Is 13 an unlucky number? It sure seems so this year, since we hapless Colorado voters will be asked to decide on 13 ballot issues, including six referred by the state legislature, three initiated constitutional amendments and four statutory initiatives.
But don’t worry! I’m not going to give you a dreary list of pros and cons. Instead, how about a somewhat less dreary history lesson, and some ideas on whether to free ourselves from having to make these decisions?
After statehood in 1876, the Colorado Legislature could, with the governor’s assent, amend the Colorado Constitution. That didn’t sit well with some residents of the freshly minted state, so they got together and formed the Colorado Direct Legislation League, led by Dr. Persifor M. Cooke.
They lobbied the legislature without effect for 15 years until 1910, when progressive Governor John Shafroth called a special session of the legislature to consider constitutional amendments permitting citizen initiatives, referendums and recalls.
In 1912, Coloradans managed to put 22 initiatives and six popular referendums on the ballot, still a record.
“Among these were laws or amendments establishing an eight-hour workday for workers employed in ‘underground mines, smelters, mills and coke ovens’; giving women workers an eight-hour day; providing pensions for orphans and for widows with children; establishing juvenile courts in major cities and counties; and granting home rule to cities and towns,” according to the Initiative and Referendum Institute.
The subsequent history of voter-initiated changes in statutes or initiatives parallels the political climate of the state. Progressive and worker-friendly measures gave way to environmentalist-backed initiatives blocking the Winter Olympic Games (1972) and prohibiting underground nuclear explosions (1974).
Weird as the latter may seem, it makes sense in the context of the times. On Sept. 10, 1969, the United States detonated a 40-kiloton nuclear device 8,400 feet below ground in Garfield County, eight miles north of Parachute. The purpose of the test was to fracture the tight, gas-bearing shale deep underground, and release natural gas. Predictably, the gas thereby released was too radioactive for use and the Feds soon abandoned what we would now call nuclear fracking.
By the 1980s, successful initiatives were aimed at deterring “career professional politicians” through term limits and sharply curtailing the powers of the legislature and other elected bodies. Douglas Bruce’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment, a multi-subject hodgepodge of provisions limiting taxes and revenue retention by Colorado governments large and small, effectively rewrote much of the Colorado Constitution. It passed by a narrow majority in 1992, and may have been the most consequential voter-initiated measure in state history. And like it or not, it was truly in the spirit of the 1910 adoption of the popular initiative — no big money, no establishment support, just the unruly Mr. Bruce and hundreds of unpaid petition circulators.
In 2016, voters decisively approved the “Raise the Bar” amendment, requiring proponents to get signatures from 2 percent of the voting population from each of the 35 Colorado Senate districts to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Sounds innocuous and public spirited, but it’s not. The multi-million-dollar campaign for the issue was entirely funded by the oil and gas industry, a panicked (and justifiable!) reaction to the threat of proposed initiatives that might cripple the industry in the state.
So of course there’s such a measure on the November ballot, as well as an industry-supported Constitutional amendment that (according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s analysis) “requires that the state or a local government compensate property owners any time a law or regulation reduces the fair market value of private property.”
The halcyon days of the Dougster and his rag-tag army of tax resisters are long gone, replaced by the sleek, moneyed warriors of powerful interest groups. How can we get rid of all the craziness? Absent millions of dollars for signature collectors, lawyers, political consultants and deceptive advertisements, we can’t — but I have a plan.
Let’s get behind a simple, straightforward measure that replaces the 2018 Constitution with the pre-Shafroth 1910 document. The legislature can fix any subsequent problems, and I’m ready to fund the whole thing!
If I hit Powerball, that is.