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Clarification of U.S. Legislation

September 28, 2018

By Kent Singer, CREA Executive Director

33, 18, 1: If that sequence of numbers doesn’t strike a chord with you, don’t worry. It just means you probably have never been a state legislator, lobbyist or staffer working in the Capitol in Denver.

Because if you have ever been a legislator, lobbyist or staffer, you know that it takes 33 votes in the House of Representatives, 18 votes in the Senate and one signature of the governor for a piece of legislation to become law in the state of Colorado. (The governor, of course, can also veto legislation or let it become law without his or her signature, but in most cases the governor signs bills approved by the legislature).

Why does our system work this way? If you did not pay close attention during your high school civics class (they still teach civics, right?), you may have missed the day when your teacher explained the “Great Compromise.” If you are drawing a blank as to the significance of this important feature of the United States Constitution, read on for a refresher course.

During the summer of 1787, the founding fathers met in Philadelphia to draw up a new set of ground rules for the American republic. (Hopefully, this is ringing a bell.) The new constitution created a stronger blueprint for the nascent government and it defined the respective roles of the three branches. The U.S. Constitution creates the basic organizational structure of the government, including the “checks and balances” among the legislative, executive and judicial branches that serve as limits on the exercise of power by any one branch.

One of the hotly contested arguments among the conventioneers in 1787 was how the legislative branch would be formulated and how representatives would be selected. Not surprisingly, delegates from the large states supported the Virginia Plan, whereby representation in the new legislature would be based solely on population. Others supported the New Jersey Plan, whereby each state was entitled to one member regardless of population.

After weeks of debate, the delegates settled one of the most important debates in American history. Deemed the “Great Compromise,” or sometimes the “Connecticut Compromise” (it was brokered by Rep. Roger Sherman of Connecticut), the founding fathers devised a two-house Congress where one house (the House of Representatives) would have membership based on population and the other house (the Senate) would consist of two members from each state. As a result, the legislature would be bicameral (two houses). This compromise led to the ratification of the Constitution by both large and small states and created one of the “checks” in our system that survives to this day.

How is this relevant to Colorado? When Colorado became a state in 1876, many of the same organizational principles that were embedded in the U.S. Constitution were used as a model for our state government. As a result, Colorado also has a bicameral legislature (as does every state in the union except for Nebraska). In order for legislation to become law in Colorado, it has to be approved by a majority of the 65-member House of Representatives (33 or more members voting yes) and a majority of the 35-member Senate (18 or more members voting yes).

The bicameral structure of our legislature is an important and real check on the power of any one person or party in Colorado. Today, the Colorado Senate has a Republican majority and the Colorado House of Representatives has a Democrat majority. This means that in order for any piece of legislation to survive the legislative gauntlet and land on the governor’s desk for signature, it has to receive the approval of a bipartisan majority of legislators in both houses.

This balance of power has been good for Colorado. Despite the noise and fury in the press about how our political system is broken or in crisis, our state legislature actually found a way to work together in a bipartisan way to do the state’s business. During the 2018 session, the legislature accomplished the following:
• passed a balanced budget
• reformed the state public employee retirement system
• adopted legislation to fund highway improvements
• revamped the state’s 811 “call-before-you-dig” system
• dedicated funding to improve rural broadband access
• referred two measures to the voters to reform the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

Now, you may disagree about whether these “accomplishments” fit your idea of effective government, but from where I sit, this record passes the Goldilocks test: not too much government, nor too little, but just about right.

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