Is Minnesota ready for government by constitutional amendment?

Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature, who once claimed to be focused on balancing the budget, now seem to be trying to govern by amendment.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature, who once claimed to be focused on balancing the budget, now seem to be trying to govern by amendment.

Rep. Steve Gottwalt became exasperated Wednesday evening by the barrage of questions from DFLers.

“Madam chair,” Gottwalt, a Republican from St. Cloud, said to his ally, Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, who heads the House Ways and Means Committee. “I think we may have an understanding … I’m not doing anything but putting the question to the people of Minnesota. Let the people decide.”

That statement led to more questions.

Gottwalt is carrying the so-called marriage amendment, the constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman.

But there are other Republican-backed amendments, too. At least three others so far, and it’s three weeks before the end of this session. More could be on the way.

Republicans, who once claimed to be focused on balancing the budget, now seem to be trying to govern by amendment.

When Gottwalt said he merely wanted to “let the people decide,” Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, hit him with another question.

“Should all matters be decided by direct democracy?” she asked.

“This has been around a long time,” Gottwalt said of his marriage amendment. “The people want this. I don’t know about other matters.”

Four amendments in the mix
But, of course, this new Republican majority sudden has come up with a long list of other matters they seem to believe the people should decide:

• Republicans are attempting to take on such basics as who can vote by offering a photo ID amendment.

• They also want an amendment that would require any state tax increase to be approved by a 60 percent supermajority in the Legislature.

• And they want an amendment that would limit spending to 98 percent of state revenues.

“A direct democracy,” said Bryant, “not a representative democracy.”

Rep. Steve Gottwalt
Rep. Steve Gottwalt

Gottwalt was silent.

Throughout the first months of the session, House and Senate leadership had downplayed the notion that their caucuses would come forward with controversial amendments this year.

“Focused like a laser” on the budget and job creation, leaders had said.

With a straight face, Gottwalt actually used those very words as he presented his explosive marriage amendment to the committee.

“Why are we taking up constitutional amendments when we have this huge deficit that we haven’t dealt with?” Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, asked Gottwalt.

“I think it’s clear we’re focused like a laser on the budget,” Gottwalt said.

There were snickers in the room.

Political wisdom debated
But stop for a moment and consider: Are the Republicans practicing good politics? If it is a good idea, why didn’t DFLers try the same approach when they were the majority in the Legislature but Tim Pawlenty was governor? Who will win, who will lose?

From a political standpoint, at least some DFLers think Republicans are hurting themselves by coming up with too many amendments at one time.

The theory among old pros is that the more amendments on the ballot, the less chance that any of them will pass.

That’s especially true in a presidential election year. Large numbers of voters will come to the polls interested in voting only in the presidential contest, and perhaps in the U.S. Senate race. (Remember, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is up for re-election in 2012, too.)

Voters interested only in the big races are likely to look at a long list of amendments and decide not to vote for any of them. On constitutional amendments, not voting is the same as casting a “no” vote because it requires passage by a majority of all voters.

There’s another pragmatic reason for not offering up a bunch of amendments at the same time. It means that campaign funds must be raised to lobby for each of the amendments, siphoning contributions from other political races. Four amendments would mean four times as much money needed.

But, of course, these particular amendments will excite conservatives.

The depth of passion that the marriage-amendment brings was evident again Wednesday night. The hearing room in the State Office Building was filled, even though the start of the hearing was delayed two hours.

On one side of the room, people wore “Let the People Vote” stickers. On the other, folks wore the message “It’s Wrong to Vote on Rights.”

If the Republicans wanted to stir passions as deeply as they can be stirred, they’ve succeeded.

If they wanted to turn attention away from the budget, they’ve succeeded in that, too.

Amendment campaigns sure to spur heated rhetoric
The next year and a half is going to be filled with the most heated sort of rhetoric, especially over the marriage amendment, although the Photo ID and tax amendments are going to create heat, too.

