In November of last year, my state government/-savvy brother issued the following warning: “Whatever you do, don’t vote to amend the constitution.”
At first, I was reluctant to heed his advice because some of the proposed amendments seemed well-intentioned. Take the minimum wage hike: Only cold-blooded economists would have the gall to vote that down, right?
I came to realize, however, that the constitution is not the appropriate place to be setting minimum-wage standards. Essentially, constitutions are intended to define basic civil rights and liberties, as well as government structure and processes relating to the legislation and execution of laws.
Moreover, the fact that the minimum wage was indexed to inflation opened the door to unintended consequences. For instance, times of abnormal inflation would translate to wages skyrocketing and businesses suffering. By the same token, abnormal deflation would significantly reduce wages, thus, adversely effecting workers.
Unlike the minimum wage amendment, Amendment 41’s deficiencies were not as transparent. It is for this reason that I voted on it and now completely regret it. Amendment 41, if one recalls, banned any state employee, spouses and dependents included, from receiving gifts valued at more than $50 in a given year.
There is no question that Amendment 41 was passed with the noble intention of curtailing the influence of special interest groups. After highly publicized ethics scandals, such as the Jack Abramoff affair, it is not surprising that more than 62 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 41.
Unbeknownst to voters, however, Amendment 41 would prove to have disastrous consequences with regard to scholarships. Paraphrasing Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, the Denver Post reports, “The law’s broad language could be construed to prohibit everything from children of government employees accepting scholarships to college professors collecting the financial award that comes with a Nobel Prize.”
In other words, Amendment 41 could potentially prohibit a janitor’s child from receiving a scholarship. Blocking scholarships from going to needy students is not what voters bargained for, yet it’s what they got.
Currently, legislators are in a gridlock trying to ameliorate the unforeseen consequences of Amendment 41. Already, lawsuits are flying left and right from scholarship-providing organizations, such as the Boettcher Foundation.
Like TABOR and the ordeal associated with the passing of Referendum C, Amendment 41 is a reminder of how citizen and legislative referenda have taken on an unhealthy role in the policy-making process.
Direct democracy is but a euphemism for mob rule. It undermines representative democracy entirely and tends to limit the rights of the most vulnerable minority groups. The outcropping of amendments prohibiting gay marriage and basic services for illegal immigrants are examples of such. Anybody that values civil rights and liberties should be an especially adamant opponent of citizen-initiated ballot measures.
Moreover, it is a bit disconcerting that people who have a better chance of naming personalities on American Idol rather than on the federal government level – let alone the state government level – should be in a position to formulate public policy. Let’s face it: Most people don’t care about politics and even a smaller fraction cares enough to be informed about salient issues.
Even among those who do try to keep tabs on political developments, the unintended consequences an amendment can produce are difficult to predict. Had Amendment 41 been a statute, then a law could very easily have been introduced to soften its edges. Now, changing Amendment 41 opens a can of worms regarding separation of powers and other constitutional issues.
I never thought I would say this, but I should have listened to my brother.
Luci Storelli-Castro is a senior political science and philosophy major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to email@example.com.