GOP ready for voters to rule by amendment

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2012 - 9:02 AM

Republicans in Legislature are looking to cement their ideas into the state's founding document.

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The Datacard Group voter identification system was demonstrated at a press conference last year. The system includes a scanner, a digital signature pad with a stylus and a computer to record voter information.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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There is one sure way the Republican-controlled Legislature can get around the dreaded veto pen of the DFL governor.

Don't pass a law -- amend the Minnesota Constitution.

Just days into the new legislative session, amendment fever has hit the State Capitol. A barrage of proposed edits and inserts to the state's 1857 founding document has arrived to keep company with the marriage amendment headed to voters in November. Other proposed amendments would require voters to show photo ID at the polls, make it harder for the Legislature to tax and spend, curtail union power and guarantee gun owners' rights.

"There is pent-up policy demand among Republicans to have certain policies adopted,'' said Dale Carpenter, professor of constitutional law at the University of Minnesota School of Law. "They were thwarted by not having one part of the Legislature for so many years. They probably feel if we don't do it now, they're not likely to be able to do it in the near future."

Republicans in the Legislature, in control of both houses for the first time in 38 years, face Dayton's vetoes as well as a tough re-election battle in November. They have floated more than a dozen amendment ideas, including proposals to prevent state shutdowns, guarantee freedom of choice in health care, designate "gold and silver coin" as official legal tender and change the way judges are elected.

"The over-under is 3.5," joked Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Farmington, who is helping to pick out the amendment lineup. "Really, I suppose you could put 100 on," joked Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who is actually hoping to tamp down the urge to amend.

One person not pleased is the governor, who has no say on constitutional amendments and does not believe it's a smart way to govern.

"They do talk about doing government differently from before," Dayton said of the Republicans. "Some of the differences I don't find so appealing."

Hard to undo

Policy and budget decisions are normally made via laws passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Laws can be changed when external factors intrude or political tides shift. Amending the Constitution, while allowing direct decisions by the people, locks in changes that are much harder to undo.

If both houses of the Legislature approve a proposed constitutional amendment, it goes directly onto the general election ballot, a relatively easy first step. In Wisconsin and Iowa, a proposed amendment must be approved by two successive legislative sessions, with an election intervening, before it goes to the voters. Some other states require a "supermajority" legislative vote, such as three-fifths, rather than a simple majority.

Minnesota does not make it easy for voters to say "yes" once an amendment is on the ballot.

The state's rules date back to 1898, when the liquor lobby was worried about Prohibition, legislative historian Betty Kane said. What was called the "brewers' amendment" was submitted to voters and passed. Instead of requiring a majority of voters to pass an amendment, an "extraordinary majority" was required -- a majority of all those who vote in the election. That has made passage harder.

A total of 213 proposed amendments have been submitted to voters in state history, and 120 have passed, according to the House Research Department. There appears to be no restriction on subject matter, but legislative leaders say they are committed to not overdoing it.

"It does place an additional responsibility on us to be cautious, to be careful, to understand what the Constitution is for, to enter into these decisions with due consideration," Senjem said.

Other reasons for amending the Constitution are to dedicate funding in perpetuity, such as the Legacy Amendment for outdoors and arts projects in 2008, or to try to shield an issue from judicial review, as is the case with the marriage amendment.

Picking the package

That makes amendment-packaging a critical political strategy.

"You don't want to make this a multiple-choice test," Thompson said. Added Senjem: "To me, three is where you ought to think about landing on this."

Legislators want political winners whenever possible, which is why voter photo ID -- which was vetoed by Dayton but showed 80 percent approval in a Minnesota poll last year -- is being groomed for the No. 2 spot on the ballot.

It polls so well that DFL leaders are talking about finding a compromise that Dayton could sign to preempt a vote in November.

For the third amendment slot, Senjem likes the idea of preventing future state shutdowns, but the House has shown interest in making it harder for future legislators to raise taxes or to increase spending above fixed limits.

"There is a large desire among the House Republican caucus to offer to the people of Minnesota the ability to either limit our ability to tax them, or our ability to spend their money," said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa.

The decisions that legislators and voters make can have long-lasting impact.

During the Progressive era in U.S. history from the 1890s to the 1920s, many states considered the idea of giving voters the power to recall elected officials from office for any reason. Wisconsin voters said yes; Minnesotans said no and adopted a far more limited recall procedure in 1996.

The result is that Minnesota, despite its deep political divisions, has never recalled an elected state official. Wisconsin has recently become the state of total recall. It held recall elections against nine state senators last year, is planning four more this year and also is set to submit its governor and lieutenant governor to recall elections this summer.

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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