Colorado lawmakers may try to call a constitutional convention to rewrite conflicting amendments that have been added since Colorado became a state in 1876.
On Nov. 1, an interim legislative committee voted 12-6 to approve introduction of a bill that would set in motion the chain of events necessary. The legislation will be introduced when the General Assembly begins its 2004 session in January.
If the measure passes the General Assembly, voters would have to approve the constitutional convention, choose delegates and sign off on any changes made by the body. If it happens, it would be the first constitutional convention in Colorado since the original governing document was penned 127 years ago.
“What I am proposing is calling a constitutional convention, which will be charged specifically with offering up a package of reform to the voters,” said Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park. “I think if all else fails, this may be the only ways we can accomplish our goals and put and end to the conflict that exists within our constitution.”
At the heart of the problem are the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23. TABOR was approved by voters in 1992 and caps the amount of taxpayer money the state can keep each year with a formula that takes into account inflation and population growth. Amendment 23 was approved in 2000 and it requires the state to boost spending on public schools by inflation plus 1 percent for a decade and to set aside money in a trust fund for classrooms.
At its most basic level, TABOR forces the state keep less money while Amendment 23 forces the state to spend more. The problem has been exacerbated during the recent national recession.
Colorado has been hit with roughly $1 billion a year shortfalls for the last three years. While economic forecasts indicate the worst is over and a turn-around is imminent, state government is still facing a difficult budget year as it tries to catch up after three lean years.
Fixing the problem is not easy.
Most experts believe both Amendment 23 and TABOR need minor tweaks that preserve the intent of the measures but remove the conflict, along with some changes to a few other related constitutional provisions.
Any changes to the constitution require a vote of the people. A separate constitutional provision requires each ballot measure to have a single subject.
To fix TABOR, Amendment 23 and related measures would require multiple ballot measures. Some believe the number could be as high as four or five.
“If each issue is put before the voters independently, the voters would do the same thing I would do vote for the ones they like and oppose the ones they don’t like,” White said. “Eventually, every one of them will go down.
“It has to be done in concert. The only way it can be done in concert is to put the issue on the ballot through the constitutional convention.”
But some lawmakers believe the General Assembly should deal with the problem instead of asking a constitutional convention to start from scratch.
“I want to see if we can solve the problem here first, in the legislature,” King said. “If we absolutely can’t accomplish anything, then it is an option, but that is way down the line.”
Other lawmakers oppose the measure due to fears that the convention would turn overtly political.
Some minority Democrats, for instance, believe Republicans the majority party in Colorado might attempt to include changes that ban abortion or some such thing during the convention.
“I’m becoming less comfortable with this the more I learn about it,” said Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder. “Unless we can control it, I don’t feel comfortable with that.” Lawmakers who support the convention say that won’t happen because the convention would statutorily be limited to changing TABOR, Amendment 23 and related sections. A constitutional convention “may be the only place to address them all in one target,” said Rep. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “What we have for other options is that we keep shooting at moving targets one at a time.”
This is not the first time such a convention to alter the state’s constitution has been considered.
In August 1976, a 100-member assembly convened to discuss whether the document was adequate to meet the state’s changing needs. Nothing ever came of the effort. A mock constitutional convention was formed in 1987, with the 140 delegates agreeing no wholesale changes the document were needed.
While most states do not go in and touch up their constitution on a regular basis 21 states have never called a second constitutional convention some seem to do it on a fairly regular basis.
Louisiana has adopted 11 constitutions, including the most recent revision in 1974. Georgia has done it 10 times, the latest being in 1982. South Carolina has done it seven times, Virginia six, Alabama six, Florida six and Texas five.
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