Requiring a three-fifths majority in Legislature makes sense for approving amendments
Amending the state’s Constitution is serious business. But too often, Minnesota lawmakers have exploited the process as a way to bypass the governor to get legislation on the books.
A proposal by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, would prevent that practice by requiring a vote of three-fifths of the Legislature in order to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot. Currently, it takes only a simple majority of lawmakers to put amendments on the ballot and, unlike most bills, doing so does not require the governor’s signature.
Bakk, who has proposed similar measures in the past, was motivated to revisit the issue this session after the failure in November of two constitutional amendments championed largely by Republicans. The campaigns over the failed amendments to ban gay marriage and to require a photo ID to vote were “costly, inefficient and ugly,” said Bakk. Both of the proposed amendments were placed on the ballot despite near-unanimous opposition from legislative DFLers and Gov. Mark Dayton, also a DFLer.
Raising the threshold for placing amendments on the ballot would help ensure that there is bipartisan support for changing the state’s Constitution and prevent lawmakers from using it as tool to circumvent the legislative process.
It would also reconfirm the main purpose of state Constitution, which was drafted for two reasons. First, it defines the structure of state government. Second, it spells out citizens’ rights, which place limits on government’s power to intervene in people’s lives. Neither of the amendments up for consideration in the fall met that standard.
Over its history, the Minnesota Constitution has been amended 119 times. Some of those actions — such as abolishing the state treasurer position — could only be achieved through amending the constitution. But far too many measures could have, and should have, been addressed through the normal legislative process.
After all, that’s why we elect representatives. They have the time to study, review and debate the issues and access to a wide variety of resources so that they can come to a thoughtful decision.
Furthermore, if voters are unhappy with legislators’ decisions, they can hold them accountable and either demand a change in legislation or elect people who better represent their views. There is no such accountability with constitutional amendments.
Raising the bar for putting amendments on the ballot also would eliminate potential difficulties for the state in the future. Most issues are fluid but once they become part of the Constitution, the Legislature loses its ability to respond to shifting public opinion. Priorities change over time. Constitutional amendments lock the state into a commitment that may no longer have widespread support — whether it is designating where taxes are spent or banning gay marriage.
There is a place and time for amending Minnesota’s Constitution, but it should require more effort than a simple majority of legislators to make that determination. A tougher threshold for advancing proposed amendments to a statewide ballot would guarantee that lawmakers live up to that standard.