What sort of heat?

Those wearing “Let the People Vote” stickers at Wednesday night’s hearing were passionately and religiously supporting the marriage amendment.

Most had strong opinions about what God wants, but didn’t want to give their names.

Are they concerned with the rights of the minority?

“Once upon a time, we were in the minority,” said Ron Brown. “And we were thrown to the lions. But we persevered. My confidence isn’t in government. It’s in God. The will of God.”

Others around him shook their heads in support.

Would Brown think it’s the will of God if the marriage-amendment was defeated in 2012?

“Yes, very much so,” said Brown. “But I think it’s the will of God that we work hard so it isn’t defeated.”

Again, there was agreement among people who wouldn’t share their names.

This marriage amendment isn’t just about marriage but also about morality, adultery, the Bible in the classroom, the First Amendment, different people were saying.

The First Amendment?

“You see what’s happened in the Netherlands and Canada and places where they can be married,” said a woman who would not give her name. “The first thing that goes after that is your freedom to speak your mind. There was a minister who came down here from Canada and said as soon as they got the right to marry, he could no long preach the gospel on the street corner.”

More nods of agreement.

The only weakness of the Republicans’ proposed amendment, this group seemed to believe, is that it doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t prohibit civil unions among same-sex couples.

“But it’s a start,” said the woman concerned about the First Amendment.

Will amendment array prompt big conservative turnout?
Strategically, this group of people seems to believe that the four amendments will rally huge voter turnout among conservatives and lead to a sweeping victory.

Would it have been better to wait for an off-year election?

“We’ve waited long enough,” said Brown.

But the passion works both ways.

After the Ways and Means Committee had passed — on a quick voice vote — the marriage amendment, there were jeers from those who oppose the amendment. A House page threatened to evict the 100 or so people from the hearing room. But she didn’t have to. They were leaving anyhow.

On their way out, several stopped and thanked DFLers on the committee who had asked pointed questions about the purpose of the amendment.

Given this was a Ways and Means Committee hearing, the questions were supposed to have some relation to finance. That meant a little stretching.

Rep. Jean Wagenius
Rep. Jean Wagenius

For example, Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, told Gottwalt there surely will be expensive court challenges to the amendment, but he had no fiscal notes relating to those possibilities.

“It looks like your amendment interferes with my church,” Wagenius said to Gottwalt.

In her church, marriage ceremonies are performed for men marrying women, women marrying women, men marrying men.

Separation of church and state could lead to costly lawsuits, Wagenius suggested.

Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, was upset by this statement.

It’s illegal in Minnesota for civil unions between men or between women, he told Wagenius.

“In my church,” responded Wagenius, “we don’t do civil unions. We do marriages.”

Anyhow, that’s the sort of dialogue we’re going to have in Minnesota through 2012.

If this is good politics — and Republicans seem to think it is — why didn’t DFLers attempt it in earlier years?

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, laughed at the question.

For starters, to push forward an amendment agenda like the Republicans’ requires a caucus that marches in lockstep, he noted.

“The problem with DFLers,” he said, “is that we actually have a big tent. We have real discussions on issues. We don’t always agree.”

Actually, said Davnie, these amendments proves only how rigidly conservative the Republicans have become. We haven’t seen this sort of effort to use amendments to govern in the past, because in the past, caucuses represented wider viewpoints.

“What’s striking about this,” Davnie said, “is through the campaigns and at the start of the session, they said they were focused on jobs and the deficit. This tells me that the far right has taken control.”

Is this a “far right” stretch?

These Republicans apparently are willing to “let the people decide.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/05/2011 - 09:55 am.

    There is no real choice reflected in the proposed amendment.

    “Let the people decide”?

    It’s a choice between a ban and and a “super-duper, no fail” ban. A “no” or another “no”.

    If they were so eager to “let the people decide”, there would be two possible outcomes–either ban gay marriage or allow gay marriage.

