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Death by Ethics

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Democrat Jared Polis has his eye on the second congressional district seat expected to be vacated by Rep. Mark Udall in advance of a run for the U.S. Senate, but it’s beginning to look like the road to defeat may be paved with good intentions.

Polis has been furiously lobbying legislators to pass clarifying legislation regarding Amendment 41 (the ethics in government initiative), which he backed with most of his political muscle in 2006. Amendment 41 was intended to serve as a way to “clean up” government from the influence of rich lobbyists, but as it was written, it may create more problems than solutions – especially for Polis.

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According to a ruling by Attorney General John Suthers in late December, Amendment 41 in plain language prevents state employees from accepting awards such as the Nobel Prize or scholarships for their children based on grades in high school. Polis was hoping the legislature would clarify Amendment 41 to prevent devastating public relations problems such as students being ineligible for scholarships, but as theRocky Mountain News reports, the legislature probably isn’t going to save the day:

The authors of Amendment 41 have consistently claimed that the measure need not mean what it clearly says (see the Speakout column in this section for a sophisticated version of this argument).

They say the legislature can write an enabling law protecting the ability of government workers, their spouses and dependents from the immense problems created by banning their accepting any “gift or thing of value” worth more than $50 a year.

But such a ban is unfortunately what Amendment 41 imposes. Fitz-Gerald was particularly eloquent on the responsibility of voters to know what they’re supporting before they go to the polls. Now that Coloradans have passed this monstrosity, it’s up to the state to somehow live with it.

After all, as Fitz-Gerald also pointed out, the amendment itself says that although “Legislation may be enacted to facilitate the operation of this article. . . in no way shall such legislation limit or restrict the provisions of this article.”

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What part of the phrase “in no way” do those who want the legislature to carve out exceptions fail to understand?

We take no glee in seeing state and local government workers between a rock and a hard place on 41. University of Colorado President Hank Brown laid out for us recently the troublesome implications of 41 for his institution, and they involve everything from scholarships and Nobel prizes in jeopardy to grants to professors for research on pharmaceuticals. Serious stuff.

But while we understand Brown’s desire to see the legislature carve out exceptions to 41’s coverage, that’s just not possible without lawmakers ignoring the plain language of the constitution.

Prior to submitting Amendment 41 for approval, supporters of the measure were warned repeatedly by numerous politicos that the language could create serious unintended problems. They didn’t listen at the time, and now Polis could end up taking the brunt of the backlash. As he wrote in an e-mail newsletter sent to supporters on Dec. 31:

Our work has really just begun on the ethics in government initiative, because some of the opponents are now trying to interpret it in absurd ways in an attempt to undermine it and convince the voters to repeal the initiative!

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The amendment was written in such a way as to allow the legislature to enact enabling legislation that defines certain terms while ensuring that the voters’ intent to create an ethics commission, put a two-year cooling off period between when a legislator ends their service and begins lobbying and prohibit gifts meant to influence decisions is honored. We worked to pass, and The Denver Post, Daily Camera, and other papers across the state endorsed, the amendment knowing that the legislature would enact such legislation.

The vast majority of legislators are honest, hard-working people trying to help the people of our state. Even so, there is a nationwide movement (recently the Rocky Mountain News wrote that Speaker Pelosi’s national ethics proposals are very similar to what we passed here in Colorado!) to enact sensible legislation that ensures everyone is playing by the same rules.

But please know, we are on top of the situation and working with the legislature on common sense legislation to implement the Amendment.

Amendment 41 was widely panned by elected officials and candidates prior to Election Day – not because of the intentions, but because of the vagueness of the language that many thought could be too restrictive. Many officials will be upset about it for a long time to come, but that isn’t Polis’ biggest problem. While his defense of government ethics is laudable and could help him win some votes in Democratic-leaning CD-2, the bigger concern is the potential for severely damaging negative ads should legislators refuse to make changes. Polis and his advisors may have thought that being a champion of government ethics in 2006 could be a great springboard into 2008, but it certainly isn’t working out that way.

If the legislature doesn’t save him by altering Amendment 41, the political consequences could be severe. It isn’t hard to picture the television ads already:

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[WIDE SHOT OF FORLORN-LOOKING TEENAGE GIRL SITTING IN A SMALL LIVING ROOM]

Sally
I’ve always dreamed of going to college because I want to be a teacher. My family doesn’t make a lot of money, so I studied hard to earn my own way.

[SHOT OF A SALLY WALKING ON STAGE AT HER HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION]

Sally
I was offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Colorado because of my 4.0 GPA. But I can’t accept it unless my father quits his job driving a truck for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

[CAMERA TURNS TO A TIRED MIDDLE-AGED MAN NEXT TO THE GIRL]

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Father
Because of an amendment pushed by Jared Polis, state employees cannot accept financial gifts – even in the form of a college scholarship. As a single father I can’t afford to pay tuition for Sally. This was her only hope.

[CAMERA PANS BACK TO GIRL]

Sally
But now I’m going to have to go to community college, because we can’t afford tuition unless I work a full-time job.

[WIDE SHOT OF FATHER AND DAUGHTER TOGETHER]

Sally and Father
“Thanks a lot, Jared Polis.”

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[SCREEN GOES BLACK]

Narrator
Jared Polis has done enough harm. Colorado families can’t afford to send him to congress.

Obviously this wasn’t what Polis intended, but don’t think Amendment 41 won’t be used against him if he runs for congress in 2008. Officials at Colorado Common Cause, one of the strongest proponents of Amendment 41, have repeatedly said that they don’t think the measure outlaws scholarships. Perhaps they are correct, but the attorney general’s office apparently thinks otherwise. The political career of Polis could depend on the answer.

If Amendment 41 isn’t clarified and remains a problem for thousands of government employees in Colorado (and for their children), it’s going to put Polis in a huge political hole come 2008. Ironically, one of the very people he needs to help him make changes – Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald – could be his strongest opponent in a 2008 Democratic primary; she has more than one reason to refuse to clarify the amendment.

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