Although the effort has failed in eight previous attempts, state Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, is right to try to make it harder to amend the state’s Constitution. It only makes sense. Otherwise, routine legislative choices should be treated as such – and not embedded in what is supposed to be Colorado’s foundational document.
Coram’s bill, co-sponsored by state Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, would leave the number of signatures required to put a statutory measure on the ballot at 86,105 but double that number for an initiative to amend the state Constitution. It would also require at least 10 percent of the signatures be gathered from each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts. As Coram put it, “The complaint is something goes on the ballot out in Southwest Colorado, and all the signatures come from downtown Denver.”
Those are reasonable requirements. They would not interfere with citizens’ ability to enact needed change but might somewhat curb the impulse to legislate via constitutional amendment.
The initiative and referendum processes came about as part of the Progressive Era reforms of early in the last century. They allow the voters to change state laws either through ballot measures initiated by the people or referred to the voters by the state Legislature. They are most common in the West and are popular with the voters.
Referendums are generally not problematic in that they have already been filtered through the political process and effectively vetted by the state Legislature. Initiatives, however, pose two problems.
Because the courts have ruled the state cannot forbid the practice of paying people to collect signatures, anyone with enough money can hire folks to stand outside of Front Range supermarkets all summer and effectively put almost anything on the ballot. And with that, those measures too often fail to reflect the interests or concerns of residents of other parts of the state.
Worse, Colorado does not currently have a higher bar for ballot issues that would amend the state Constitution rather than statutes. For someone trying to enact their pet scheme or something reflecting their most deeply held conviction, the obvious choice is to make their measure harder to undo by injecting it into the Constitution.
The result is a state Constitution starting to resemble a phone book. Speaking at a hearing Monday, Rep. Court pointed to a copy of the U.S. Constitution, saying, “It’s been amended 27 times in over 200 years.” Holding up a copy of Colorado’s Constitution, she then said, “This has been amended, just in the last two decades, over 45 times.”
And it keeps happening. Just this year, a number of constitutional amendments have been proposed to address issues as diverse as horse racing, animal rights and gas-industry regulations.
Coram and Court’s bill is intended to encourage backers of more measures to make their changes statutory. Changing the rules on bear hunting, for example, is a legislative act and should be handled, if not by the Legislature itself, at least as a statute. In part, that is because the state Constitution should be reserved for broader statements of policy or principle, and in part because the Legislature can adjust or fine tune statutes if need be. Modifying or repealing a constitutional amendment requires another constitutional amendment and another vote.
By requiring signatures from every congressional district, it would also ensure constitutional amendments are not placed on the ballot by regional interests – the Front Range – or by special interests wildly out of step with the rest of the state. That, too, would encourage more statutory initiatives.
Coram and Court are offering common-sense reforms.