Walking out of my neighborhood supermarket the other day, I was accosted by a middle-aged woman with a petition for me to sign.
She was a paid petition circulator, making a couple of bucks a signature. And what, exactly, would I be signing?
“Oh, this is a good one!” And she tried to explain it, not very successfully. Something about taxes, and rebates that we were supposed to get but didn’t get because of the wicked legislature —just sign here!
It was clear that she didn’t really understand what she was peddling — she was just trying to make a buck.
Thanks to her, and thousands like her, we may see as many as 13 “citizen initiatives” on the November ballot. Only they’re not citizen initiatives, in any real sense.
To gain a place on the ballot, petitioners must gather 68,000 valid signatures — or close to 100,000 signatures.
Not so many years ago, the law forbade backers of initiatives from hiring paid petition circulators. It wasn’t easy to get on the ballot — your issue had to resonate with voters so powerfully that hundreds of volunteers would be willing to carry petitions.
Initiatives that made it that far, like Doug Bruce’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment in 1992, were genuinely populist in nature, with broad support from at least part of the electorate.
All that changed with the introduction of paid circulators.
Got $250K? Got some cranky special-interest gobbledygook you’d like to enshrine in the Colorado Constitution? Yes, Virginia, you too can have your very own constitutional amendment!
This November we also will have the privilege of voting on five amendments that have been referred by the legislature. They range from innocuous (repealing obsolete constitutional provisions) to quirky (legalize marijuana right now!) to bizarre (four separate amendments defining/re-defining marriage).
Every one of them came from special interest groups with deep pockets — and every one of them is narrowly drawn to benefit one group or punish another.
There’s even an amendment out there that would reduce signature requirements for future petitions — in other words, it makes it even more of a free-for-all.
As the residents of California have slowly figured out, government by initiative doesn’t work very well.
An initiated amendment is subject to no changes, no public hearing, no legislative vote, no lobbyist input and no gubernatorial veto. If its backers can invent a good story, and if they have enough money to use the media to get the story out, it’ll win.
And that’s that — if it’s a disaster, too bad.
Reading the Federalist Papers, it’s interesting to note how concerned the founders were with the influence of “factions”— e.g. special interests. Our form of government was deliberately designed to reduce factionalism, and to insulate legislators from the transitory passions of the crowd.
But “citizen initiatives” do precisely the opposite. After years of successful initiatives, the Colorado legislature has been effectively emasculated.
Thanks to federal mandates (Medicaid, No Child Left Behind)) and initiated constitutional amendments (TABOR, Gallagher, GOCO, Amendment 23), the state budget is largely set in stone.
Maybe you think that the state should spend less on public schools, open space and historic preservation, and more on transportation — should you e-mail our El Paso County legislators and let them know?
Don’t bother — they can’t do anything about it, thanks to past initiatives.
Is there a solution? Probably not, given that the warring special interests love this particular battlefield.
Want to legalize marijuana? Run an initiative — the legislature won’t do it!
Want to criminalize illegal immigrants? Run an initiative — the legislature won’t do it!
We’ll just have to live with the loonies — and, if you’re like me, vote “no” on everything.
Meanwhile, it looks as if we’ll have a packed ballot for the August Republican primary, with as many as six candidates in the Congressional District 5 race.
Theoretically, this is simply for the Republican nomination – but in fact, it’s for all the marbles. Whoever gets the nod may be “Congressman For Life,” the man in Washington for all of us.
And we’d better hope that the business community in particular is paying close attention to the process. Remember, the economy of the Pikes Peak Region is dangerously dependent upon the federal government.
What about Fort Carson? NORAD? Schreiver Air Force Base? The Air Force Academy?
We need to consider the long-term future of this community, and the fact that power in Washington is unpredictable and transitory.
Our congressman should be someone who can build bridges to the other party, not a strident ideologue. Imagine a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat majority Senate and a Democratic majority House — which of the not-so-sexy six do we want?
I’m not sure — but voting “no” isn’t an option.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223.