Minnesota Constitution-Amendments that balance continuity and change

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.                                                                Abraham Maslow

 The proliferation of amendment proposals on the November 2012 ballot suggest this might be a mantra for the IR legislature.  The nails of Voter ID and same-sex marriage have long pierce the political skin of the right wing.  The Governor’s hammer and feisty DFL opposition have left no choice but to bring out the cudgel and start hammering.  Now it’s up to the voters.  Once again, a bit of history exposes how the amendment hammer has been brandished in Minnesota history.

Writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in January 2012, journalist Jim Ragsdale warns that it’s “hard to undo” an amendment that has been blessed by the voters.  Policy and budget decisions are normally embedded in 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 revisit, much less change.   In Minnesota the process is straightforward:  If both houses of the Legislature approve a proposed constitutional amendment it goes directly onto the general election ballot, a relatively easy first stop..  In Wisconsin and Iowa,  Ragsdale notes 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 ‘super majority’ legislative vote.

 That puts a heavy burden on Minnesota voters.  Earlier in the current process, when legislators pushed for Constitutional amendments, Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem (IR-Rochester) advised that “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.”

So now it’s up to the voters to fully comprehend the proposed amendments and the possible trajectory of an approved Constitutional amendment.  As always, a look back at history can help.

Until 1898, the Constitution was amended by a simple majority of both houses of the Legislature, then ratified by a simple majority of the voters at the next general election. The total number of voters who cast any ballot at the election did not determine whether an amendment was approved or rejected.  In 1898 the rules changed – by a Constitutional amendment nicknamed the Brewer’s amendment – so that a Constitutional amendment, once approved by a simple of majority of both chambers of the Legislature at one session, had to be ratified by a majority of all the electors voting at the election whether or not the voter expressed an aye or nay on the proposal.  Historian Betty Kane, author of a definitive history Constitutional amendments, writes that “before 1889 it was ‘easy to get amendments proposed, and easy to get them ratified.  Once the state imposed stricter standard via the so-called ‘brewers’ amendment’ of 1898, the adoption of amendments dropped to less than one-third of its previous level.”

Over the decades some 213 proposed amendments have been made their way to the ballot box; 120 have passed.   In conjunction with Sunshine Week 2012 I dipped gingerly into the history amendments to the Minnesota Constitution.  Thanks to the resources of the Legislative Reference Library I got a glimmer of just how that hammer has been put to the test over the years.  Even a quick review of that history gives a voter pause – at the whims of Minnesota voters and the long-term consequences of their votes.

 During the past session legislators grappled with a jumble of proposed constitutional amendments that now present voters with two monumental opportunities to express their opposition or support for the Voter ID and the Marriage Amendment.  Information and misinformation abound.  In the end, voters must listen with care, consider the source, and way the consequences  — the goal is not to “win” but to assure that the Constitutional amendments achieve the challenge put forth by Betty Kane, the challenge to balance the forces of continuity and change.

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