Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Panel examines state-by-state constitutional reforms

DU’s Strategic Issues Panel wrapped up the first phase of its study of Colorado’s Constitution on Oct. 5 with a look at what other states have done to reform their constitutions.

The panel begins the next phase of its deliberations Oct. 12, moving past a month of comprehensive presentations by local and national constitutional experts and into the discussion phase with three consecutive weekly meetings in which panelists will analyze what they heard. 

After in-depth discussion, panelists will attempt to reach a consensus on recommendations they plan to include in a report they’ll issue to the public and the legislature in January 2008.

“We’ve heard an amazing amount of information from some very prestigious presenters,” said Jim Griesemer, executive director of DU’s Strategic Issues Program and dean emeritus of the Daniels College of Business, on Oct 5.

In the final presentation to the panel, Brenda Erickson and Jennifer Bowser gave panelists a comprehensive look at constitutional reform among the nation’s 50 states. They said that while convening constitutional conventions was a rare act among the various state governments, many states had modified their constitutions through legislative proposals, citizen initiatives and/or constitutional commissions.

Constitutional commissions are temporary by nature, Erickson said, meeting only to consider constitutional changes and forwarding them to voters for approval. Some states require regular review of their constitutions by a commission; other commissions are voted into existence through legislative resolution. And while such commissions often produce recommendations for changes, she said, few of those changes are approved by voters.

Citizens may also make changes to the constitution through the initiative process. Bowser told the panel that Colorado has the easiest path for citizen constitutional initiatives because it requires few signatures, has no geographic restrictions on signature gathering and allows signature gatherers to be paid. Consequently, experts say, Colorado has the seventh longest and most fiscally restrictive constitution in the country.

Bowser said citizens and interest groups in Colorado often promote constitutional initiatives instead of statutory initiatives because they are just as easy to get on the ballot and, once passed, cannot be changed by legislators. 

“There is no incentive for proponents to choose the statutory initiative over the constitutional initiative,” said Bowser.

The panel also heard from Rebecca Mae Salokar, a political science professor from Florida International University who has studied that state’s many different methods for changing its constitution. In Florida, she said, constitutional conventions are rare, but a commission is required every 20 years to recommend changes. Despite that, she said, most successful constitutional revisions in Florida originate with its legislature, not from its citizens or its constitutional commission.

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