As bal­lot tough­ens, what now?

Pol­icy ad­vo­cates un­sure if they’ll turn to lob­by­ing or statu­tory ini­tia­tives

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Ea­son

In Colorado pol­i­tics, it is the sil­ver bul­let.

Any­one able to raise enough money and sig­na­tures can pro­pose an amend­ment to the state con­sti­tu­tion through a bal­lot ini­tia­tive — sidestep­ping the leg­isla­tive process.

But Amend­ment 71, ap­proved by Colorado vot­ers Nov. 8, made that harder to do — so much harder, crit­ics say, that amend­ing the con­sti­tu­tion is no longer an op­tion for all but the most well-funded or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Pol­icy ad­vo­cates who re­lied on the amend­ment process say they are un­sure how they will pro­ceed. They could re­spond with a beefed-up lob­by­ing pres­ence at the Colorado Gen­eral As­sem­bly — although par­ti­san grid­lock was part of what made bal­lot ini­tia­tives at­trac­tive in the first place. Statu­tory bal­lot mea­sures that fall short of amend­ing the con­sti­tu­tion are still on the ta­ble, but there are down­sides to that ap­proach too.

Statu­tory changes are eas­ier to roll back, need­ing just a ma­jor­ity vote of the leg­is­la­ture.

“Why do you run ini­tia­tives? Be­cause there’s leg­isla­tive in­ac­tion,” said Elena Nuñez, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Colorado Com­mon Cause, a left-lean­ing gov­ern­ment watch­dog group that op­posed Amend­ment 71.

Sup­port­ers say change was needed. The state con­sti­tu­tion, they ar­gue, is not a doc­u­ment that should be eas­ily sub­ject to the whims of vot­ers. And, they ar­gue, many Colorado bal­lot mea­sures aren’t grass­roots, cit­i­zen-led ini­tia­tives at all:

They’re of­ten funded in part by na­tional groups.

“This is a long-term play — in 30 years, hope­fully peo­ple will say ‘Thank good­ness,’ ” said Kelly Brough, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Den­ver Metro Cham­ber of Com­merce.

But while ini­tia­tive-weary vot­ers clearly wanted to make it harder to add things to the con­sti­tu­tion, there’s an­other con­se­quence that many may not have in­tended.

All the amend­ments that have been made dur­ing the past 140 years to make Colorado’s con­sti­tu­tion one of the long­est in the coun­try — from le­gal mar­i­juana to the Tax­payer’s Bill of Rights to the new min­i­mum wage — just be­came that much harder to change.

“Not, it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble”

Amend­ment 71, dubbed “Raise the Bar” by sup­port­ers, lifts the thresh­old for pas­sage of con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments to 55 per­cent from a sim­ple ma­jor­ity. And to get on the bal­lot, mea­sures will now need sig­na­tures from 2 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers in all 35 state Sen­ate districts.

That last provision, con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral ad­vo­cacy groups say, will make the bal­lot nearly in­ac­ces­si­ble.

“One of the myths of the cam­paign is that it’s so easy to amend the state con­sti­tu­tion,” said Pete May­smith, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Con­ser­va­tion Colorado, an en­vi­ron­men­tal group that op­posed the amend­ment. “Even be­fore Amend­ment 71, it was an enor­mous amount of work that re­quires sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial back­ing. Now, it’s all but im­pos­si­ble for grass­roots (ini­tia­tives).”

Con­sider what hap­pened this year:

Sig­na­ture-col­lect­ing ef­forts for the seven pe­ti­tion­ini­ti­ated bal­lot mea­sures, done pri­mar­ily in pop­u­la­tion cen­ters such as the Den­ver area, cost from $283,250 (Amend­ment 69, cre­at­ing a state sin­gle-payer health care sys­tem) to $923,373 (Amend­ment 70, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage), ac­cord­ing to Bal­lot­pe­dia, a non­profit that tracks bal­lot mea­sures. “Raise the Bar” it­self cost $383,518 — and that doesn’t even in­clude the money spent on ad­ver­tis­ing.

Those costs go up if sig­na­ture col­lec­tors have to fan out all over the state. So, too, do the le­gal costs of de­fend­ing those ef­forts in 35 districts.

“When I put some­thing on the bal­lot, I have to bud­get $100,000 for le­gal costs when op­po­nents try to stymie it” through court chal­lenges, said Jon Cal­dara, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive In­de­pen­dence In­sti­tute. “Now you’re go­ing to need that times po­ten­tially 35.”

“Con­sti­tu­tion has been fos­silized”

Backed heavily by the oil and gas in­dus­try, “Raise the Bar” arose largely in re­sponse to an un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign to ban frack­ing.

