Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill

It is about power. Power over the people. If the people have more power, then there must be less for elected officials and those who influence them. Conversely, if elected officials and their minions wish to have more power, then they must take power from the people.

In the 1995 general session of the state legislature, a resolution was passed to overhaul the initiative process. SCR-2 was originally worded to make it harder for constitutional amendments and easier for statutes to access the ballot by initiative. However, SCR-2 was hijacked via amendment and steered away from its original intent to improve the initiative process, Senator Ray Powers withdrew his name as the prime sponsor and voted against it. Normally, when a sponsor does this, his peers respect his wish and the bill dies. But the desire for power knows no bounds in the hearts of Colorado’s elected officials.

The legislature voted to put SCR-2 on the ballot in the next statewide election in November 1996. It would amend the Colorado Constitution with a simple majority so that all future amendments require a 60% super majority.

The evidence shows that the people are extremely responsible and discreet in exercising their right to vote. Only 33 of the 106 citizen initiated amendments have passed since the right of petition was formalized in Colorado in 1910 with the Initiative and Referendum process. In contrast 60 of 109 referred amendments were approved over the same time period. It is inconsistent for the legislature to argue that there are too many amendments. What they mean is that there are too many citizen initiated amendments. When one is in the business of power, even one citizen initiative is one too many. In the 84 years that the people have had the right to petition in Colorado, only 14 of the 106 amendments would have passed had the 60% rule been in place. In all likelihood the moneyed interests, who find it more convenient and less expensive to influence the legislature would pour money into opposition campaigns. This would force the pass rate to be even less than the 14 in 106. They may claim that the right to petition is still alive, but for all practical purposes it would be gone.

SCR-2 goes even further. It gives the legislature the authority to change citizen initiated statutes after 4 years. Current practice is that citizen initiated statutes are regarded as above legislated statutes. Thus, they are rarely and reluctantly changed. SCR-2 would give the legislature license to dabble, further infringing on the people’s right of petition.

The legislature’s disdain for petitions has a long history and is well known. The process is further restricted nearly every year. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the State of Colorado for such infringement in 1988.

The right of referendum has been co-opted since 1932. Once the legislature passes a law the people have the right to petition to put the law to a vote of the people, except when there is a statewide emergency. So, the legislature simply declares every law they pass to be an emergency.

Aside from the abusive conduct of the legislature there are a few compelling reasons to preserve the right of petition. The mere prospect of its use encourages better legislation. It provides a degree of accountability of legislators and a mechanism to deal with the conflict of interest and hot potato issues. Voter interest, competence and participation increases. At least four independent studies have found that voter turnout is about 10% higher when issues are on the ballot. It is a right that belongs to the people and for which the Founding Fathers pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

It has always been and always will be that those who control power want to preserve it and want more. This has been the struggle of humanity since we first stood upright. Those who dislike the rights of petition are elected officials, political parties, and established special interests (big money, big business, and big labor.)

As the Declaration of Independence states, “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a Free People.” Keep these words in mind the next time you vote for your state legislator. Term limits on state legislators take effect in 1998. Can we wait until 1998, or shall we fix the legislature in 1996?

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden Colorado.