  2. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 05/05/2011 - 09:56 am.

    We are seeing the extremes here – Repubs want to go to the amendment route, when the Dems had strong majorities, they wouldn’t event let the House or Senate vote on an issue as they wouldn’t allow the issue to get out of committee.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/05/2011 - 10:05 am.

    There’s a good article in today’s STrib about the level of civics ignorance of high school students.
    Gottwalt provides a good example.
    As Brynaert says, our constitution established a republic (a representative democracy), not a direct democracy (mob rule).
    What did Gottwalt pledge allegiance to?

  4. Submitted by Peter Wagstrom on 05/05/2011 - 10:09 am.

    “There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them.” – Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, French politician (1807-1874)

    This is not how a Republic is supposed to work. There are no leaders in St. Paul, only parties.

    Sen. Geoff Michel told me when I met with him this year that just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. He then went on to ignore himself and voted lock-step with his party on the voter disenfranchisement bill and has given up fighting his party for medical marijuana. It’s amazing how a little bit of power goes to their heads.

  5. Submitted by David DeCoux on 05/05/2011 - 10:16 am.

    I look forward to another Defense of Marriage Amendment that outlaws divorce. I get the feeling God would want it that way.

  6. Submitted by Bryan Dohla on 05/05/2011 - 10:29 am.

    “Should all matters be decided by direct democracy?”

    At this moment in time – I would say yes. Both parties have proven over and over again that they really have the faintest idea on what their constituency wants. Can you imagine how many horrific pieces of legislation could have been avoided in the last decade with “direct democracy”?

    I know this will probably upset the elitists out there who have held a monopoly on our political system, but it’s time we put a vote of “no confidence” to our ‘leaders’ and force them to earn back our trust before we proceed with our currently highly corrupt political system.

  7. Submitted by Randi Reitan on 05/05/2011 - 11:08 am.

    I have been to each of the hearings on the Republican’s marriage amendment. I have tried to talk to those wearing the “Let the people vote” buttons. They don’t want to talk about the amendment. Instead, they ask me if “I am saved.” There is a religious fundamentalism sweeping through Minnesota’s legislature right now. I hope the more moderate Republicans wake up and start asking these legislators to focus on the budget not on writing discrimination into our state Constitution because God wants them to do it.

  8. Submitted by David Broden on 05/05/2011 - 11:11 am.

    As the dialogue regarding let the people decide evolves lets keep in mind that Minnesota has a long and valued process of the people participating as a citizen legislature this is effective and meaningful and must be viewed as separate from the process of government by Constitutional amendment. To move away from effective representative government where we place the trust for decisions in our elected officials and rely on changes to the constitutional amendments will weaken and destroy the strength of our process. WE need to enable the people to link with their legislators–express opinions and specfically not rely on the think tank, study groups, staff, or so called “elites” to make decisions for the citizen. Give the people the chance to work with the legislators and let the legislators make the decisions —the result will be focus on overall good government and responsive government. Constant consideration of constituional amendments is only an attempt to avoid decisions or catering to some special interest. We must mainatain and strengthen our Representative Democracy not weaken or go around the process. Minnesota is not ready or even interested in a constitutional amendment government.

    Dave Broden

  9. Submitted by Ray Aune on 05/05/2011 - 11:11 am.

    So if we’re switching to an Athenian-style democracy, why again do we need elected officials? And at this point would it be easier and more elegant to simply tattoo the warnings about the bad points of the tyranny of the mob onto everybody’s forearms so they can have a constant reminder? I for one am getting tired of reminding people of that- along with the ‘job creation’ lines.

  10. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 05/05/2011 - 11:44 am.

