected for initiatives come from different parts of the state and limit how many can be gathered from one area.

Require clear ballot language that is understandable at the 8th grade level.

Convene a politically balanced Constitutional Review Commission periodically to recommend to voters changes to correct conflicting provisions.

Require at least 66 percent approval to secure passage of constitutional amendments while allowing statutory amendments to be adopted with a simple majority.

Reps. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Carole Murray, R-Douglas County, have already proposed a bill to establish a uniform formatting style to make voter initiatives and referendums easier to read.

A lot of work remains ahead, and a lot of opposition is expected.

Supporters of the status quo see all this as an end-run around a system that has merely given people the voice they deserve. They say that the closer we get to a government for and by the people, the better off we will be.

They’ve got a point. But if we keep amending the state constitution at our currently torrid rate, we’ll end up with a meaningless mish-mash.

This is not about shutting off citizen-led initiatives. It’s about ensuring the process remains meaningful and, just as importantly, transparent.

Let’s not allow the interests of a narrow few make a mockery of what should be a touchstone of democracy, a constitution that protects and advances the interests of every Coloradan, and that, when necessary, we modify only after careful deliberation.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. Reach him at allen.greenberg@csbj.com or 719-329-5206.

3 Responses to Opinion: Confusing the constitution

  1. Hmm… there are certainly some sentiments with which it is easy to agree here. Specifically, financial transparency of any ballot initiative is a great idea. I’m going to have to disagree with the overall tenor of this article, however.

    I will first admit that I would much rather give average citizens more opportunities to introduce initiatives. This is for common sense reasons, as the harder it is for average citizens to introduce initiatives, the more likely it is that only those with substantial financial backing (i.e. those who are trying to introduce legislation which will make them even more money) will be able to get anything done.

    More to the point, however, it seems rather transparent where Mr. Greenberg is coming from by looking at many of the non-substantive statements he makes. Who cares, for instance, how many times a thing must be improved before it is as perfect as it can be? And who’s to say that circumstances won’t change such that what was nearly perfect yesterday is sorely deficient today? Attempting to make an argument against change by pretending that nothing has changed in the last couple hundred years just seems ridiculous to me.

    Much like the hard-line constitutionalism that happens at the federal level, I just don’t understand why so many people have such a hard time understanding why the framework with which we govern our society has to change along with the society itself. It seems further ludicrous to me that virtually no one seems to make this argument based on the values that the writers of their state or federal constitution had in mind, but rather some odd aversion to change itself… as if the very hands of the clock on the wall will cease to move if only we wish hard enough that it be so. We found it necessary, for example, to amend the US constitution to reflect our changed societal views with regard to slavery, as well as the treatment of virtually every other minority class in this country, as our aggregated values as a nation changed. We in fact made these changes in order to even better reflect the framers’ notion that every citizen of the United States of America should be treated equally. Using our founding values to affect necessary change for a changing national landscape… what a concept.

    I also disagree, wholeheartedly, with the notion that we should now inflict a ‘super-DUPER-majority’ requirement on our state legislature in order to get anything done. Regardless of what political affiliation you subscribe to, you should have a basic understanding of what a democracy by majority rule means. Anything that stands in the way of the majority in a democracy is obstruction thereof. It’s no surprise, therefore, where most of the obstructionism in this country comes from. You may be happy at how close Republicans came to stopping more Americans from having healthcare, but what if they were to regain control of congress this year under new rules? What if they had a healthy majority of 55-60 or so, but couldn’t start telling women what to do with their bodies or declaring who can and can’t be married without a 75 vote ULTRA-majority? Would you be satisfied if the party you supported got ‘control’ of the reigns, but was completely powerless to accomplish what you sent them there to do? That’s not a democracy… it’s a failed government.

    The 800 lb gorilla in the room is that the vast majority of people under 30 in this country are self-proclaimed progressives. Unless someone discovers the fountain of youth in the next decade or two, the future of this country is written on the wall. The only hope that conservatives have to hang on to some semblance of control over others is to hogtie our democracy into something that only wealthy corporations can manipulate to their advantage. Thanks to the supreme court decision earlier this year, that’s going to be much easier. And from the sounds of what Mr. Greenberg is reporting… it could be even easier here in Colorado, Inc.

    March 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm

  2. Whoa, Allen! I like your style! You jumped into the new digs at CSBJ and now just a couple of weeks later, you tackled the state Constitutional reform, our state’s hyper-polarity and “dissed” California in a single masterful editorial stroke. Good going.

    The biggest challenge to this is that the two political power blocks in this state have held a strangle-hold of legislative authority that neither “progressed” toward beneficial improvement nor “conserved” our Colorado values for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. They have simply yanked at the levers of governmental control to their own benefit and the enrichment of their cronies.

    What has led to the hunger for constitutional referenda is that the people want a voice; to have their concerns and needs heard -whether left or right. We are tired of an unresponsive government, filled with a neo-dynastic tyrants who work overtime to prevent true representative government. This fact is true on both the left and the right side of the legislative aisle.

    Therefore, until there is a reform on how the two political parties choke the process of electing representatives from among the people, the voters will never yield to a restriction of our ability to amend the constitution.

    What should have both of the parties terrified right now (and indeed does) is that there is a growing margin of voters who are done with both of the existing parties and we are organizing to defeat the political machinery unlike any time since the Whig party disappeared. Democrats foolishly think this is a Republican issue and Republicans foolishly think they are in some kind of control of this movement.

    There are issues of liberty at stake that have united folks from both sides and we are done with the useless oligarchic machines of both of the current corrupt parties. There is a political shake out coming and it will surprise both parties when it happens.

    Until then, we’re going to hold on to our ability to amend the constitution, to keep a reign on the runaway government, because we have no other choice at the moment.

    March 23, 2010 at 9:40 am

  3. In response to Andrew: I would say that your premise of reforming the Federal constitution to prohibit slavery was more of a “clarifying” the fact that the new republic was not compatible with slavery, rather than a changed perspective. If you follow the many legislative efforts to eradicate slavery, from 1789 until the emancipation proclamation, you will see that the majority of Americans adamantly opposed, if not fought against, slavery.

    The fact is that most Americans were always opposed to the slavery economy and that even in the south it was an institution that suited the ultra rich few, and in fact impoverished not only the slaves, but those who opposed slavery on moral grounds.

    Much in the same way that modern businessmen who refuse to use illegal immigrants as laborers struggle to compete against those who do, the farmer of the 18th century struggled to compete with the plantation owner who utilized slavery for his labor force.

    March 23, 2010 at 9:56 am