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Amendment 41 too good to be true


Here's a good lesson: Friends should not let friends write laws. Especially when those laws would change the Colorado Constitution.

Take Amendment 41. The so-called ethics-in-government law sounded too good to be true which, by the way, conjures another good lesson. Nearly a million Colorado voters approved it last November, many thinking it was high time to do something about those fat-cat politicians who let sleazy lobbyists buy them gifts such as tickets to Broncos games. And, nope, 62 percent of the voters didn't listen to warnings that the amendment was so broadly worded that, among other consequences, it actually would prevent children of government employees from receiving college scholarships. Unless that's really what they wanted.

Now, no scholarship for Johnny. And no Nobel Prize money for Dr. Spock. Send it back. At least that's the interpretation issued by Jason Dunn, who works in Attorney General John Suthers' office.

Consequently, the state's legislators are in an absolute tizzy. They can adopt 41 into law as is, or they can change it to what they think the voters meant when they said politicians like them shouldn't get perks worth more than 50 bucks if that's, indeed, what voters thought they were doing.

Recognizing that trying to read voters' minds can be a dangerous thing to do, House Minority Leader Mike May (R-Parker) has proposed sending the thing back to the voters in 2008. The only problem there is that the Boettcher Foundation, along with many other groups, is set to award scholarships this month. Up to half of this year's 72 Boettcher finalists could be banned from the merit-based scholarships, simply because their guardians work for the government as janitors, water-quality engineers, secretaries, whatever. And as many as 80 current scholarship recipients could lose their in-state full rides.

This week the Boettcher Foundation has sued, trying to get the courts to clarify. It is the latest in post-Amendment 41 high drama. Consider what else has transpired:

The "What to do?" conundrum has caused a triangular political meltdown. Some Democrats, and many Republicans, insist that the "will of the people" cannot be subverted. Others, including the director of the amendment's key sponsor, Colorado Common Cause, insist the Legislature can easily "fix" the law and, in fact, that's what they intended all along. "The voters have spoken, and now the Legislature can and should act to breathe life into it," Jenny Flanagan says.

In a delicious, if ironic, slice of dessert, the anti-lobbyist proponents have hired a team of lobbyists to wrangle with politicians over what the law says, versus what it meant to say. Remember, this law is intended to restrict lobbyists' influence.

This week, House Speaker Andrew Romanoff announced plans to take legislation that would "fix" 41 to the Colorado Supreme Court. "We're trying to figure out... can we [narrow the language]?" he asked. "Constitutionally, is it kosher?"

All the while, politicians are screaming politics over the whole mess. The best bit of gossip involves a battle between state Board of Education member Jared Polis and Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald. Both reportedly want to replace U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Boulder) in Congress if Udall, as expected, runs for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard. Polis was a primary Amendment 41 backer, and Fitz-Gerald can make him twist in the wind over implementing the new law.

This week, Polis said he had no comment on that angle. Neither he nor Fitz-Gerald, he pointed out, is running for anything right now. What's important, he says, is getting the Legislature to come to its senses.

"It's unfortunate that the amendment wasn't worded more tightly, but it shouldn't be the end of the world," Polis says.

So who actually wrote Amendment 41? A Denver lawyer named Martha Tierney, who refers all calls to Colorado Common Cause. These days, Tierney's about the only one not weighing in on her own handiwork.

"Was it poorly crafted?" asks state Sen. John Morse (D-Colorado Springs). "Yes, there's ample evidence of that."

"I certainly wish it was worded a little better," says Polis.

"Everyone," echoes Denver attorney Mark Grueskin, who is working with Common Cause to clarify the new law, "would admit it is not the clearest of language."

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