Let the people decide?

With the flurry of constitutional amendments that have been proposed by the Republican majorities over the two weeks, you’d think that they had already taken care of all of the other problems that face Minnesota.  Of course, that’s not the case. 

While the budget still sits $5 billion out-of-balance and conference committees have failed to deliver final versions of the omnibus spending bills, Republican state legislators have spent considerable effort in trying to enshrine their agenda as part of the state constitution (because they don’t have sufficient support to do it the traditional way). 

The rallying cry behind putting these items on the ballot is “Let the people decide!”

Sounds good, at first blush.  But do these amendments really give people power to decide?  I would argue they don’t.  In fact, in many cases they weaken the power of future elections to impact the course of the state.  The power of the vote you cast will be diminished by these provisions.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.  For instance, let’s look at the amendments to make the prohibition on gay marriage part of the state constitution.  If the amendment fails, gay marriage will be illegal.  If the amendment passes, gay marriage will be really, really  illegal.  That’s not really much of a “choice”, is it?

Another example is a  call for term limits on state legislators.  Again, less choice for you as a voter.  It’s not as if voters have had problems turning out incumbents they were dissatisfied with in the last three election cycles, but the GOP wants to remove your ability to retain effective representatives.

There’s also a couple of spending amendments that are highly problematic.  Sen. Julianne Ortman and Rep. Joe Hoppe are pushing a bill that would limit state spending to 98 percent of the forecast revenue in the next biennium under current law.  If applied to this session, that limit would be 98 percent of $33.5 billion, or $32.8 billion.  Another proposal, supported by Rep. Ernie Leidiger, would require a supermajority of 60 percent in the Legislature in order to raise taxes.

These amendments would tie the hands of future Legislators and make it difficult for them to respond to serious financial crises — just see how similar provisions have worked in California  (perpetually in desperate financial trouble) and Colorado (where voters had to repeal many of the provisions in order to save funding for state services).

By doing so, it weakens your vote in the future as well, because your representatives won’t be able to pull all the levers of government should the need arise.  The power of the legislative majority (be it Democratic or Republican) will be reduced significantly.

To some people, of course, that sounds like a good thing.  But what it will really do is to ensure a continuing decline in critical state services.  First, let’s keep in mind that legislative Republicans couldn’t even live by the 98 percent rule this session — both the House and Senate GOP budgets have spending targets of over $34 billion — at least $1 billion more than would be allowed by the Ortman/Hoppe amendment.  If they can’t play by their own rules now, why are we to believe that it’s going to work in the future?

Second, look at what happened in states that have similar caps.  Colorado had a 79% increase of their roads rated in substandard condition by the federal Department of Transportation and had dropped to 48th in the nation on that metric at the time voters rescinded the most extreme of the state’s spending and tax limitations.  Those amendments literally starved the state’s infrastructure spending.  If you like how Minnesota’s roads have crumbled over the last decade, then this is the bill for you!

This isn’t the path we should be moving Minnesota down.  We should expect that our elected representatives do their job and make the hard decisions instead of punting.


7 Responses to “Let the people decide?”

  1. Sean- Senator Ortmans amendment is a very good one. It does actually address the issue of future financial “emergencies” in stating that the Legislature can indeed spend above the 98% with a 3/5’th vote to do so. If it is an actual budget crisis, then it should be easy to achieve that 3/5’th majority. The Ortman amendment is actually fashioned after a similar amendment in Delaware, and it has been very successful in that State leading to much wiser spending by the Legislature there. The nice thing with all these amendments is that they will be on the ballot for the PEOPLE to vote on. If they agree with them and want them, then they will vote for them. I know you disagree with that based on your comments above, but I think that if the people want them, they will pass. If they don’t, they will not. I have heard support for Senator Ortmans amendment from both Republicans and Democrats because everybody believes that our government should spend only what it has just like we need to do with our personal budgets. But you had said “if it is applied to this session”, but that can’t happen since the election would be in 2012. Who knows what the budget will be by that point.

    I support Ernie Leidigers 60% super-majority amendment to raise taxes as well. We are already one of the higher taxed States in the union, so making it more difficult to raise taxes is nothing but a good thing.

    • Paul — I did some quick analysis of Delaware’s spending, pulling down some numbers from usgovernmentspending.com, and the rate of spending growth in Minnesota is actually lower than in Delaware since 2000, and we spend less at the state level (as % of GSP) than they do. Philosophically, my approach would be to give legislators elected officials the power and then hold them accountable for how they use it instead of creating Constitutional handcuffs. That goes for both the Ortman and the Leidiger amendments.

    • Paul — In regards to the application of the Ortman amendment to the current session, what I am suggesting is that the GOP majority could have voluntarily structured their budget to fit the 98% spending rule that they want to make part of the Constitution going forward. They didn’t do that — in fact, the GOP budget spends more than 100% of the forecasted revenue because they’re spending the carry forward from the current biennium, too.

  2. I believe Constitutional amendments are _far_ too easy to pass in this state. In fact, I think the original post statement about using the Constitutional amendment process to bypass traditional means of passing legislation is accurate. Here is the quote from above:

    “…Republican state legislators have spent considerable effort in trying to enshrine their agenda as part of the state constitution (because they don’t have sufficient support to do it the traditional way). ”

    I also, however, think there were two (fairly pertinent) points left out of the original post. The first is the proverbial elephant in the room… what is the poster’s view on the Legacy Amendment. I, for one, support funding the groups addressed by the amendment, but do not support a Constitutional amendment as a way to legislate taxes/spending. Given the context and logic from the post, I am curious as to whether the original poster agrees with me.

    The second point needing to be addressed deals with the original poster’s comment on an amendment addressing term limits…

    “but the GOP wants to remove your ability to retain effective representatives.”

    It should be noted that the 22nd US Constitutional Amendment (which limited US Presidential terms) was ratified in 1951 under Truman (with, incidentally a Democratic controlled House and Senate). Either way, GOP or Dem, I actually believe meta-issues of the political process like term limits are one of the only reasons Constitutional amendments should exist.

    • CJ- I voted against the Legacy Amendment because I share the sentiments you noted above: worthy goal, wrong way to go about it.

      I agree with you that things like term limits are appropriate for Constitutional amendments, but that this particular proposal is bad policy.

  3. @Paul

    I do not follow the logic in the last line of your comment. Here it is quoted:

    “We are already one of the higher taxed States in the union, so making it more difficult to raise taxes is nothing but a good thing.”

    The relative ranking of MN tax rates with respect to other states is related, at most, tangentially to the difficulty in raising tax rates in MN itself.

    I also think that Sean’s application of the 98% budget cap to the current Budget session is absolutely the correct way to analyze the effects of the amendment. Using lack of budget predictability to justify a statement that deals with a percentage of that very same (unknown) budget is not logically sound. As a personal opinion, I believe the budget can be predicted reasonably enough based on straight-forward empirical data. This method of looking at historical data to predict (and create) budgets has been used for centuries in both the public and private sectors.


  1. A final look back at the 2011-2012 legislative session for Ortman, Hoppe, and Leidiger | Brick City Blog - January 7, 2013

    […] colleagues and introduced a constitutional amendment to  fix a legislative problem — by putting limits on state spending in the constitution.  Finally, Ortman rather publicly flip-flopped on tax credits for renters, raising taxes on […]

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