Constitution fix will need strong leader

Filed under: Contributed Columns |

Imagine a lovely home made out of wood. On the surface, the house looks beautiful, but, underground, termites are eating away at the foundation. The occupants of the house are unaware of the termites and the damage that is taking place. If nothing is done, at some point in the future, the house will collapse.

This house is an analogy for the state of Colorado. Colorado’s foundation is the state constitution, and it is being eaten away by a plethora of well-meaning and well-intentioned termite-like constitutional amendments.

Most constitutions establish a broad framework for governing that endures over time. In Colorado, it is extremely easy for voters to amend the constitution. As a result, our Constitution is riddled with amendments, many of which are either conflicting or trivial.  Colorado’s Constitution is probably the longest and most complex of any in the country.

I am certain of one point: our state constitution eventually will have to be fixed. Beyond that, I am not at all certain of how to proceed with repairs.  Among my key questions are the following:

Should we start with a study or start with action? Some experts in this area have suggested that Colorado undertake a comprehensive study of our constitution. The last such study is a half-century old. A study by a neutral, nonpartisan, respected group could certainly be helpful. However, it might not do much to change the politics or the culture in our state.

Should we act now or wait?  Advocates for acting now argue that we cannot afford to wait to fix some of these problems. Advocates for waiting argue that we will be unable to fix the problems until they get so serious that they directly affect the everyday lives of almost all Coloradans.

Should the approach be incremental or comprehensive?  It might be easier to tackle one or two constitutional problems at a time. Yet, at this rate it might take too long to fix the entire constitution. To mix metaphors, do we need to walk before we can run, or is it better to opt for surgery over repeated application of Band-Aids?

How do we get people to focus on the long term?  The sad truth is that the Great Recession has delayed the day of reckoning for conflicting fiscal provisions in the state constitution. It is as if our house has a fire in the kitchen that must be extinguished before anyone can think about the termites. Of course, jobs and improving the economy must be the first priority. Yet one would hope that collectively we have the ability to work on more than one problem at a time.

Should educational efforts about constitutional reform focus on the general public or just on the movers and shakers?  The average person on the street has little or no appreciation for the complexity of our constitutional problems. These are not issues that can readily be explained in 30-second television spots.  Because any constitutional changes must be approved by the voters, is it necessary to educate all voters? Or, is it more efficient and effective to focus on community leaders?

How can we get people to transcend their parochial interests?  Supporters of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) Amendment say they will vigorously oppose any efforts to modify or weaken it. Supporters of Amendment 23, providing funding for education, feel equally passionately. At some point, these provisions and others cannot continue to co-exist. In 1986, Republican President Ronald Reagan worked with the Democratic Congress to enact a sweeping tax reform act. The law lowered income tax rates and broadened the base by eliminating dozens of special interest tax breaks. Both sides had to compromise to reach this agreement that was clearly in the best interests of the country. We need a similar mindset in Colorado today.

Where will we find leadership on this issue?  Elected officials are worried about the next election and/or they have term limits. Will the leadership to change our constitution come from political leaders, business leaders, civic leaders, or a combination? Our state legislature did not act on these constitutional issues in its most recent session, and we’re now entering the gubernatorial election season. Let’s hope that whoever is elected will be able to take a strong leadership role in addressing this essential issue.

Colorado’s house is a strong one. We have a diversified economy, an educated populace, and committed and engaged citizens. Through a series of decisions made over the years, we have undermined the strength of our state constitution. I am optimistic that together we can identify and fix these problems and restore a solid foundation to our wonderful state.

Miller is president of The Denver Foundation and was executive director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting from 1983 to 1987.  For more information, visit www.denverfoundation.org or call 303-300-1790.