Constitutional Rules for Legislation

by Julie Pelegrin

As has been discussed several times in LegiSource, the General Assembly’s authority to legislate is plenary – which means complete or absolute – except as specifically limited by the state constitution. Many of the constitutional restrictions on the power of the General Assembly apply to specific subjects like the ability to tax, requirements regarding the personnel system, funding for public education, and legalizing marijuana. However, there are several that apply to legislation, regardless of the subject.

Art. V, Sec. 21: Single subject requirement
The most well-known requirement that the constitution imposes on legislation is the single subject rule: A bill cannot contain more than one subject, and that subject must be clearly expressed in the bill title. This rule actually does not apply to a bill that only contains appropriations, for example, the annual general appropriations or “long” bill. If a bill contains items that are not included within the subject specified in the bill title, a court may hold that those items are unconstitutional, but the rest of the bill, so long as it does fit within the subject of the bill title, will not be unconstitutional. For more on bill titles, see Keeping a Bill Title Constitutional and Informative; and Bill Title Questions…and Answers.

Art. V, Sec. 18: Each bill must have an enacting clause
To be constitutional, each bill must begin with the phrase, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Colorado.” As a matter of practice, if someone amends a bill to remove the enacting clause, the bill is considered dead.

Art. V, Sec. 17: Laws only passed by bill; bill can’t change from its original purpose
Only a bill can create or amend a law; a resolution, joint resolution, memorial, or joint memorial does not have the force of law and is not enforceable as law. The General Assembly cannot amend a bill so significantly that the bill no longer accomplishes the purpose it was written to accomplish when introduced, as that purpose is expressed in the bill title.

Art. V, Sec. 19: Bills take effect by a particular date; bill cannot be introduced with only a title
When the General Assembly passes a bill, it takes effect on the date specified in the bill. If the bill doesn’t specify a date, the bill takes effect when it is signed, or allowed to become law, by the Governor. A bill that doesn’t include an effective date will include a safety clause. For more on safety clauses and the power to refer measures to the ballot, see How would You Like Your Bill? Questions a Bill Sponsor Must Decide; and The Power of the People – Reservation of the Initiative and Referendum Powers. A legislator cannot introduce a bill that consists only of the bill title; a bill must also include text that sets forth the changes to existing law or makes appropriations.

Art. V, Sec. 31: Revenue bills must start in the House
A bill that raises revenue must be introduced first in the House. The Senate may amend the bill after it passes the House. Several years ago, the Attorney General issued an opinion interpreting this section as applying to bills that raise or reduce state general fund revenue.

Art. V, Sec. 32: General appropriations bill cannot include substantive provisions
The general appropriations bill can only include appropriations to pay the expenses of the executive, judicial, and legislative branches, state institutions, interest on the public debt, and public schools. It cannot include substantive changes to the statutes. All other appropriations must be made in separate bills, which may include both substantive and appropriation provisions, and which must comply with the single subject requirement.

Art. V, Sec. 34: Appropriations to private institutions are prohibited
The General Assembly cannot appropriate state moneys for any charitable, industrial, educational, or benevolent purpose to a person, corporation or community that the state does not control. And the General Assembly cannot appropriate moneys to a denominational or sectarian institution or association. It is important to note that the courts, in interpreting and applying this section, have developed a “public purpose” exception to this section. More on that in a later article.