    Let’s sum up the amendments:

    1. Voter ID – A solution in sea
    rch to answer to the problem that apparently grandma still gets to vote.
    2. Property tax approval – apparently one person, one vote is no longer valid and we should let only the cheapest tightwads decide how the majority of Minnesota lives.
    3. Limit growth – apparently we want to slide backwards as a state. I call this one “The Strangler.”
    4. Anti-gay marriage – never mind the hate aspect, what I find hilarious is that Republicans don’t believe government can do a single thing right, except to sanctify marriage. Only constitutional amendment in Minnesota history to deny someone rights.
    5. Repeal federal laws – This is aimed at “restoring” the 10th Amendment in the hopes we can opt out of any federal law. It is the Unconstitutional Amendment. More than the issue of slavery, this is what we fought the Civil War over. The courts have determined that the Tenth Amendment is self evident. So what do the Tenthers want? It to be more self evident or less self evident.
    6. Term limits – Also known as the “voters are idiots” amendment. Certainly Minnesota has no history of great statesmen, so we should chuck out all the future Hubert Humphreys and Walter Mondales before they do something worthwhile.
    7. Right to Bear Arms – Duplication in Constitutions is something America greatly needs.
    8. Corporate voting –we need to have remote business owners, who don’t live in a district, be allowed to vote for or against local levies, so eventually all corporations will own a “condo” of 1 square foot everywhere so, as landed gentry, they can tell us how to live in ALL aspects of our life.

    And this from the party that wants to “get government off our back.” Only an idiot can’t see what the radical right is trying to do here. They only want “freedom” for people who agree with them.

  11. Submitted by andy on 05/05/2011 - 11:57 am.

    The only “jobs” these people are concerned with are their own. They are counting on all the rubes and the haters to come out, ignore some basic facts about their own situations, and vote against their own interests, leaving the GOP in power in the process. They and their backers win- everybody else loses. Government by referendum destroyed California’s political culture, and the GOP is desperate bring this horror here and nationally- to lock in their master’s prerogatives before the demographic tide finally rises and sweeps them out of office permanently.

  12. Submitted by will lynott on 05/05/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    I’m a little surprised Gottwalt didn’t call it a jobs bill. That makes as much sense as anything else he’s saying.

    Maybe he likes being a laughingstock–maybe it’s one way of becoming a “Fool for Christ” like Bachmann.

  13. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 05/05/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    Governing by constitutional amendment is a slippery slope, just look at California which is hamstrung by direct democracy. Every election voters are sent a booklet about a half inch thick of all the amendments and referenda that they must vote on. An excellent article on this subject was in the April 23 issue of The Economist entitled: “The perils of extreme democracy: California offers a warning to voters all over the world.”

    As the article points out, “(P)roper democrcy is farm more than a perpetual ballot process. It must include deliberation, mature institutions and checks and balances such as those in the American constitution.” We elect legislators for that purpose, not to constantly ask busy voters to decide every issue–and for perpetuity.

  14. Submitted by Cecil North on 05/05/2011 - 01:19 pm.

    “Let the people decide”? I call BS. Each one of the GOP’s proposed amendments does exactly the opposite. The proposed gay marriage ban amendment is nothing less than a cold-blooded effort to lock the present law so that it CAN’T be changed by voters in the future without another constitutional amendment. Same with the supermajority they want for approval of all tax legislation: it simply takes power away from majority voters in the future. GOP: the anti-democracy party.

  15. Submitted by Randall Davidson on 05/05/2011 - 01:33 pm.

    I agree with Arvonne. Governing by constitutional amendment is writing in ink — oftentimes, red ink. Costs are fixed, judgment is eliminated, dialogue is banned, and problem-solving and compromise are relegated to the periphery of public policy.

    The anger leading to this impasse in our public dialogue was avoidable. Who might be seen as a non-partisan problem-solving at this point?

  16. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 05/05/2011 - 01:51 pm.

    What is a “gay” marriage? 50% of the marriages I’m familiar with have ended up in divorce – not so gay.

    The GLBT community does not want “gay” marriage. What we want is marriage equality. Nothing more…nothing less.

    Please, let’s stop referring to this inaccurately as “gay” marriage and start calling it what it is – marriage equality for all Americans.

