By Dennis Polhill
Life would be so much more pleasant for Colorado elected officials if they could somehow figure out how to be representatives of the people. Their failure to act on various popular ideas, viewed by them as repugnant, proves their reluctance to represent. The legislature’s most recent display of contempt is SCR-2, which will appear as a referendum on the November ballot. If passed, this proposal would practically derail citizen initiatives by requiring them to pass by a vote of 60% instead of the current 51%.
Tax limitations first made it to the Colorado ballot by citizen initiative in 1966. Subsequent tax initiatives were defeated in 1972, 1976, 1978, 1986, 1988, and 1990, before passing in 1992. The Colorado legislature failed to comprehend or to respond to the unsubtle message of the people. Had tax reform been enacted, it is unlikely that the voters would have passed the 1992 measure. The fact that the people would not approve tax limitations in the first eight attempts over 26 years suggests not only that the people are very cautious, discrete, and responsible in approving initiatives, but that they would prefer for legislators to deal responsibly with issues.
Colorado elected officials were offended again by the term limits issue. When term limits were proposed into the Colorado Senate in 1988 by Terry Considine, only three other Senators could find their way to support the bill. Considine became the proponent of a citizen initiative and succeeded in getting term limits on the ballot in 1990.
The initiative is the process by which a citizen may propose a law to the voters by circulating petitions. Not only did the people approve term limits by 71% but the issue took on a life of its own sweeping the nation. The Republican Revolution of 1994 used term limits as its anchor issue in the Contract with America.
The reaction of the Colorado legislature has been to attack both the message and the messenger: Term limits and tax limits are a bad idea. The citizens are uninformed and incapable of making prudent judgments. The initiative process is being abused by extremists who must be stopped. The initiative process, in spite of repeated court rulings against the actions of the State of Colorado as blatant violations of constitutional rights, continues to be attacked by the legislature. In a 1988 unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court against the state of Colorado prohibition of paid circulators was stricken. The court stated The concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment. A 1994 U.S. district court used similar reasoning to strike down Colorado s requirements for circulator badges, black ink signatures , and blue ink petitions. The fact that the initiative is a “reserved power” in the Colorado Constitution and is not a right bestowed by the legislature, has done little to deter legislative infringement.
The initiative process is the most pure representation of popular will that exists today. By definition, it is philosophically neutral. It cannot lean to the left or to the right. It can be abused only to the extent that moneyed interests wish to influence an election outcome via campaign. Because it is far more difficult and expensive for the moneyed interests to influence a statewide election than to influence the legislature, they oppose the initiative process. These moneyed interest are the natural allies of the entrenched career politician. Together they represent a powerful, controlling, ruling elite. They look down and patronize the masses with their insider clichs, “those who are organized win and those who are not organized pay the bill.
To keep the masses divided they have tricked the people into believing that the political battle is between the left and the right. They allege that all that is needed is for a few more of the correct label to join in the fray. The peasants dutifully fight the good battle. One side or the other wins the election, but not in sufficient numbers. The truth is that the political battle is as it has always been. It is the people versus the rulers.
Instead of choking the initiative process, like the legislature is trying to do with SCR-2, it should view it as a tool to sense and to measure the will of the people. With a fresh outlook the legislature would find that the ballot can be used to their benefit by diffusing hot issues, by dismissing conflict of interest issues, by sensing the pulse of the people on marginal issues, and by forcing themselves to act on critical issues. The right to petition will not die. Why not be in tune with the people?
Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute.
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