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Is Minnesota ready for government by constitutional amendment?

GOP legislators offer the mantra “Let the people decide” as they push for four amendments, including a gay marriage ban.Related: First racino hearing turns ‘informational’

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.