Analysis: Under Amendment 41, Even Compassion is Suspect

By John Schroyer, FACE THE STATE

Amendment 41 was intended to purify Colorado’s political system, to remove the poison pill of thinly disguised bribery from the equation. To some degree, it has succeeded. But the measure has gained notoriety for its unintended consequences, as well.

As soon as it was passed in 2006, questions arose as to whether, for example, professors at state universities could accept gifts of textbooks. Or whether children of state employees were eligible for scholarships. Or whether spouses of state employees could take their significant others out for expensive dinners.

Denver Democrat Dan Grossman is a former state Senator and currently serves on the Independent Ethics Commission.

All of these questions seem to have obvious answers. Yet, they had to be cleared by the courts.

That was four years ago. Similarly obvious situations still have to be approved by the Independent Ethics Commission, which was established under Amendment 41 with the express mission of interpreting it.

On Monday, the commission heard from Colorado’s Division of Wildlife. The agency wanted permission to set up a charitable system for employees who have been furloughed. Some, for example, had illnesses or home repairs or other unforeseen expenses to deal with. So, Tom Remington, the director of the DOW, wanted to organize a fund, which would collect voluntary donations from employees in the division, in order to help out colleagues who are going through a rough time.

The commissioners were annoyed. But not at Remington. They were irritated at the fact that he even had to ask for a green light.

“This is the kind of thing we should be encouraging,” commented vice-chair Roy Wood, with obvious aggravation.

Still, the commission had to deliberate for several minutes to figure out how they could legally justify allowing Remington to start the fund. They finally concluded that Amendment 41’s prohibition on gifts to state employees does not extend to “compensation or other incentives given to employees in the normal course of employment.”

It was a clear-cut case of a forehead-slapping “duh!”

The very next issue elicited the same eye-rolling reaction, only in the opposite direction.

State Rep. Sal Pace, a Pueblo Democrat, had asked the commission for an opinion on whether or not it was OK for a for-profit organization—in this case, a conclave of pharmaceutical companies called the Center for Business Intelligence—to pay for him to fly to the East Coast to attend a series of conferences.

“This just stinks,” said commissioner Dan Grossman, a Democrat and former state senator.

Commissioner Wood, also a Democrat, called the offer of a paid trip “extremely questionable,” and commented, “This is what (the amendment is) all about, in terms of trying to influence legislation.”

Pace said he was invited to the conference by CBI to discuss a bill he’s running this session concerning corporate transparency. He pointed out that he has a long track record of voting against the issues of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and that to suppose the group could have come anywhere close to buying his vote is “ridiculous.”

The commission unanimously decided to deny Pace a free trip.

Even if Pace’s motives were pure, his situation illustrates precisely what Amendment 41 was aimed at, but the former example epitomizes the problems with the broad implications of the measure.

“The aim has been completely to keep moneyed interests from influencing state lawmakers, not to keep state employees from helping each other,” said Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Common Cause. Her organization was instrumental in the passage of Amendment 41.

And yet, the law remains muddy.

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