It's always advisable to look closely when state political partisans trot out proposals to change government's structure under the rubric of "reform." That wholesome-sounding label might mask a blatant power play.
A case in point is the Minnesota House Republican constitutional amendment proposal that was tucked into a recent package of initiatives they called "Reform 2.0."
The amendment aims to permanently shift statehouse power in a "no new taxes" direction by requiring a 60 percent majority vote to impose any new state tax or raise an existing tax -- income, sales or the state property tax.
(Local property taxes presumably would not be constrained by the amendment, though the Legislature frequently has imposed levy limits that restrict local officials' power to tax.)
To be precise, House GOP leaders at an Aug. 18 news briefing stopped short of a full-throated endorsement of the tax supermajority amendment.
But whispered word at the Capitol in July was that GOP leaders' commitment to put the amendment on the 2012 general election ballot was key to securing Tea Party votes for the shutdown-ending budget deal.
That amendment's sponsor, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was given headliner prominence at the Reform 2.0 unveiling on Aug. 18.
A higher threshold for raising state taxes would generate more impetus for cost-saving efficiency in government operations, Drazkowski argued.
His case would be stronger if state government had been regularly raising taxes rather than adjusting services during the past decade of recurring budget shortfalls.
In fact, state income and sales taxes have not been raised by legislative action since 1991; income taxes were cut substantially in 1999 and 2000. Pressure on government operations for more efficiency has been intense for years.
That's why Minnesota has fewer state and local government employees per capita than all but 11 other states.
For the sake of questionable gain, Drazkowski and the House GOP would weaken a governing principle that Minnesotans ought to be keen to defend -- majority rule.
A supermajority rule gives a legislative minority added clout. It enlarges a minority's capacity to block action-- and thereby increases the likelihood of impasse and government shutdowns, with which Minnesotans are already all too familiar.
California's experience with a supermajority requirement is instructive. The state that has become America's Exhibit A for governmental dysfunction required a 67 percent vote of its Legislature to enact a budget until last November, when voters repealed the supermajority requirement and reverted to simple majority rule.
The supermajority requirement was a key reason for years of fiscal gridlock and mounting state debt, conclude researchers Mark Paul and Joe Mathews, whose 2010 book, "California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It," received wide acclaim.
As the Economist magazine reported in April, California's supermajority requirement allows a minority, "simply by stalling," to "paralyze state government until the majority party made some concessions" to the minority or, often, to minority-allied special interests.
With back-room dealmaking thus encouraged and neither party fully in charge, the California Legislature became less accountable to the voters and less able to produce new budgets on time. That's not a result Minnesota should replicate.
Constitutional amendments generally arise in the context of immediate political reality at the Capitol. They give the party in charge of the Legislature a chance to bypass a governor of the opposite party and get its way at the hands of general election voters.
But changes in the constitution bind future policymakers' hands and impose a heavy burden on those who would seek their repeal.
For those compelling reasons, Minnesotans should look long and hard at the GOP proposal to embed a no-new-taxes bias into the Constitution. But not too long.
Voters would do well to tell legislators before they reconvene in January that the idea isn't worthy of space on the state's 2012 ballot.
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