Save Us From Ourselves

February 20 2007, 8:09 PM
Finally, help is on the way. We need to be saved…from ourselves. As The Denver Post reports:
House Speaker Andrew Romanoff says he and Republican Sen. Josh Penry will introduce legislation this week to discourage voters from making so many changes to the constitution. The proposal comes on the heels of Amendment 41, which targeted gifts to elected officials and government workers but has been interpreted to be so broad as to to prohibit children of government employees from accepting scholarships. Romanoff said Monday that his proposal would make it easier for voters to propose statutory changes rather than constitutional amendments. "There is no incentive for citizens to go the statutory route because it's just as easy to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and it is more airtight from legislative interference," Romanoff, D-Denver, said. Currently, proponents of ballot measures must collect signatures from 5 percent of the number of voters in the last secretary of state's race. Romanoff's proposal would ask voters to raise that threshold for constitutional amendments and lower it for statutory changes.
Here, here! As we've seen with the debate over what Amendment 41, where the discussion has been about what it was "supposed to mean" over what it actually said, we need to make it harder for everyone to just throw a constitutional amendment on the ballot and see what happens. The whole reason we have an elected legislature is make laws, and we should leave the lawmaking to the people who are paying attention (theoretically, anyway) to what they are doing. We also don't want to fall into the endless pit of initiatives that has crippled states like California, where lawmakers have their hands tied because any moron with a political committee can put their idea for a new law on the ballot. In Colorado, we've seen two recent examples of how a well-meaning group, Common Cause, managed to get amendments passed that were all kinds of screwed up. Amendment 27, which was approved by voters in 2002 as a way to reform campaign finance in Colorado, has instead created enough loopholes to drive Kirstie Alley through. The legislature eventually had to go back and make adjustments to Amendment 27, under heavy criticism, to make it less problematic. Now the same thing has happened with Amendment 41, the "ethics in government" measure that – oops! – may have the side effect of outlawing college scholarships for kids whose parents are state employees. Critics of Amendment 41 warned that the language of the measure would create problems, but Common Cause and others didn't listen…and now they're scrambling to fix it. Now, instead of debating whether a new bill is good or bad, legislators are mired in debating whether they should be trying to amend something that voters approved – even if voters probably didn't know what they were doing. Here's what the editorial board of the Rocky Mountain News thinks about that idea:
It's called House Bill 1304, although it could have been dubbed The Act To Save Common Cause From Its Own Blunders. Not surprisingly, it's 15 pages of brazen adjustments to the plain language of Amendment 41. Here's what we mean. Among Amendment 41's many provisions is one that says the following: "Members of the independent ethics commission shall have the power to subpoena documents and to subpoena witnesses to make statements and produce documents." In other words, each member of the commission has subpoena power. That's what "members" means in this type of English sentence, as our opening example with the athletic club shows. There is no other accepted way to read that line. But here's what HB 1304 has to say about the ethics commission's subpoena power: "No subpoena requiring the attendance of a witness or the production of documents shall be issued by the commission unless a motion to issue any such subpoena has been made by one member of the commission and approved by no fewer than four members of the commission." Let's recap: A constitutional amendment passed by voters says each commission member enjoys subpoena power; a proposed law implementing the amendment says a commission member can issue a subpoena only if three other members agree. We'd call that an attempt to rewrite the constitution without a vote of the people. It's flatly illegal. It's positively wrong.
Common Cause is like that old lady in the park who tells a mother that her newborn daughter is "a beautiful little boy"; they mean well, but they should probably be a little more careful about what they say and do. Good intentions don't automatically create good laws, which is why we shouldn't be so eager to write just anything into the constitution if we can only convince voters that it's a good idea "in theory." It's not good enough to have an amendment that is a good "idea." We need it to actually work.