  17. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/05/2011 - 02:40 pm.

    It seems clear that Mr. Gottwalt’s jobs laser has exploded, and a piece of shrapnel from that explosion has damaged his brain.

    This is a nice example of abdication of responsibility on the part of Republicans. We’re witnessing the “grown-up” version of the 4-year-old who’s been told “No candy before supper” and is having a temper tantrum as a consequence. If it’s such a pressing need and so obvious, make it a statutory matter. If the Governor vetoes it, then Republicans have had a widely-publicized issue handed to them for the next election and should campaign on that issue.

    I’d simply add that people who purport to know God’s will are, at the very least, delusional and sociopathic. At worst, they’re just as much a threat to freedom as Al-Qaeda, since they’re doing their best to turn Minnesota into a theocratic state. No matter how many times he reads the Bible, Mr. Brown’s knowledge of God’s will approximates that of the Box Elder bug on my front lawn this morning.

    Arvonne Fraser is right on the mark, and it’s not just California that’s hamstrung. The Colorado Constitution is now a thick, hardcover book of about 350 pages, with dozens of amendments, some of them contradictory, placed there by a long history of popular referendums. Colorado’s government is not better because of those amendments. Minnesota’s will not be better because of the ones being proposed here. The whole point of representative government is to prevent a vocal (and in this case, well-financed) minority from imposing its views on the whole of society. If the representatives elected to make statutory and fiscal decisions for the state don’t want that responsibility, they should have the character and honesty to resign and let someone else have the position who IS willing to take responsibility.

  18. Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/05/2011 - 05:43 pm.

    You and I sat on the same side of the room at this hearing.

    I saw Representatives Carlson, Wagenius, Brynaert, and others, attempt in
    vain to exasperate Representative Gottwalt. He didn’t take the bait. He
    listened to the “questions”, and responded when granted the floor by the
    Chair. As you pointed out, “Given this was a Ways and Means Committee
    hearing, the questions were supposed to have some relation to finance.”
    The disjointed questions and familiar talking points clearly revealed that
    the anti-amendment script was written before the legislators convened.

    As expected, the budget deficit diversion was invoked, implying that our
    legislators cannot simultaneously deal with more than one issue, unable to
    multi-task. I think we should hold them to a higher standard.

    Doug, your story seems to imply that the voice vote split on party lines. With a voice vote, how could you determine that?

    By the time the ballots are printed, there will likely be only two or
    three amendments for the citizens of Minnesota to consider. I think they
    can handle it.

    P.S.: Considering the behavior of anti-amendment crowd, some legislators at the hearing, and commenters above, I hold little help for a civil discourse on this issue. Has a person ever been persuaded to a view by someone who called them a “4-year-old who’s been told “No candy before supper” and is having a temper tantrum”, “delusional and sociopathic”, or “the rubes and the haters”? Good luck with that strategy.

  19. Submitted by William Pappas on 05/06/2011 - 11:41 pm.

    Way to go Jean Wagenius. These republicans are not only bigots they are stupid. I can’t believe that right wing evangelicals are now directing the attention of the Stae legislature through the actions of republicans. How cruel do you think they can get? Deny gays and lesbians their civil rights? Make it difficult for the young and elderly, poor and transient to vote. Repeal the affordable patient care act and then move on to dismantling social security and medicare. I hardly think Jesus would be proud of those moves. In fact, preserving obscene tax cuts for the rich that necessitate all of these cuts to services that benefit common people might turn the tables on these religious fools.

  20. Submitted by John Ferman on 05/07/2011 - 01:16 pm.

    The Republican Party has a long history, but Lincoln would not recognise it. What seems to trueis that the R P has changed and up until now we havebeen able to see what the R P is all about. In earlier years, the people could not know for the DFL could block their moves. But now the vast public will come to know ina very direct fashion. In a way, I do not fear those amendments forI am confident the politically unwashed will see through the nonsense. Then theissue will be dead and hopefully some political careers.

