Fight looms over ethics tweaks

Legislators debating how to deal with Amendment 41 loopholes. Some are optimistic a deal can be reached, but others want the law, which cracks down on gifts to public officials, left alone.

By Karen E. Crummy

Denver Post Staff Writer

A political brawl is brewing over whether Colorado lawmakers should tinker with a voter-approved ethics- reform measure to eliminate a number of unintended consequences.

Broad and ambiguous language in the amendment has created problems for legislators wrestling with trying to respect the will of voters and protecting others who may get caught up in the law – even though the rules were never meant to apply to them.

The debate over Amendment 41, which cracks down on gifts to public officials, is expected to heat up when the session starts next week.

“It’s going to be a huge fight, and it’s not going to be partisan,” said GOP consultant Katy Atkinson.

But conversations with Republican and Democratic leaders Thursday indicated the two sides are not seeing eye to eye.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said that he didn’t think the ethics-reform amendment would be a volatile issue during the legislative session and that lawmakers may be able to fix the ambiguities.

“The question is, can we run legislation clarifying the application of the law?” he said. “Both proponents and opponents of the law have an interest in making it work, … and I think there is a way to do that within the spirit and letter of the law.”

But Senate Republican Leader Andy McElhany of Colorado Springs said it would be a “huge mistake to tinker” with the amendment, and House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said he didn’t believe the legislature should interject itself into the measure.

“We can’t do something with a wink and a nod. We have to fix it, … which means we need to clean it up and send it back to voters,” he said.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers last week said the way the law is written would make it illegal for professors to collect Nobel Prize money or the children of state employees to accept certain scholarships. Additionally, he said, university employees would be prohibited from receiving gifts from relatives or friends on non- special occasions, such as a friend bringing an expensive bottle of wine to dinner.

Fixing those unintended consequences is difficult because constitutional amendments cannot be altered in substantial ways by state statutes. And a clause in the ethics law says that no legislation can “limit or restrict” the amendment.

But attorney Mark Grueskin, who represents a coalition of groups backing the legislation, pointed out that the legislature has modified language regarding the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, as well the 2002 campaign-finance amendment, in state statutes.

“Absolute strict interpretation of a few words on the page isn’t the way the legislature has looked at constitutional amendments,” Grueskin said. “There is no question the legislature has the authority to act here. The question is, do they have the political will?”

University of Colorado president Hank Brown, who asked Suthers to analyze the amendment, said he didn’t think lawmakers were leaning toward fixing flaws in the amendment.

“The danger is people who didn’t care for it very much will be reluctant to make it workable,” he said. “The reaction I’m getting right now is one body of the legislature is not inclined to do anything and the other is not very interested in it.”

Staff writer Jennifer Brown contributed to this report.

Staff writer Karen Crummy can be reached at 303-954-1594 or kcrummy@denverpost.com.

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Amendment 41

The constitutional amendment, approved by voters in November, bans gifts of more than $50 to state officials, prevents lobbyists from buying a meal for an elected official and creates an ethics commission to investigate complaints. It also imposes a two-year lobbying ban for outgoing state lawmakers.