Are amendments' path to the ballot too easy?

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2014 - 10:15 PM

Some DFLers want a “super-majority’’ before a constitutional amendment is put to voters.

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Adam Sharp waived to cars as they honked their horns and gave him the thumbs up as he held his sign to vote no for the marriage and voter I.D. Amendments.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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The passions have cooled from Minnesota’s direct democracy trial of 2012, when the hot issues of gay marriage and voter ID were put to voters, and some legislators are now taking a critical look at the machinery that allowed that to happen.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and veteran Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, want to make it harder for the Legislature to run to the voters with partisan, emotional issues, and risk permanently enshrining today’s popular opinion into the state Constitution.

“I feel very strongly about it,” said Bakk, a former union official who worries that a right-to-work policy, which unions see as a threat to the standard of living, could be pushed into the Constitution by a future GOP-controlled Legislature.

“To the extent that I can put something in the way to make it a little more difficult for one party to put something on the ballot, it will make me more comfortable when I leave,” Bakk said.

Minnesota does not have California-style initiative and referendum, in which citizens and special interests can petition and campaign to write new laws or change existing laws. It does have a relatively easy path to put proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot for voters to consider, which can be used as a backdoor initiative or a way to circumvent a governor’s opposition.

In 2012, voters rejected both the marriage and voting amendments after furious and expensive campaigns. Bakk argues that while those issues received full pro-and-con airings, most proposed amendments in recent history have been approved by voters without such debate.

Putting an amendment on the ballot requires only a simple majority of the House and Senate. Bakk would require a “supermajority” of 60 percent in each body and a waiting period before the issue goes before voters.

Cohen, who initially wanted a two-thirds majority but agreed to Bakk’s three-fifths margin, told a committee hearing that the 2012 experience was the “elephant in the room,” showing the effect of putting highly partisan issues to a vote. Cohen said both parties have done this over the years.

“If you’re going to amend the Constitution, that should be done on a bipartisan basis,” Cohen said.

Getting a proposed amendment on the ballot is relatively easy. Passage is not. An amendment must get a majority of the votes cast on the ballot question. Those who vote for high offices but ignore the amendment question are counted as “no” votes.

Bakk’s proposal would require 81 votes in the House, instead of the bare majority of 68, and 41 in the Senate instead of 34. Had that threshold been in place in 2012, neither the marriage ban nor voter ID would have had the support to go on the ballot.

National perspective

People change state constitutions. Forty-nine of 50 states (Delaware is the outlier) require voters to approve amendments. To get amendments on the ballot, 26 states require a supermajority vote in the Legislature. There are 17 states, like Minnesota, that require only a simple majority, but some of those states, including Wisconsin, make it harder by requiring two legislative votes with an election intervening.

Since Minnesota became a state in 1858, there have been 213 proposed amendments to the Constitution, with 120 adopted. From 1982 until the defeats of 2012, only one of 18 amendments failed — a period in which voters established the Minnesota Lottery and racetrack betting, provided for limited recall of misbehaving officials and abolished the position of state treasurer. The most significant recent amendment passed was the 2008 “Legacy” amendment, which raised the statewide sales tax and dedicated that money to outdoors and arts programs for the next quarter-century.

That was a controversial measure in the Legislature, but it went on the ballot with support from members of both parties and would have met Bakk’s 60 percent support threshold had it been in effect.

Politics is part of the calculation in deciding when to put a measure on the ballot. In 2012, the GOP lost both its amendments and control of the House and Senate, and many argue the two are related. House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, whose members stand for re-election in November, is not as amendment-friendly as Bakk, whose members will not be on the ballot until 2016.

‘Voter fatigue’

Bakk’s proposal and a constitutional change aimed at insulating the judiciary from highly partisan election campaigns are at the head of the amendment queue for 2014. But the speaker has indicated he wants to keep the brakes on.

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