Colorado Constitution exhibit inspires dialogue

The Colorado Statesman

Public policy advocates are hoping that an exhibit at the new History Colorado museum will encourage dialogue about the Colorado Constitution and whether it is too easy to amend the important state document in today’s modern day.

The conversation was already sparked on Tuesday when Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler attended the unveiling of the “For the People of Colorado: Our Constitution” exhibit. Also on hand was Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver.

History Colorado President and CEO Ed Nichols greets members of the press and invites the visitors to study the Museum’s Colorado Constitution exhibit.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The new exhibit, which opens next week and runs through February 2013, includes a look at the state’s 1876 founding document. While pouring over the document, which is displayed as it was published in 1876 — in English, Spanish and German — Steadman brought up the current initiative process, saying that the constitution is too easy to amend. The lawmaker said that placing tax issues in the Constitution is not proper since many are fluid.

This original of the Colorado Constitution, displayed in soft light, is open to the page displaying the Constitution’s Preamble, the phrase “The State of Colorado,” Article 1 “Boundaries” and Article 2 “Bill of Rights.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“We should be able to change it, nothing should be unchanged forever. But it just shouldn’t be so damn easy,” said Steadman. “We shouldn’t do it willy-nilly. We shouldn’t put things in it that are better placed in statute. It shouldn’t have details; it shouldn’t have dollar figures; and it shouldn’t read like a code of regulations.”

The Colorado Constitution is displayed in English (lower right), Spanish (upper left) and German (upper right). In 1876, Constitutional delegate Casimiro Barela said “We must ask that the laws be published in Spanish for a period of twenty-five years, and in return, the people of Southern Colorado will lend their support so that the territory might be made a state.” The display also indicates that, “Germans made up the largest foreign-born group in the state in the 1870’s.”
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Lawmakers have tried for years to reform the initiative process in Colorado, but there has never been an appetite amongst voters to do so. Interest groups often fight back against such reforms, as stricter initiative rules would have detrimental effects on advancing their causes.

Listening to the speakers are Colorado Bar Association President-elect Mark A. Fogg and Larry Hudson of Hudson Government Affairs, LLC, with History Colorado’s Chairman of the Board W. Bart Berger between them.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

To amend the constitution in Colorado, voters simply need to have a ballot title approved by the title board, and then gather 86,105 valid signatures to place the initiative on the general election ballot. The number of signatures required is calculated by what is equal to 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for the office of secretary of state in the preceding general election. The number fluctuates. For example, in 2010, only 76,047 signatures were needed.

History Colorado Center volunteer Tim Rearick and security department’s Brian Koller pose for a photo.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The exhibit showcases the relative ease with which the Colorado Constitution can be amended by displaying four additional casings for the state constitution, demonstrating that the founding document is now four times as large as it was when it was first created.

Bearing current printings of the Colorado Constitution (prepared by LexisNexis) are Larry Foy of LexisNexis, State Historian William J. Convery, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler and LexisNexis’ Jeffrey S. Pfeiffer.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

The exhibit examines several high-profile initiatives over the years, including 1992’s Amendment 2, which Colorado voters backed to prohibit any local or state government from taking action to recognize gay and lesbian citizens as a so-called “protected class.” The initiative was overturned by state courts and made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in 1996 that the amendment did not pass several legal tests.

Also displayed at the exhibit are artifacts from 1992’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR initiative, which voters backed to limit taxation. Under the law, all tax issues must go to a vote of the people. The amendment has been the lynchpin for debate on whether taxation and other evolving questions should be addressed through constitutional amendment, or through statute.

Gessler took a somewhat guarded approach to the question, declining to specifically address his thoughts on whether the state constitution is too easy to amend. Instead, he said, “I’m a big supporter of civic engagement, so I know sometimes people like the result of that and sometimes folks don’t, but that’s the bottom line.”

He added, “Whether it’s a tax issue or some other issue, if Coloradans think it’s critically important, that’s their choice to have. I’m not going to take a position on it right now… It’s worked pretty well, but there’s always room for improvement.”
The conversations initiated Tuesday by Steadman and Gessler demonstrate exactly the sort of debate promoters are hoping to generate through the new exhibit. In addition to the secretary of state’s office, History Colorado has also partnered with LexisNexis to present the exhibit.

“This exhibit and associated programs are intended to educate our visitors and inspire citizens to be civically engaged in discussions that help shape our future,” said Ed Nichols, president and chief executive of History Colorado. “The History Colorado Center was designed to create opportunities for Coloradans to look at today’s issues and provide the forums to discuss present problems in the context of the past.”

In addition to the exhibit at the museum, walking tours through Civic Center and downtown will also address slavery, suffrage and other historic events that have shaped the constitution. The tours begin June 26 and are offered every second Wednesday through February 2013.

For more information, visit HistoryColorado.org. Located at 1200 Broadway in Denver. 303-HISTORY.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com