Tuning up petition rights

Why Colorado needs Amendment 38 (John Andrews in the Denver Post, Feb. 19) February marks the birthday of two giants, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Ungrateful America no longer observes a holiday in either man’s name. Yet some of us never let Feb. 22 pass without a tribute to the Father of Our Country, or Feb. 12 without homage to the Great Emancipator.

Honoring Lincoln on my radio show last Sunday, I was reminded of his words in 1864, when the nation’s survival was in doubt and presidential powers in dispute: “It has long been a grave question whether any government, not too strong for the liberties of its people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies.”

NSA and the Patriot Act come to mind. But the balancing act between “strong enough” and “not too strong” challenges our constitutional republic in less dramatic ways as well. President Washington warned somberly against unchecked power: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.”

Written constitutions are an American innovation. The constitution is where the people tell the government what to do -- unlike the law where the government tells the people what to do. “All political power is vested in and derived from the people,” begins the Bill of Rights in our Colorado Constitution; “all government, of right, originates from the people.”

Entering the State Capitol each day while serving there, I remembered that we as legislators weren't the owners of power but merely held its trustees. The constitutional article that creates the General Assembly also decrees that “the people reserve to themselves the power” to propose and adopt laws or constitutional amendments by petition, as well as the power to approve or reject the same by referendum. Legislators are but hired hands!

Whom are you more inclined to trust, elected officials and the political insiders that surround them, or yourself and fellow voters? The former are mostly decent and well-meaning, granted. But remembering Washington’s warning about fire, we can be glad that Colorado (unlike most older, Eastern states) constitutionally provides for citizen petitions to restrain concentrated power. That is, expressed as a formula, CP>cp.

Through the years, however, concentrated power at the capitol and courthouse has undermined the effectiveness of citizen petitions on street-corners. Petitioners have found themselves stymied by bureaucratic stalling tactics and shut out by legislative word games. Now, watchdog groups have a cleanup proposal to make the process fair again. It’s called the Petition Rights Amendment, PRA. Voters will see it on the November ballot as Amendment 38.

PRA offers common sense in signature checking, ballot titles, and protest rulings; impartiality in the voter guide and by public agencies; petition elections every November and by all local governments; uniform rules statewide; and no more phony emergencies by the legislature to suspend petition rights. What a fraud for citizen review of even such routine legislative bills such as a kids’ license plate (SB-100) or an arts council reshuffle (SB-49) to be blocked by a “public peace and safety” clause.

Election 2006 may feature petition votes on illegal aliens, eminent domain, classroom spending, and traditional marriage (all currently leading in the polls), as well as marijuana and abortion (currently trailing). But your most important vote may be a “yes” on the Petition Rights Amendment itself. We need to make sure that CP>cp – that citizen petitions in fact remain greater than concentrated power. See www.PRA2006.com for all the details. * * * * * Mea Culpa: I erred by stating in my Feb. 5 column that all 15 members of the state judicial nominating commission are appointed by the governor. He only names eight; the rest are joint appointees of the governor, attorney general, and chief justice. But this means the system is even more flawed than I first argued. The chief justice shouldn’t help appoint (let alone chair) the commission filling vacancies on her own court. Nor should she, regardless of party, choose members of another commission that evaluates her own performance. Deliver us from this self-dealing.