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GOP legislators suffering from amendment fatigue

This session will likely produce just one constitutional amendment going to voters.

Rep. Keith Downey

House and Senate Republicans may have lost their taste for constitutional amendments. 

At the start of the legislative session, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said he was facing a “litany” of amendment proposals and wanted to limit passage to three. The session likely will end with passage of just one: an amendment to require a photo ID at the polling both.

Call it a case of amendment fatigue. “I think generally that there is a realization that the number of constitutional amendments should be digestible,” said Gregg Peppin, a Republican consultant who led the GOP to the takeover of the Minnesota House in 1998.  “If you’ve got a half-dozen amendments on the ballot, to the extent there are campaigns, multiple campaigns can be confusing.”

And counter-productive. Too many amendments on the ballot could cause voters to ignore all of them. Not voting on an amendment constitutes a “no” vote because ratification of an amendment requires a majority of all voters casting ballots on Election Day. 

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Enthusiasm varies for the four amendments that made it into bill form, at least as measured by legislative progress.  

Voter ID

Photo ID has passed both the House and Senate, and small differences in the bills must still be reconciled in a conference committee.

The proposed right-to- work amendment, which removes union membership as a work requirement, has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but remains in the Rules Committee. There has been no action at all in the House.

An amendment guaranteeing Minnesotans the right to bear arms has not passed out of either the Senate Judiciary or House Public Safety committees.

The real non-starter of the session is an amendment that would require three-fifths of legislators to vote yes to approve new taxes. Introduced in 2011, the only action it’s seen this session is a move to strike one of its authors.

Peppin isn’t surprised at the gush of constitutional amendment proposals.  “Minnesota has been a very strong DFL Legislature since the ’70s so you have a lot of pent up demand for mainstream conservative issues like right-to-work,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me that these debates arise as constitutional issues.”

Nor is their failure to pass unexpected, he said. He points to the right-to-work amendment. “Some of the concerns among House Republicans about support of right-to-work are whether there would be the resources to fight this campaign given the tsunami expected from the employees unions,” he said.

Question of quality

In addition to the quantity of amendments, there’s the question of quality.  

Jeremy Miller, first-term Republican senator from Winona, said he asks first if the issue is worthy of a constitutional amendment. Miller was the sole Senate Republican to vote against photo ID.

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“I have some concern with constitutional amendments.  I don’t believe that legislating through the constitution is good public policy,” he said. “There are certain issues that do rise but, for example, with photo ID, after research and feedback, this isn’t one of those issues.”

In 2010, Miller did vote for the marriage amendment, which defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman, and it will join photo ID on the November ballot.

“That’s not legislating through the constitution because it is already state law,” he said.  “Another concern… there are some folks that are trying to overrule the legislative decision thru the court system. So you have non-elected judges who are going to make that decision.”

The marriage amendment, like right-to-work and gun rights, has been characterized as a get-out-the vote ploy, appealing to a slice of the Republican base.

Peppin says yes, in a non-turnout —  i.e., a non-presidential — year “you can tweak the margins.” But other factors can influence turnout, he maintains.

He cited 1998 as an example, a non-presidential year with Jesse Ventura on the ballot as a candidate for governor. “This is a case where something drove people to the polls that had an impact,” he said.

Many Ventura voters voted for Republican candidates for other offices. “Ventura helped elect Republicans to a majority in the House,” he said.

In an election year like 2012, Peppin said, “it’s not always a valid argument.  We will have the highest turnout in the nation anyway.” 

Even critics of the Republican-backed constitutional amendments agree that in the high turnout are discerning voters who have a right to decide public policy issues and who will make their decisions based on the effectiveness of the amendment campaigns.

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“We are not California here,” Peppin said. “The system works pretty well.”