Cou­pled with the fact that bal­lot ini­tia­tives across the coun­try lean heavily to­ward lib­eral causes, and the con­ven­tional wis­dom is that the changes ben­e­fit con­ser­va­tives — at least in the short term.

But po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say that while it ap­pears to ben­e­fit con­ser­va­tives now, it may be too early to say what the im­pact will be. Past changes to vot­ing and cam­paign fi­nance laws, for in­stance, were pre­dicted to ben­e­fit one side or an­other, but both par­ties adapted.

“The im­me­di­ate pre­dic­tions for which party will have the ad­van­tage are of­ten some­what wrong or over­stated,” said Seth Mas­ket, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Den­ver.

Cal­dara, for one, thinks con­ser­va­tives were short­sighted in their sup­port of the mea­sure.

“The con­sti­tu­tion has been fos­silized,” Cal­dara said. “And that means the courts now have the near­sole purview of what the con­sti­tu­tion means.”

To Cal­dara, that ben­e­fits the left; for one thing, he be­lieves the courts have weak­ened the Tax­payer’s Bill of Rights, among other con­ser­va­tive poli­cies. But the real win­ner, he says, is the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

There’s prece­dent for law­mak­ers seek­ing to undo voter-backed ini­tia­tives.

When Colorado vot­ers ap­proved the GAVEL amend­ment, re­quir­ing that all bills re­ceive a hear­ing, “leg­isla­tive lead­ers went to court to try and block that amend­ment from be­ing im­ple­mented,” said Nuñez of Colorado Com­mon Cause.

When vot­ers backed statu­tory changes to cam­paign fi­nance re­form, law­mak­ers “at the first op­por­tu­nity … went in and dra­mat­i­cally un­der­cut what vot­ers had ap­proved,” she said.

Sup­port­ers — in­clud­ing all five liv­ing gov­er­nors, and a wide ar­ray of busi­ness groups, law­mak­ers and lo­cal gov­ern­ment lead­ers — counter that the changes con­cen­trate power in the right hands: the law­mak­ers whose job it is to make public pol­icy.

“Colorado has be­come a vir­tual petri dish for po­lit­i­cal ex­per­i­ments,” wrote the lead­ers of the ru­ral busi­ness groups Club 20, Ac­tion 22 and Pro­gres­sive 15, in a joint en­dorse­ment let­ter. “As one of the eas­i­est state con­sti­tu­tions to amend in the United States, the Colorado Con­sti­tu­tion now con­tains over 150 amend­ments and 75,000 words, many of which pro­duce con­flict­ing and un­sus­tain­able poli­cies.”

Is Colorado still a na­tional lab­o­ra­tory?

In a year in which the bal­lot stretched for mul­ti­ple pages, Amend­ment 71 may have had a spe­cial ap­peal to ini­tia­tive-weary vot­ers.

And some ob­servers ex­pect that it will lighten the load in the fu­ture.

“His­tor­i­cally, we’ve had some of the long­est bal­lots in the coun­try, and this will likely shorten them a bit,” Mas­ket said. Oth­ers aren’t so sure. “I would an­tic­i­pate Coloradans are go­ing to con­tinue to love to vote on bal­lot is­sues,” said Brough, with the Den­ver Metro Cham­ber, which sup­ported the mea­sure. “I think there’s tons of ex­am­ples of amend­ments that we’ve put into our con­sti­tu­tion that would be just fine to put into statute — and I think, frankly, more ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Many of the ini­tia­tive’s op­po­nents don’t even disagree with that goal.

“I think the in­tent was to try to limit us be­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal ground for outof-state groups. I think that’s ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly good,” said Karen Mid­dle­ton, the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, which op­posed the amend­ment. But, she added, it makes it too hard to fix things that she be­lieves are al­ready wrong with the con­sti­tu­tion.

How will pol­icy ad­vo­cates ad­just? Sev­eral said it was too early to say. Some may re­fo­cus their ef­forts on lob­by­ing law­mak­ers them­selves — but that’s been an up­hill bat­tle re­cently, with a split leg­is­la­ture. Oth­ers pre­dict a shift to­ward more statu­tory bal­lot mea­sures.

“They prob­a­bly head to­ward statu­tory changes now more, other things be­ing equal,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Af­fairs at the Univer­sity of Colorado Den­ver. “But, those things aren’t go­ing to be as baked in, be­cause the leg­is­la­ture can go and change them.”

On the other hand, most of the things — good and bad — that made it into the con­sti­tu­tion un­der the old rules are likely here to stay.

“It prob­a­bly does bake it in and so­lid­ify the past in a way that isn’t the hap­pi­est thing when you’ve got a state con­sti­tu­tion that’s the third-largest in the coun­try,” Teske said. “We have kind of a ridicu­lous num­ber of things in the con­sti­tu­tion that shouldn’t be there.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.