When Initiative 19, now Amendment 78, was first filed, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Council offered its take on the proposed constitutional amendment. In a March 9 memo to the measure’s proponents, 49 questions and comments are listed that illuminate numerous potential impacts the proposal would have on how our state government currently operates.
The comments reveal how the measure would do far more than what the proponents purported. Instead of just restricting the governor’s ability to appropriate emergency dollars, Amendment 78 tries to bring a whole swath of other dollars under the legislature’s control. Even if you think restricting our governor’s authority over emergency relief dollars is a good idea, Amendment 78’s reach probably isn’t what you’re looking for.
Here are just a few of the very serious possibilities the Legislative Council flagged:
“Could the General Assembly continuously appropriate any money that currently is ‘otherwise authorized by law’?”
“...Would the amended version of section 33 require that the General Assembly appropriate money for highway projects rather than delegating this authority, by law, to a commission?”
“...the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing would not be able to use available federal funds to make provider reimbursements until the General Assembly appropriates the money. This may lead to a disruption of services or federal payments.” Upon receiving these notes, did Amendment 78’s authors slow down and consider the implications of what they proposed? No. Consumed with turning a talking point about the governor’s spending authority during a public health crisis into a political win on the ballot, they made a few marginal tweaks and steamed ahead.
Colorado is no stranger to unintended consequences on the ballot, but this one may well take the cake. If it passes, Amendment 78 will open our state up to unending shenanigans and showdowns. At a minimum, it will slow down federal relief in times of crisis. At worst, it could bring Washington-style stalemate politics to Colorado.
Right now, there are hundreds of types of dollars that pass through the state treasurer’s office and to their intended purposes. This is how our government operates throughout the year. Under existing law, state agencies and governmental entities (like our public universities) are already authorized to spend these dollars according to terms dictated by their source. And it isn’t just federal dollars that are considered custodial -- it’s also legal settlement dollars and grants for numerous partnerships that make our state work. Nonprofits throughout the state interact with these funds. Most alarmingly, it puts emergency funds at risk for the Coloradans who need them, fast. When the floods hit in 2013, millions of federal dollars came to our aid, quickly and efficiently. When fires hit, money flows through the state to where it’s needed. And when a global pandemic struck, our community conduits worked.
But if Amendment 78 passes, this efficiency and speed will end. We’ll need a special session every time a natural disaster occurs. Beyond simply doubling the work our part-time legislature must do, it will create numerous opportunities for legislators to object to the role federal dollars play in our state. Health care dollars, transportation and transit funding, conservation funding, funding for scientific research -- this is what we are talking about when we talk about the funds affected by Amendment 78.
In a time of debt-ceiling showdowns and culture wars, do we want more opportunities to choke up our most important public systems with political theater? A vote for Amendment 78 is a vote for a recklessly written invitation for dysfunction and disagreement on simple questions that have already been decided. Vote no.
Scott Wasserman is the president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver.