Saturday, October 2, 2004
The 2004 election exemplifies the risks that Colorado runs as one of the so-called "initiative states."
Twenty-four states -- mostly in the West -- allow residents, through a petition process, to go straight to voters with amendments to their state constitutions. In essence, initiative states allow for "direct democracy" as a check and balance to "representative democracy."
Colorado has used such a process since 1910, and we would not advocate scrapping it. However, we would remind voters that the privilege of direct democracy carries with it significant responsibility. Voters must protect the sanctity and mission of the state constitution by rejecting initiatives that seek to abuse the system.
The state constitution should provide a macro vision of governance, including principal rights and freedoms for all citizens, the structure of state government and the policies for establishing the laws that govern us.
Unfortunately, the initiative process too often has been used to try to micromanage government through the constitution. Such is the case with Amendment 34 and Amendment 35 in the upcoming election. Amendment 34 attempts to remove limits on lawsuits filed by homeowners about construction defects, and Amendment 35 would raise taxes on cigarettes and place strict limits on how the tax revenues could be spent.
Although these may be important issues to debate, it's hard to make the case that they deserve a place in our constitution.
In 2001, the National Conference of State Legislatures commissioned a task force to study citizen initiatives. The study showed that Colorado has had 181 initiatives, an average of nearly two every year since citizens were given the power in 1910. Only Oregon and California have had more.
Ultimately, the NCSL task force recommended that states not use the initiative process. The task force "concluded that the initiative has evolved from its early days as a grassroots tool to enhance representative democracy into a tool that too often is exploited by special interests."
In Colorado, the initiative process has hamstrung representative democracy. The conflicting effects of Amendment 23, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment -- all three citizen initiatives -- have severely limited legislators' ability to balance the state budget and provide the variety of services residents demand.
Constitutional amendments are not the only means for residents to enact laws in Colorado. The initiative process also allows residents to place issues on the ballot that change or amend the Colorado Revised Statutes, which is the set of specific laws that govern our state. Amendment 37 on this year's ballot, which would require utility companies to begin using more renewable energy, is a statutory amendment.
But the Legislature has the power to alter the Colorado Revised Statutes, including statutory amendments approved by voters. Constitutional amendments, once adopted, may only be changed through a vote of the people. As a result, most citizen initiatives have gone the constitutional route, including many initiatives that have no business in the constitution.
To their credit, Colorado citizens consistently have shown they can sniff out and reject initiatives that attempt to amend the constitution improperly. That trend must continue if we want to retain the power of direct democracy.