Minn. GOP embrace of constitutional amendments could backfire

Protesters gather outside a hearing room
Protesters gather outside a hearing room in the State Capitol on Monday, March 12, 2012, as a measure to put compulsory union dues on the November ballot is opened for public comment. The GOP has embraced the use of constitutional amendments on controversial issues to bypass DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Republicans in the Minnesota House and Senate are trying to shape government policy this year through proposed changes to the state constitution.

Their embrace of constitutional amendments on such contentious measures as a ban on same-sex marriage and voter ID requirement is a way to bypass opposition from a Democratic governor and go directly to voters.

But the strategy of placing multiple amendment questions on the statewide ballot also comes with some potential risks, among them the possibility that voter opposition to one measure could defeat another.

Battle lines already are drawn over the proposed amendments. Union members packed the State Capitol on Monday to protest a proposed constitutional amendment to make union membership and union dues voluntary for all workers. Two days later, many of those same union members were back to meet individually with lawmakers and lobby against the so-called "right-to-work" measure.

Julie Schnell, president of the Service Employees International Union's state council, said the show of force is an indication of what's to come.

"From what I've heard from our members, they are fired up and ready to take on this issue," Schnell said. "And if that means attending more rallies, making sure that their voices are heard, they're all there ready to do that."

It's not clear whether state Legislators will place the "right-to-work" amendment on the ballot in November, but Schnell said labor groups will be ready to mobilize a massive get-out-the vote effort if necessary.

The chief sponsor of the bill says that's fine with him. State Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said amendment supporters will also mobilize.

"Folks that oppose my effort have every right to work hard, to get out the vote, to raise money," Thompson said. "Those who are supportive of the effort have to right to do the same thing. And in the end, the folks will get to decide."

Continued budget talks
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, in a file photo.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Thompson insists his proposal and some of the other constitutional amendments proposals are nonpartisan, and wouldn't necessarily compete against each other on Election Day.

One amendment is already set for November. Republicans passed a measure last session that will ask whether marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman. A proposed amendment that would require Minnesotans show photo identification to vote is close to final passage.

State Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, the chief sponsor of the House voter ID bill, said the chance that the presence of one amendment on the ballot will help defeat another is possible but unlikely.

Kiffmeyer, who served as Secretary of State for eight years, said she thinks voters are used to choosing between candidates from various parties and can easily deal with three or four questions on the same ballot.

"Voters are quite used to seeing a whole variety on the ballot already, "Kiffmeyer said. "There will be a lot of information going out about those constitutional amendments. So, I think the voters will sort it all out."

But Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democrats argue that many of those same voters are offended by the idea of lawmakers governing through the constitution. Dayton said the process not only bypasses him, but bypasses the intent of the state's founders who wanted the executive branch and legislative branch to work together.

DFL legislators insist that when they controlled the House and Senate they held back on using constitutional amendments to get around then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican. They claim GOP leaders are now playing with fire. House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the stage is now set for even more amendments down the road.

"If we start going down this path, it creates a very dangerous precedent," Thissen said. "At the end of the day, I think the fundamental principle is we've got to keep our constitution as limited and as sacred as possible, and it should be about expanding people's rights and not contracting them."

Supporters of yet another GOP constitutional amendment are still trying to push their bill forward this session. That proposal would require supermajority votes in the House and Senate to pass future tax increases.

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