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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, right, with House Speaker Paul Thissen.

Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

THE 1898 CHANGE


The last change in requirements for amending the Minnesota Constitution occurred in 1898, 40 years after the state's founding. It boosted the threshold for voter approval from a simple majority to a majority of those voting in an election. Since then, a ballot on which an amendment question is left blank is counted as a "no" vote.


Source:Minnesota Legislative Manual, 2011-12.

Constitution needs partisanship shield

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Star Tribune
  • January 15, 2013 - 8:21 PM

Last year's attempts by Republican legislators to amend the state Constitution over near-unanimous DFL objection came to naught. After emotionally intense campaigns, the state's voters rejected attempts to ban same-sex marriage and to require the presentation of a government-issued photo identification card in order to vote.

After those divisive and costly battles, Minnesotans likely aren't eager to see more constitutional amendments surface at the Legislature. But they should smile on one that was introduced in both the House and the Senate last week. It would raise the Legislature's bar for putting amendments on the ballot from a simple majority to a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

That change would make it impossible for one party alone to send a change to the voters unless that party had legislative majorities of a size rarely seen in the state's 155-year history. It would make a document that ought to serve the entire state's interests less prone to be transformed into a tool for one party's gain.

A 67 percent "supermajority" requirement to legislatively launch an amendment would be parallel to the threshold for congressional action leading to an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That should give the proposed new amendment bipartisan legitimacy, and may be why the House version of the proposed Minnesota change has attracted four GOP cosponsors.

In addition, 26 other states require supermajority votes in both chambers of legislatures to amend their constitutions, according to a 2002 tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The simplicity of the change the proposed amendment contemplates stands in contrast to the potentially arduous task of enacting it. If both chambers of the Legislature approve, it would be placed on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot, where it would need to compete with candidates for governor and U.S. senator for voters' attention.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk has advanced an alternative that could be enacted more easily, but could also prove less effective. His is a statutory rather than a constitutional change.

It would require that proposed amendments win at least a 60 percent vote in both the House and Senate; that those votes not occur in the same calendar year; and that the voters not get their crack at the amendment until the general election two years after the Legislature acts.

Bakk said he opted to put those measures in statutory form because Minnesotans are weary of constitutional amendment battles. About that, he's undoubtedly right.

But Minnesotans also want the Legislature to enact workable, positive changes. Bakk's approach might not meet that test.

A future Legislature that wants to place an amendment on the next general election's ballot by simple majority, as the 2011-12 Legislature did, could either repeal Bakk's statute (provided a governor was willing to sign a repealer bill) or simply disregard it and invite a lawsuit.

The Legislature would likely be in a good position to prevail in such a suit, since Article IX of the state Constitution is quite clear: "A majority of the members elected to each house of the Legislature may propose amendments to the constitution."

Bakk's bill has been sent to the Senate's State and Local Governments Committee for consideration. That panel should carefully evaluate whether the goal of preventing one-party manipulation of the Constitution can be achieved in a lasting way with statutory change alone.

If the answer is no, legislators should not let amendment battle fatigue prevent them from asking voters to protect the state's founding charter from partisan revision.

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