During the November 1988 general election, Colorado voters approved two amendments to the state constitution that brought significant and lasting change to the Colorado legislative process. The first of those two amendments limited the Colorado General Assembly to no more than 120 days of general session law-making authority each year. The second of those two amendments, known as the GAVEL Amendment, required, among other things, that a public hearing be held for every bill that is introduced.
GAVEL is an acronym that stands for “Give A Vote to Every Legislator”, which refers to every member of the committee or chamber that will next vote on a bill. GAVEL requires that every bill receive a hearing, which includes public testimony. Thus, passage of GAVEL sought to guarantee that the voice of the people would be heard on every bill. Colorado voters approved that amendment with 72% of the vote that year.
Skipping ahead to current day, constituents become aware of bills that they wish didn’t exist and would simply go away. Advocacy against such a bill might include requests or demands that it be “pulled” from the process, left off the calendar, and/or not considered for a vote as ways to stop (“kill”) that bill. However, such advocacy is ineffective because those options aren’t available in the Colorado legislative process.
On the surface, the GAVEL amendment might appear to have simply required that a public hearing be held for each bill. On closer inspection, to guarantee that the voice of the people would be heard on every bill, certain traditional legislative authorities had to be curtailed or eliminated from the Colorado legislative process.
For a bill to exist, it must first be introduced and assigned a Bill Number. In Colorado, the President of the Senate and Speaker of the House have authority over the bill introduction process in their respective chamber. With passage of the GAVEL Amendment, if a bill prime sponsor is working within bill deadlines and he/she wants that bill to be introduced, then a presiding officer must introduce the bill and must refer it to a committee of reference. While those presiding officers can refer a bill to a committee that is very likely to “kill” it, they don’ have the option to stop a bill by refusing to introduce it or refer it to a committee of reference.
In Congress, our federal legislature, when a committee chairperson receives a bill that has been referred to his/her committee, then the chairperson has the authority to decide whether the bill will be scheduled for a hearing. If the chair doesn’t like a bill, then he/she can “kill” it by not scheduling it for a hearing. Here in Colorado, with passage of the GAVEL Amendment, that discretionary authority of legislative committee chairs had to be eliminated. Each bill that has been introduced and referred to a committee of reference must be scheduled for a hearing and that hearing must take place.
Advocates might also request or demand that a bill sponsor “pull” his/her name from a bill as means of stopping it. However, under GAVEL, a bill sponsor can’t prevent a bill from being heard in committee by removing his/her sponsorship. If that were possible, then one legislator could deny the people their opportunity to be heard on that bill. Legislative rules do allow for sponsorship changes upon the resignation, death, or incapacitation of a member. Otherwise, Colorado Senators and Representatives are limited to adding or removing their names as bill sponsors prior to introduction or upon passage on Third Reading (the final vote) in a chamber.
The GAVEL Amendment also requires that any measure reported out of a committee of reference appear on the chamber calendar in the order received from the respective committee chairs. Thus, if a bill passes out of committee and heads back to the chamber for Second Reading, then chamber staff must place that bill on the chamber calendar for Second Reading and do so in the order received. Chamber leadership can’t “kill” a bill by leaving it off the calendar.
The GAVEL Amendment also placed in the state constitution a prohibition against “caucus positions”. That prohibition can be found in Article V, Section 22(a) of the Colorado Constitution, which states, “Caucus positions prohibited – penalties. (1) No member or members of the general assembly shall require or commit themselves or any other member or members, through a vote in a party caucus or any other similar procedure, to vote in favor of or against any bill, appointment, veto, or other measure or issue pending or proposed to be introduced in the general assembly.” Article V, Section 22(b) then states that “Any action taken in violation…” of that constitutional prohibition “…shall be null and void.”
By passing the GAVEL Amendment, the people of Colorado sought to guarantee themselves the opportunity to be heard. In doing so, they removed some measure of authority from their state legislators, particularly those in leadership positions. They also placed certain constitutional requirements and restrictions on their state legislators. They did those things in hopes of making their legislative process more transparent and inclusive, while attempting to hold all 100 legislators accountable to them, the people, rather than to other legislators.
The result of the GAVEL Amendment is that, once a bill is introduced, the only thing that should stop (“kill”) that bill would be a vote by at least a simple majority of members of a committee or chamber in support of a motion that prevents that bill from moving forward. That’s what “Give A Vote to Every Legislator” meant.
In addition, every legislator who votes on a bill should be free to determine his/her own position, for or against, based on how he/she intends to be accountable to the people, particularly those who live in the district from which he/she was elected to represent. That way, the Colorado General Assembly might work differently than Congress where “whipping” of votes by caucus leadership is common.
Many people who live in Colorado today didn’t live here in 1988. Others lived here then but weren’t old enough to vote. Many others who live here now and are old enough to vote today hadn’t been born when the GAVEL Amendment became effective in January 1989. It is, therefore, understandable that sometimes, people unknowingly advocate for outcomes that aren’t allowed under the Colorado constitution and the unique legislative process that it requires.
The bottom line is that, here in Colorado, there is no option to “pull” a bill from the legislative process. Once a bill has been introduced, it should either pass or fail during that session. Those decisions are made when members of a committee or chamber vote for or against motions offered by members. A motion passes when it receives support from at least a simple majority of those members. Any less support, and the motion fails. That’s how the rule of simple majority works.
It works that way here in Colorado because that’s how the people of Colorado wanted it to work.