Posted at: 11/18/2012 3:19 PM
By: Shane Delaney
Democrats taking over the Minnesota Legislature are avoiding bold promises to change the state's constitution after voters decisively rejected two Republican-backed amendments earlier this month.
The defeated amendments to ban gay marriage and require voters to show photo ID were blamed for costing Republicans their legislative majorities by driving opponents of the measures to the polls, where the amendments were the first to fail in 18 years. About three-quarters of the constitutional changes proposed in the past 40 years have passed.
"I actually think the constitution has been abused some in recent years," said incoming Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Bakk said he doesn't intend to entertain proposals to raise taxes, spend money or deal with social issues in the constitution.
GOP constitutional proposals proliferated in the past two years as their majorities sought to limit state spending, make it harder to raise taxes, curb labor unions and reject the federal health care overhaul. With Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton blocking much of that, they turned to the constitution; the governor has no power to block proposed amendments from a citizen vote.
Incoming DFL House Majority Leader Erin Murphy said she expects Democrats to be "circumspect" about pushing constitutional amendments when they take over.
"We shouldn't do it if we're trying to get around a governor who disagrees with public policy being discussed," said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
That's not expected to be much of an issue with Democrats controlling all of state government for the first time in 22 years. But Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers have introduced their share of constitutional amendments in recent years, including proposals to guarantee universal health care, overhaul oversight of legislative salaries and give legislators longer terms in office.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, predicted Democrats' restraint toward the constitution will wear off as the new majorities exercise their power.
"They're going to pass their agenda," said Drazkowski, who has pursued amendments to bar union membership as a condition of employment and to prevent the federal health insurance mandate from taking effect. "We're not going to have any Republican-authored constitutional amendment proposals that are going to be passed through this Legislature, because they won't allow it."
Murphy and Bakk in past sessions have introduced constitutional amendments that would raise the threshold for putting amendments on the ballot, requiring approval from legislative supermajorities instead of simple majorities. Both say they haven't decided whether to pursue that proposal now that they're in power. Bakk said he doesn't expect the Senate to take up constitutional proposals until 2014.
Since statehood in 1858, voters have approved more than half of 213 proposed constitutional amendments, most recently ratifying an increase in the state sales tax for the outdoors and the arts in 2008. They voted to abolish the office of state treasurer in 1998, authorize the state lottery in 1988 and permit pari-mutuel horse racing in 1982. The last amendment to fail before this election was a push for off-track horse betting in 1994.
Lawmakers sometimes propose constitutional changes to draw attention to their ideas. One Republican-backed bill that never made it before voters would have protected the right to wear fur and display trophy animals.
Rep.-elect David Bly, a Northfield Democrat returning to the House after a two-year absence, said he may pursue an amendment he sponsored earlier that would require the Legislature to provide "quality public education, comprehensive health care, an economic and social environment conducive to living wage jobs, a safe and reliable transportation system and a clean and safe environment."
Bly said amendments can help start a conversation about an issue, although he's not sure his "middle-class amendment" would survive the legislative process.
"But I think it's important enough to try," he said.
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said she won't revive a constitutional amendment for universal health care she backed five years ago.
"Really, at this point in Minnesota, there is no need for us to really enter that conversation - to go into the constitution," she said.
Bakk said a proposed amendment would have to be "of constitutional magnitude" to get serious consideration under his leadership. The Cook Democrat opposed DFL-backed constitutional amendments that reserved tax dollars for transportation in 2006 and outdoors and cultural projects in 2008.
"Once you put something in the constitution, the Legislature loses their ability to respond to changing public opinion," he said. "So I don't want to amend the constitution with things that make it so rigid that the Legislature can't respond to changing priorities down the road."
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