DENVER (AP) – The state senate’s president says he’s tired of Colorado being a test lab for proposed constitutional amendments pushed by special interest groups around the country, and he wants to raise the bar.
Colorado’s constitution has been amended over 50 times in the last 30 years. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times.
In 2010, voters only approved one of seven proposed amendments on the ballot — a measure allowing state government to meet outside Denver in the event of a disaster. In 2008, only four of 14 amendments passed.
Brandon Shaffer wants to increase the number of votes needed to pass an amendment from a simple majority to as high as 60 percent. He also wants to require that petition signatures be gathered in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
Under current rules, organizers must collect signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for the secretary of state in the previous election. Last year, only 76,047 signatures were needed from the state’s 3.2 million registered voters to get an amendment on the ballot.
“The goal is to bring some sanity to the initiative process in Colorado,” Shaffer said. “We want to preserve ballot access, but we don’t want Colorado to be a testing ground for constitutional experiments.”
One such was an amendment passed by voters in 1988 making English the official state language, a measure promoted by conservative groups across the country. It was overridden by Gov. Roy Romer by executive order.
A proposal to ban abortion, Amendment 62, failed in November, as did a similar “personhood” measure in 2008. The amendment would have granted constitutional rights at the moment of conception by defining a person “from the beginning of biological development.”
Business and political leaders raised millions of dollars last year to defeat two proposed amendments that would have cut school district property taxes and banned state borrowing. Analysts warned the amendments would have spelled economic gloom in the state for decades.
Shaffer and others also point to Colorado’s taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which is being promoted nationwide by fiscal conservative Grover Norquist of the national group Americans for Tax Reforms as a model for other states. State lawmakers say it conflicts with other constitutional amendments requiring them to increase spending for education, but it’s almost impossible to change it because it’s in the constitution.
Since 2006, several states have made it more difficult to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. In Nebraska, the number of signatures has gone from 10 percent of those who voted for governor to 10 percent of the state’s registered voters. In Nevada, an initiative needs to pass in two elections, the only state to do so.
California voters in November sorted through nine ballot measures, five of which proposed to amend the state’s constitution. The measures affected everything from the number of votes needed to pass a state budget or raise fees, to how legislative and congressional districts will be drawn after the 2010 census.
The most populous state has a 100-year tradition of direct democracy, dating to the days when grassroots initiatives were enacted as a way to counter the powerful railroad barons. In recent decades, the measures have often been criticized as tools of special interests that have the money to pay for professional signature-gatherers and marketing campaigns.
Colorado House Minority Leader Sal Pace, a Democrat from Pueblo, said initiatives force voters to choose one special interest group over another by taking issues to the ballot instead of working out a compromise in the Legislature.
“We’ve had labor versus business, severance taxes versus the oil companies, all of them ran competing amendments. It’s become absurd. Under the current process, a special interest group comes to the Capitol and if they can’t get what they want, they take it directly to the voters,” he said.
Janice Sinden, executive director of Colorado Concern, a coalition of business leaders who spend millions of dollars fighting initiatives that hurt businesses, is leading the charge to support tougher initiative requirements.
“I don’t believe issues like taxes should be in the constitution. They should be in statutes where they can be changed by lawmakers and change with the times,” she said.
Shaffer says he’d have to submit his proposal to voters as a constitutional amendment in 2012.
But voters rejected an attempt to change the rules in 2008. Referendum O would have increased the signature requirement for constitutional amendments but failed 52 percent to 48 percent.
“The process as it is works. We need more rules protect voter access, not less,” said former Senate President John Andrews, who works for a conservative Christian university in a Denver suburb.
– By Steven K. Paulson, AP Writer
(Associated Press Writer Donald Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.)
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