The things we, the people of Colorado, do to our state constitution are pretty remarkable. Most informed voters know and understand how the conflicting provisions of TABOR, which restricts government collections and expenditures; Amendment 23, which mandates increased spending for K-12 education regardless of the condition of the state treasury or impact on other state programs; and the Gallagher amendment, which creates ever disparate property tax treatment of residential and commercial property ties elected officials’ hands and makes it difficult to deliver government services. But we continue to place things into the constitution that neither make sense nor belong in the constitution where they cannot be adjusted or fixed without an additional vote of the electorate.
This year’s addition is Amendment 54. It makes it illegal for anyone who has contracts with governments or political subdivisions of the state that were awarded without competitive bids that add up to $100,000 per year to make any campaign contributions to any candidate for any political office or to any political party. If that doesn’t sound extreme, how about this portion of the amendment? The restriction doesn’t just apply to the person who has been awarded contracts, it also extends to his or her spouse, child, spouse’s child, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, stepbrother, stepsister, parent-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, niece, nephew, guardian, or domestic partner. I don’t usually get involved in political discussions with either my family or my in-laws, but now our state constitution seems to suggest that all these people must have exactly the same political philosophies and will abuse the political process for their own gain. Oddly enough, uncles are left off the list.
Courts have routinely found that campaign finance laws that restrict donors’ political speech rights violate First Amendment free speech guarantees. Amendment 54 may be the most extreme of these initiatives and it is likely to be overturned. It is so extreme that there doesn’t even have to be a hint of nexus between a contract and a governmental entity to apply. A contractor who receives a change order to a contract for a school district would be restricted from contributing to candidates running for city council, county clerk, state representative or cemetery board member. His estranged mother-in-law, who disagrees with him on every political issue, is similarly disenfranchised. How will the contractor’s stepbrother, niece or aunt know enough about his business to know when such contracts have been awarded and in what amounts?
It would be nice to think we just didn’t understand what we were doing. Colorado voters faced the longest ballot in the country last month with 18 statewide ballot issues (including four that were withdrawn and not counted). Other issues garnered much more attention, and this very flawed initiative found enough votes to pass.
It will almost certainly be found unconstitutional, but in the meantime precious resources will be used as the case winds its way through the courts. Over the years, voters have passed a number of initiatives only to have them invalidated by the courts. We need a process to test proposals for constitutionality prior to their certification for the ballot, and voters need to be more informed about the consequences of their votes and to find more constructive ways to express concerns about propriety in government.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.