Jerry Kopel

Out of the Box


Sept. 15, 2007

By Jerry Kopel


We need to start acting "out of the box" when it comes to restoring some semblance of order to our state constitution. And the bloating simply has to stop. The number of large initiatives being added to the state constitution as well as some statutes has really crossed the line. 

This became apparent to me from a package sent by Stan Elofson, a retired Legislative Council staffer, who, with three other researchers produced a revised "Listing of Statewide Initiated and Referred Ballot Proposals in Colorado, 1912-2006."

The issue brief states "there have been 362 statewide proposals" in that period of time. I take their word for doing the addition. "Of the 362 ballot issues, 196 were initiated by the people." 

That does not include 13 challenges to statutes. That is possible when statutes passed by the legislature and awaiting the governor's actions have a 90 day waiting period from the end of the legislative session for citizens to petition an opposition onto the ballot for a vote to stop the statute from becoming law. None have occurred since 1932.

Of the 196 initiatives, I did count the ones from 1988 through 2006. I found in that 18 year period (out of the 94 years since the first initiative was introduced), there were 66 initiatives, or better than one-third of the total in only 20 percent of the years.

I compared that to a 20-year period from 1950 to 1970. There were 17 initiatives. In the same time period the legislature referred 39 statutes and constitutional amendments.

Seventeen in 20 years? We recently suffered through 18 initiatives from 2002 through 2006.

Is it based on a population increase? From the 1950 census to the 1970 census we added 900,000 people (from 1,325,089 to 2,207,259.) Where two million once stood within our state in 1970, there now stands close to five million. So many are new to Colorado, lacking serious perspective of how our state government functions.

A Colorado Senior Lobby mailing in July discussed House Speaker Andrew Romanoff's listening tour on constitutional reform. What Romanoff heard was a rehash of what has been said so many times such as how many signatures are needed on initiative petitions or supportive votes needed for ballot issues, and geographic diversity needed for signers. But Romanoff is thinking "out of the box".

In a recent Denver Post article, Romanoff "wants voters to suspend the rule that forbids more than one subject on a ballot question, then return to the ballot (the following year) to vote on over-arching fiscal policy reform."

In my opinion, he should limit the change to constitutional referrals by the legislature only, and for a one or two year period. If not, the initiative process could do major damage. His plan is a workable, and limited approach.

Meanwhile, if you tried to carry the state constitution in your pocket, you would find yourself no longer walking in an upright position. Some examples: Among the recent initiatives are Article 28, Campaign Finance Reform, followed by Article 29, Ethics in Government. In tiny print with hardly any white space in Volume One of Colorado Revised  Statutes, these two take up 16 pages, and medical marijuana in Article 18 takes up four and one-half pages.

Sixteen pages? And that is not counting case decisions. In the same volume is the entire U.S. Constitution. It covers 15 pages. 

We need to act out of the box. The initiative process is not protected by the U.S. Constitution.  It appears in only about half of the states. We can likely reduce the number of initiatives by requiring they be allowed every four years.

This would allow one general election every four years to be based only on constitutional or statutory amendments referred by the legislature, although statutes that allow challenges by the public would also be available to be voted on.

We need to act swiftly before the constitution goes haywire with even more conflicting initiatives. Should we call a constitutional convention? That scares a lot of people, and with good reason. because the entire constitution would be subject to amendment.

But there is no problem with establishing in the constitution a partial-constitutional convention. That would solve the single subject issue, and it could be limited to five or fewer of the entire 29 Articles. The convention could be composed of eleven or more members chosen similar to the appointive system used for legislative reapportionment in Article 5.

A regular constitutional convention would require 70 members, two elected from each senatorial district and it is  possible that none of the 70 would be  present or past legislators.

The partial-convention legality could expire after four years. Under a convention or partial-convention, the voters will have the final say.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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