06/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lawmakers to Voters: Ballot Access For Me, But Not For Thee

Bored to tears by any mention of petition rights? If you've ever supported a grassroots issue campaign, you may want to take a second look--and do so quickly--after a pair of little watched Colorado Senate votes that took place on Wednesday.

Shortly after the lunch break and without a TV crew in sight, the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee first passed a proposal that would largely gut the ability of ordinary citizens to propose amendments to the state constitution. Allegedly acting in response to concerns over Colorado's already lengthy constitution, however, the committee used the same hearing to approve another proposal that would arm a handful of handpicked appointees with the unprecedented power to gut existing voter-approved constitutional protections.

A little history: In 2008, legislators sent a proposed constitutional amendment to the ballot titled Referendum O. The proposal sought to dramatically increase the requirements for citizens to propose their own constitutional amendments. Such proposals are known as ballot initiatives and are now legally referred to as "propositions."

It appeared that the timing could not have been better for proponents as Colorado had the longest ballot that November with 14 different referred measures and citizens initiatives. Surely, Referendum O's supporters must have thought, people will be so outraged by the ballot's length that they will vote to make sure they'll never have to face a ballot that long again.

But such an analysis proved shortsighted. While many voters expressed frustration with the lengthy ballot, they also recognized the importance of maintaining a healthy citizens' initiative process. Ultimately, they shot down all but four of the proposed amendments, with one of those four subsequently thrown out in court. The final tally: just three amendments ultimately made it into the constitution, including one that increased gambling limits to fund education, as well as two others largely seen as non-controversial clean up measures.

The message was clear. Voters like their petition rights.

Frustrated legislators did not take defeat lightly. They came back in 2009 with House Bill 1326, a measure that successfully imposed new roadblocks on grassroots campaigns, most notably through mandating extensive, bureaucratic, and confusing requirements for signature gathering, as well as through establishing a new burden shifting process that could bankrupt even the most astute grassroots campaign faced with bogus court challenges.

HB 1326 is now the subject of a lawsuit led by noted civil rights attorney David Lane, where he represents a broad coalition of citizen activists that includes an ideological rainbow of plaintiffs too rarely seen in modern politics.

Perhaps threatened by Lane's overt challenge to their authority to weaken constitutional protections, lawmakers decided to strike back once again, this time introducing Referendum O 2.0, better known as Senate Concurrent Resolution 3. One of the bills heard in Wednesday's hearing, its language is slightly different than Referendum O's. If passed, however, its effect would be largely the same. It would require campaigns to travel across the state, to even the most rural of Congressional districts, in pursuit of the nearly 80,000 statewide signatures required to get an initiative on the ballot.

For campaigns already counting pennies, the extensive travel required would prove prohibitively expensive. Also concerning, the measure would require at least 60 percent of general election voters (up from the current 50 percent currently) to approve an amendment for it to prevail.

But legislators didn't just stop there. Wednesday's committee members also heard Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, a proposal designed to create a "fiscal" commission of 19 appointed members, who with little clear oversight could radically alter the political process, including fiscal restraints to government spending already approved by voters in previous elections.

Under SCR-1, just 14 of the 19 commission members would need to agree on an amendment's language before the measure would be sent to the full legislature for a vote as a referred measure. At that point in the process, however, legislators wouldn't even be allowed the courtesy of hosting a rigorous or legitimate debate. Rather, they'd have to vote up or down on such measures, with those approved coasting to the November ballot.

At the end of Wednesday's hearing, three of the committee's five members voted in support of both resolutions. Only Senators Bill Cadman and Dave Schulteis, both Colorado Springs Republicans, dissented. With mere days left in this year's legislative session, these dramatic bills could now sail through the legislature with ease. A bit of hope as we see it: for this to happen, the bills' backers must get two-thirds of their fellow lawmakers to sign on. It will be a close contest either way.

Already, a handful of those who voted to send Referendum O to the ballot have suggested they may reverse course and vote no this go around. They should for at least three reasons. First, voters said no to restricted ballot access in 2008. Listen to them. Second, HB 1326's chilling effect has already kept a multitude of litigation-wary grassroots organizations from pursuing initiatives altogether. And finally, in a year where poll after poll concludes that voters are very wary of government growth and skeptical of legislative power, both measures could see a repeat of 2008's Referendum O defeat.

Lakewood grassroots activist Natalie Menten summarized the committee's actions best. The bills, she said, reflect "the rankest form of hypocrisy." There really is no other way to describe the committee's double standard.

While stifling the ability of millions of Coloradans to petition their own government, three state Senators used their power Wednesday to endorse a plan that could ultimately allow 14 politically connected "commissioners" to circumvent constitutional safeguards with gusto.

Jessica P. Corry is a Denver attorney, a policy analyst with the Independence Institute, and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit referenced above challenging HB 1326. Robert J. Corry, Jr. is also a Denver attorney and served as spokesman for the successful 2008 campaign that defeated Referendum O.