  21. Submitted by Erich Russell on 05/07/2011 - 09:34 pm.

    The trouble with governing through the constitutional amending process is that it makes painfully clear how ill advisedly low these ratifying threshholds are in state organic documents. Look at the back and forth in California. I wonder how comfortable the Republicans would be with statewide referrenda on the minimum wage? Remember that the balanced budget can be amended away just as easily. The dedicated sales tax is just another regretable example. The only amendment we truly need is to a sixty percent threshhold; and I do mean to count non-votes as negative.

  22. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 05/10/2011 - 04:02 pm.

    None of these proposed Constitutional Amendments deserves to be placed before the people because they are each fatally flawed. But as a group, this proposed batch of Republican Constitutional Amendments presents even greater concerns, the whole being worse than the parts.

    When this proposed batch of Republican Amendments to the Minnesota Constitution are taken as a whole and viewed in the context of the historic rarity of Republican control of both houses of the Minnesota legislature (especially over the last 40 years), they raise the concern that these proposed amendments are less an appeal to popular or direct democracy than an attempt to subvert popular and representative democracy and avoid their future judgment.

    The current Republican majorities seek to achieve by Constitutional Amendment that which they know they cannot achieve through the ordinary electoral and legislative process. This is not respect for the people or our form of government. It is a desperate attempt to nail down the pendulum while it has temporarily swung in their direction.

    If a “judicial activist” is one who exercises his or her power in ways designed to enforce a personal agenda in a manner that is inconsistent with fundamental principles of our law and the established forms of our government, then maybe we need to consider whether it is appropriate to coin a new term, that of “legislative activist” for those that seek to impose and make permanent their narrow agenda through this kind of Constitutional Amendment. These ‘legislative activists’ seek to entrench their views in ways that ignore their failure to take control of all branches of Minnesota government and in ways intended to ensure that their extreme ideology would continue to govern even if they as individuals or as a Party do not remain in office (or in the governing majorities.)

    Constitutional Amendment proposals can be placed on the referendum ballot by mere majorities of both houses and are not subject to the Governor’s power of veto. Does this Republican maneuver to bypass the DFL Governor elected by the people in 2010 respect the “choices of the people” or are some election results ‘more equal’ than others?

    Respect for the people’s choice should be something more than selectively deployed political rhetoric. If the Republicans agree it should be more than that, they should accord at least some respect for the long-standing choices of the people that conflict with their current agenda as well as showing due respect for the people’s right to choose different legislators in future elections if the people do not approve of the way in which the current Republican majorities are interpreting and implementing their “mandate”. This right of the people to enforce democratic accountability by throwing the rascals out is infringed upon by this proposed batch of Republican Constitutional Amendments because it seeks to both bind and diminish the power of such future legislatures.

    The fundamental rule that “a legislature cannot bind future legislatures” has stood for centuries. So, when Republican ‘legislative activists’ seek to legislate through Constitutional Amendment, it seems appropriate to consider not only the technical legal limitations that such a rule might impose on such efforts, but also to consider the reasons behind the rule. Why does that rule exist?

    The general prohibition against such legislative “entrenchment” was supported by the founders and drafters of our US Constitution as a protection against abuse of majority power, a means to allow the people to periodically impose democratic accountability on their elected representatives to change the status quo, and a mechanism to empower the people’s choice not merely during one snapshot in time but as part of a continuing and evolving democratic form of representative government – responsive to both the changing will of the people and the changing needs of the times. This batch of proposed Republican Amendments to the MN Constitution fails on all counts.

    By attempting to nail down the political pendulum at a point even further than their temporary electoral mandate could be stretched to support, the current Republican majorities show a fundamental lack of respect for both the people and for our representative form of democracy.

    They mask their maneuvers under “let the people decide” but the reality of what they seek to do speaks louder than anything their rhetoric would have us believe.

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