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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-329-5206.