Colorado Amendment 71 tries to cut down on constitutional red tape
October 3, 2016
In a battle that's being billed as rural versus metro areas, Colorado voters are being asked this election season whether it's too easy to rewrite the state constitution.
If approved this November, Amendment 71, dubbed "Raise the Bar" by its bipartisan backers, would change the process for signature collection in attempts to amend the state's founding document. Proponents note the immense number of times the constitution has been revised since the initiative process began more than a century ago, while objectors argue that landing a measure on the ballot is already difficult enough and, as is, allows voters to more directly impact the state's laws.
One of the issues that supporters point to, however, is that the current system requires only a set number of signatures — 5 percent of the total cast for secretary of state in the prior election, or upwards of 100,000 — and nothing that necessitates they originate from different parts of Colorado. The new law would demand that signatures be amassed at a rate of 2 percent from each of the state's 35 Senate districts.
"What we've seen in the past are people hanging out at the 16th Street Mall (in Denver) for signature gathering, we see people in the Pearl Street area (in Boulder)," said Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs, a co-chair for Amendment 71. "We never see people up in Summit County, we never see people in Sterling, in Durango. Having constitutional policies be dictated by people in Denver, in my opinion, is not right. It requires a statewide discussion."
So rather than just accumulating signatures in Denver, Boulder or other large population zones, Summit County, part of Senate District 8, could expect its 19,000 or so active voters to be more frequently polled for ballot permissions. The law would also entail getting about 1,600 of Mesa County's approximately 80,000 voters in Senate District 7 during the 2014 election to meet the new standard.
In addition, Amendment 71 would call for a 55-percent threshold for passing a constitutional ballot measure rather than the simple majority currently required. The minimums for statute revisions would remain unchanged.
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Many opponents — several environmental groups, Libertarian organizations and government watchdogs — say the problem is that the petition process is hard enough, let alone then also putting it to voters often just to see it fail.
"It is difficult to go out and gather signatures," Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, explained during a recent forum. "What this is about is making it so expensive and so onerous that voters don't even get the opportunity to decide. To set standards that may not be possible to meet, I think that deserves a closer look."
Some estimates assert that current signature gathering campaigns can top $1 million, let alone if one is taken to court over contested signatures. Insisting on signatures from a larger geographic region would involve training more volunteers or hiring additional professional signature collectors to cover more ground, they say, and result in further inflated — and possibly prohibitive — costs.
For Gibbs, a veteran of a number of political campaigns, it's a small price to pay to prevent unwieldy and ultimately burdensome laws from hitting the state books. That the Colorado Constitution has been changed 150 times compared to just 27 for the U.S. version, he said, is unacceptable.
"We don't want to limit an opportunity if there's need to amend the constitution," said Gibbs, "but we've clearly seen this phenomenon in Colorado where it's turned into this legislative mechanism for people to put things in our constitution that is very problematic for our state. If you have something that's that important, grassroots can gather 2 percent of the registered voters in each of the 35 state Senate districts."
Challengers contend that voters throughout the state already get a chance to have their say — by reviewing information in the proposal and voting in November. And they've by no means wholeheartedly sanctioned whatever appears on the ballot.
According to the Colorado Independent, fewer than a third of those amendments proposed on Colorado's ballot in the last 30 years have gone on to be passed by voters. And the constitution has been amended by citizen-initiated ballot measures 48 times since the initiative process was approved in 1910.
What Amendment 71 might also grant, foes protest, is a single Senate district having the ability to block a desired measure entirely. Without added safeguards in the proposal for the statutory process — one in which the state's General Assembly can modify laws that are passed by voters, a reason why many people instead choose the constitutional option — changing the law is unwarranted.
"If the voters decide to go the statutory route," said Nunez, "the Legislature could turn around and change it the next day because there's no protection, and that's the reason we see a lot of initiatives go the constitutional route. That's not addressed by Amendment 71."
Raise the Bar's list of supporters reads like a Who's Who of Colorado politics. Every living governor from both sides of the aisle, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Bill Ritter, Bill Owens, Roy Romer and Dick Lamm are counted among them, as is current Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, and a few of his predecessors, Wellington Webb and Federico Peña (Hickenlooper also served in the position from 2003-11). Their primary bone of contention remains that since just 1990, citizens have attempted to amend the state constitution 68 times. Per the movement's data, just two other states across the nation, California and Oregon, have tried to do it more.
"Being a former legislator," said Gibbs, "I've seen firsthand some of the conflicting provisions in our constitution that I think create a juggernaut, if you will, of challenges for Colorado. Things with real fiscal components, in my opinion, don't belong in a foundational document. Fundamentally, I think that if we're having a discussion on amending our state constitution, that Summit County voters need to have a say. And right now I feel like they don't."