By Elena Nunez and Dennis Polhill
April 28, 2014
Coloradans’ constitutional right to initiative and referendum have greatly improved this state’s political process. That right is under attack, again, in the Colorado Legislature and must be defended.
These critical tools have enabled we, the people, to debate and adopt policy — even controversial policy — that has allowed us to check the excesses of public officials and provide governmental balance. Though democratic processes are never flawless, after 100 years of experience, from reforming campaign finance rules to imposing term limits, there are good reasons the public favors initiative and referendum by a three-to-one margin.
One measure of their effectiveness is the deep hostility of many legislators, special interest groups and their lobbyists against the process, made clear by the General Assembly’s repeated attempts at “reform.”
In 1996, legislators placed Measure A on the ballot to require constitutional amendments proposed by citizen petition to garner a supermajority of 60 percent in order to pass, while the constitutional amendments legislators placed on the ballot would need only a simple majority. Voters overwhelmingly said, “No.”
In 2008, politicians again voted to “fix” the petition process by requiring constitutional amendments to pass with that same 60 percent supermajority, forcing citizens to collect 20 percent more signatures to qualify for the ballot and imposing an onerous geographic distribution requirement. Coloradans again voted “no.”
In 2009, the Legislature struck again, enacting severe restrictions on the petitions through House Bill 09-1326, this time all on their own, without asking the people for permission. The statute was challenged in federal court and many of its provisions were found unconstitutional.
In 2014, legislators and special interests again are discussing how to make it tougher for Coloradans to have a voice via their petition rights with House Concurrent Resolution 1002. This latest attack on the citizens’ right to amend the Colorado Constitution would require twice as many signatures as are currently required, and require that signatures be gathered in every congressional district in the state. The stated reason is to “protect” the Constitution. The impact is to make it prohibitive for citizens to exercise their right to initiative and referendum.
The Legislature already has the power to refer measures to voters; indeed, nearly two-thirds of state constitutional amendments have come from the Legislature, not citizen petitions. It seems they don’t oppose amending the constitution at all, but rather just don’t like citizens making the proposals.
How many times must Coloradans say no before legislators leave initiative and referendum alone?
There are reforms that would make the process better. Colorado can make improvements that would encourage citizens to pursue statutory initiatives rather than amending the constitution.
A few ideas include reducing the number of signatures required to propose statutory amendments, making it easier for citizens to sign petitions online, and guaranteeing that measures passed by voters couldn’t be changed by the legislature without a super majority vote or requiring another vote of the people. These types of changes would render statutory petitions easier to propose and also protect citizens from having legislators overrule popular votes.
Initiative and referendum offer a safety valve. It serves to resolve issues when legislators either refuse to act or go too far. The already-daunting process of reaching the ballot by petition is never used when the Legislature acts appropriately. Thus, the volume of issues appearing on the ballot by petition is a measure of legislative effectiveness. More issues on the ballot indicate a less effective legislature.
People have indicated time and again that they support the initiative process and want to have a strong voice in our state’s governance. Legislators owe it to themselves, their oaths of office, the constitution, and their constituents to look internally and correct legislative dysfunction before seeking to deflect blame.
Reject false “reforms” from politicians and special interests that place higher hurdles to citizen participation.
Elena Nunez is the executive director of Colorado Common Cause. Dennis Polhill is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Denver. This article was originally published in the Greeley Tribune and subsequently by Complete Colorado.