Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

Most Colorado legislators will violate their oath of office soon after swearing it on January 10, 2001. The legislators will knowingly subvert the state Constitution’s provision which allows citizens to call for a vote on new laws passed by the legislature.

The oath reads, I, (name) solemnly swear that I will uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Colorado, and I will faithfully discharge the duties of my office to the best of my knowledge and ability, so help me God.

The authority to legislate is delegated to the general assembly. The delegation is limited, not absolute. Citizens are empowered to override legislative decisions. (Colo. Const., art. V, sec. 1.) The mechanism is the “referendum petition.” If enough signatures are gathered to challenge a new legislative statute, then the voters have a chance to approve or disapprove the statute at the next general election.

Colorados lack of recent referendum petitions is not the product of citizen contentment. Rather, it is Constitutional subversion by elected officials. The Colorado Constitution reads, The second power hereby reserved [to the people] is the referendum, and it may be ordered, except as to laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety. In other words, the citizens get to vote on everything, if they want to, except for emergency legislation. But the definition of emergency has changed drastically.

Colorado’s most recent “referendum petition” in 1932 proved to be a humiliation to the legislature. The referendum challenged a 50% tax increase on oleomargarine and the tax increase was defeated with 62%.

Legislators determined to correct the problem and invented the safety clause. Mere citizens would no longer interfere with the legislator’s fine work–work such as imposing extortionate taxes on margarine in order to protect dairy farmers from competition.

Thus, the “safety clause” has appeared on nearly every piece of legislation since 1932. It reads, The general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares that this act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety.

The safety clause is supposed to be used only for real emergencies–such as a law banning fires during an especially dry summer. But in practice, the “safety” clause serves only one purpose: to deny citizens their reserved power to challenge laws. In other words, to subvert the Colorado Constitution.

In response to criticism from Douglas Bruce and other citizen activists, legislative leadership in January 1997 declared new procedures for Use of Safety Clause. They publicly trumpeted their statesmanship: the safety clause no longer will appear automatically.

Well, maybe the “safety” clause is not automatic, but it’s still used very, very frequently, for bill that have nothing to do with emergencies of the sort that should prevent the public from being able to vote on whether to retain the law.

Indeed, Coloradans would be alarmed to learn that the legislature thinks there were 426 statewide emergencies just in the year 2000. Some of the safety-threatening-emergencies dealt with by the legislature since the 1997 promise to stop abusing the safety clause include: the ratio of electrical journeymen to apprentices, travel expenses for juries, regulation of notaries, pet care, prohibition of cruising, art in juvenile facilities, recouping license plate mailing costs, oil and gas commission personnel, and male mammography.

It’s true that abuse of the safety clause has declined. The clause was once universal, and now appears in about 59% of bill. Abuse of the safety clause tends to be higher in the year after an election, and declines by about ten points in election years. The State Senate misuses the safety clause more frequently than does the House.

Although more and more legislators are informed about this abuse and refuse to use the safety clause on their own bills, there is a complicity factor. The abuse is so rampant, that honest legislators must not object to the safety clause abuse by their peers. Otherwise, the conscientious legislators would be ostracized as extremists.

There is new leadership in both the Senate and the House this year, so perhaps the new leaders can implement some constructive changes.  Reforms might include: prohibition of safety clause use, except in genuine emergencies; separate roll call vote to attach a safety clause to a bill; requiring a statement of the exact supposed emergency and its injurious consequences; requiring supermajority approval to add a safety clause.

These reforms would make it much harder for legislators to prevent people from voting on whether to retain new laws. For the legislature ever to override the “reserved power of the people is a serious matter. Continued misuse would merit removal of this authority entrusted to legislators. Many legislators take their oath seriously. Let’s hope the changes of the 2000 election bring more responsible behavior.

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a government reform think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.

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