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Ed Quillen: Referendum O a simple, sensible adjustment

Ed Quillen
Aspen Times Weekly

Before we get to Referendum O on this year’s long ballot, it’s time for a short civics lesson. In Colorado, citizens can circulate petitions and put laws on the ballot; these are called “initiatives” because they’re initiated by the people. Our Legislature may also put a law on the ballot; it’s called a “referendum” because it is referred to the people by the General Assembly.

Those are mere laws, which can be repealed or amended by the Legislature. We also have a state constitution, which cannot be changed by the Legislature. Constitutional amendments can be referred or initiated.

The problem is that it takes the same number of petition signatures and the same number of votes to amend our constitution as it does to enact a statute. So if you’re pursuing some noble goal, such as increasing funding for K-12 education, and its takes the same effort to carve it into the constitution as to enact a mere malleable statute, why settle for the statute?

Especially when you recall that Colorado voters once approved a state lottery to fund parks. The General Assembly used some of the money to build a prison. If someone offered you a park but delivered a prison, why trust him?

However, our state constitution gets more than cluttered in the process. It should delineate the powers, responsibilities and limits of government, and lay out its organization.

The federal constitution, including amendments, manages to do this in about 9,000 words.

Our state constitution fills a thick book with provisions like, “Except for refinancing district bonded debt at a lower interest rate or adding new employees to existing district pension plans, creation of any multiple-fiscal year direct or indirect district debt or other financial obligation whatsoever without adequate present cash reserves pledged irrevocably and held for payments in all future fiscal years.”

Further, we pass constitutional amendments that conflict with one another; the most-cited example is the clash between Amendment 23, which requires increased school spending, and TABOR (a sentence of which is cited above), which limits governmental spending.

How do we fix this?

The sensible solution might go something like this:

1. Make it harder to amend the state constitution.

2. Make it easier to initiate plain old statutory laws.

3. But make it harder for the Legislature to change initiated laws, which represent the decision of a majority of the voting public.

And that’s what Referendum O does. It requires more signatures on petitions for constitutional amendments, and requires that they be collected in every congressional district, so that there’s evidence of statewide support for the change. But as is the case now, only a simple majority is required to pass the amendment.

As for plain statutes, it reduces the number of petition signatures required and does not require that they come from all congressional districts. So it will be easier to go for a statute rather than a constitutional amendment.

However, if the initiated statute passes, then for the first five years it is in effect, it cannot be repealed or amended by the Legislature, except by a two-thirds majority in both houses. Thus the Legislature isn’t likely to thwart the public mandate except in a clear emergency.

All in all, this is a well-crafted and reasonable adjustment to the current process, which has produced a mess of a state constitution. The best fix would be to start over with a new state constitution, as Montana did in 1972, but until we come to our senses, Referendum O is a good way to cut down on the clutter while retaining the citizen powers of initiative.


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