Blame game bedevils Amendment 41

In Blog, Capitol Review by Mark Hillman

What if your state senator or representative voted for a bill based on what they were told it would do, rather than what the bill actually said in plain ol’ black and white?

What if the actual text of that bill put some rather outrageous things into state law and, when pressed further, your elected legislator explained, "Well, I never actually read the bill before I voted on it"?

Would you pat him or her on the head and say, "Aw, that’s OK.  We know you are busy, so we’ll just ignore the part of the law you didn’t read and instead apply only what you say you intended for it to do"?

Is that what you would say?

No, I didn’t think so.

You would remind your elected official that he or she wanted the job, campaigned for the job, asked you to trust his or her ability to do the job, and is now paid a decent salary to perform the job.

And if this "oversight" turned out to be a monumental screw up, it’s fair to guess that you probably would not trust that person’s judgment again.

Well, for some Colorado voters, the shoe is now on the other foot – at least according to a poll commissioned by proponents of Amendment 41, the ignominious constitutional amendment sold to the voters as "ethics in government."

According to the aforementioned poll, most Colorado voters believed Amendment 41 was all about preventing lobbyists from lavishly wining, dining and entertaining legislators or preventing "recovering" legislators from becoming lavishly-paid lobbyists.

Voters, again according to the poll, didn’t think that Amendment 41 would prevent the daughter of a state snowplow driver from accepting a college scholarship.

Never mind that the plain text clearly said "government employees" and prohibited them "either directly or indirectly" from benefiting from "a gift or thing of value given to such person’s spouse or dependent child."

Like it or not, a scholarship is clearly a "thing of value" that benefits the parents of the recipient by reducing the financial burden of college upon the family, so when opponents of Amendment 41 raised this red flag they were simply following the plain language of the law.

(A district judge recently opined that certain scholarships are exempt if they require the recipient to do certain things after receiving the award, like attend a Colorado school and meet certain academic standards.)

The amendment’s sponsors have since argued that a scholarships and the like are not given to influence the decisions of a government official and, therefore, are not prohibited.  However, the amendment plainly applies to "any gift or other thing of value" — not just those used to curry the favor of government officials.

So, if the poll is correct and most Colorado voters didn’t know what they were voting for, then it’s time for certain among us – you know who you are — to look in the mirror and resolve, "I will never, ever vote to put something in the state constitution unless I have read every word and think it’s as perfect as humanly possible."

The state constitution is no place to "send a message" with language that’s "close enough."

Still, the tale of untangling Amendment 41 gets richer yet.

Reporters and Capitol denizens have dubbed the amendment, "Jared’s Law," after multi-millionaire whizkid Jared Polis who bankrolled the campaign with $217,000.

Polis now claims to be "stupefied by the attempt that some legislators are making to ban scholarships for kids."  In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News’ Lynn Bartels, Polis says the amendment’s "poor wording gave the lobbyists a chance to spread fear."

Uh, no.  Rather, lobbyists and legislators did something to Amendment 41 that Polis and his cohorts apparently didn’t: they read it.

Colorado Common Cause, whose track record on recent ballot issues looks like the Unintended Consequences Hall of Fame, says on its website that "the problem" fixed by Amendment 41 is that "lobbyists dominate Colorado politics."

Now, Polis and Common Curse have enlisted some of the State Capitol’s most powerful lobbyists to try to extricate themselves from this gargantuan fiasco.

So, it’s unseemly when others spend millions to influence public officials, but now it’s OK for the do-gooders who make their living bashing lobbyists and legislators to flex their money and political muscle to bail themselves out of a well-deserved public relations disaster.