Why is Minnesota so afraid of democracy?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Activists gather at a Minneapolis fast food restaurant on Monday prior to a march for a higher minimum wage ordinance. The march was sponsored by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, 15 Now Minnesota, ISAIAH, and Minnesota Nurses Association.

After months of work collecting signatures, pressuring the Minneapolis City Council and arguing in court, backers of a $15-an-hour citywide minimum wage were given a message by the state Supreme Court: They didn’t do it right.

In late August, the state’s top court ruled that the measure, which would have increased the minimum wage in annual increments, was not the proper subject for a proposed charter amendment, the method activists had used to try to get it on the ballot. Instead, it should have been done as an initiative.

Problem is, Minneapolis has never given voters the power to engage in direct democracy via ballot initiatives or referendums. In fact, unlike the vast majority of the cities in Minnesota that have their own home-rule charters, Minneapolis reserves all legislative and policymaking authority for the City Council.

And while the city won its legal battle over the $15 wage measure thanks to that provision, the episode revealed a stark disagreement between a number of the city’s political activists and its elected officials. Is direct democracy by initiatives and referenda an important check on reluctant politicians and powerful special interests — or is it a risky process that could open the state to confusing and even contradictory ballot measures?

MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Councilmember Jacob Frey

“I support a higher minimum wage but I support taking the reins, showing leadership and doing it the right way,” Council Member Jacob Frey said before voting against placing the $15 wage issue on the ballot. “This is not a comment on minimum wage. It is a comment on legislating via referendum, which is why I oppose.”

But Anthony Newby, the executive director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change — one of the main backers of the wage amendment — said the council would not have addressed the issue without the sort of pressure from activists, and the public, that ballot measures offer. “If representative democracy is not working for everybody, then we continue to be interested in alternatives that will get more directly to direct democracy and accurate representation.”

A power rarely used

Unlike more than half of the states, Minnesota has never allowed initiative and referendum powers on a statewide basis. The last time voters were asked if they wanted that power, in a 1980 ballot measure, a majority supported the change, though not enough to clear the state’s supermajority requirement.

On the local level, 81 of the state’s 107 cities that are governed by charters give their voters the power to initiate or pass judgment on ordinances. Yet it is a power rarely used. While the League of Minnesota Cities does not track the city-by-city use of initiative and referendum, Tom Grundhoefer, general counsel for the league, said “I don’t think there are many.”

Volunteers collected signatures
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Prior to a march in North Minneapolis Monday, volunteers collected signatures on a petition urging the Minneapolis city council to adopt a minimum wage ordinance.

Joseph Mansky, election director for Ramsey County, said the last time the office ran a local initiative or referendum election was in 1999, three years before he even joined the elections department. That year, one ballot measure sought to increase the sales tax to support construction of a stadium for the Minnesota Twins, while another asked voters about gradually phasing out billboards. Both measures failed. (Ranked choice voting, which was adopted in 2009, was put on the ballot via a charter amendment, not an initiative.)

Hennepin County has had similar experiences with direct democracy. While voters in various cities in the county have frequently been asked to vote on charter amendments, Elections Manager Ginny Gelms could find just four examples over the last 10 years of ballot initiatives, one each in Rockford, Plymouth, Deephaven and Excelsior.

Blame it on booze

That Minnesota does not have initiative, referendum and recall powers in its constitution can be blamed on beer.

In 1898, the state constitution was amended to make more difficult to pass future changes, according to “Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution,” by David Schmidt. Termed the “Brewers Amendment,” and sponsored by a state House member who was also a Theodore Hamm’s Brewing Co. attorney, the change required that any change to the constitution needed majority of all voters to vote “yes” in order to pass.

In other words, not casting a vote on a constitutional amendment was the same as voting “no.” Intended to make it more difficult to adopt Prohibition, the amendment also managed to twice kill initiative and referendum power in Minnesota during the Progressive Era, a time when 22 of the 27 states with initiative or referendum powers adopted them.

The issue didn’t come up again until 1980. And by then, the state’s political establishment was firmly lined up against direct democracy: The campaign opposing giving voters initiative and referendum powers was co-chaired by a vice president of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the political director of the AFL-CIO. The chief spokesperson against the amendment: the president of the state League of Women Voters. That fall, 53 percent of those who voted on the amendment voted “yes” anyway, but it once again fell short of the threshold for passage.

Today, some of the state’s most prominent good government organizations remain opposed, including the League of Women Voters and the Citizen’s League. “In a healthy democracy, with a good government reputation and high voter participation, initiative and referendum isn’t needed,” is how longtime political reporter Dane Smith summarizes the opposition in Minnesota. “It’s not in our temperament to go to direct democracy.”

Dane Smith
Dane Smith

During his journalism career, Smith covered local government for the former Washington Star, state government for the Star Tribune, and national politics for the Pioneer-Press. He said there has never been a demonstrated need for direct democracy powers in Minnesota. “People are properly wary of government, but there is not a sense that the public will is regularly thwarted.”

There also is a sense that initiatives are more often the tool of conservatives with tax-cutting intentions, Smith said. And those who opposed initiatives often have ready-made horror stories about crippling spending restrictions in initiative states. And there’s always the example of California, which has seen monied special interests put so many initiatives on the ballot that voters are often overwhelmed. As Smith says: “The downsides seem to be more of a risk than it’s worth. ”

But perhaps California, with seven times the population of Minnesota, isn’t the best example of how the process would work in Minnesota. States like Oregon and Washington, with populations far closer to that of Minnesota, have not been overwhelmed with high numbers of initiatives, and legislation that was supported by Democrats has passed along with tax-cutting measures.

In Washington, for example, a minimum wage with annual cost-of-living adjustments was passed via initiative. So too was the establishment of private liquor stores, though only after Costco bankrolled both a signature-gathering and a media campaign.

Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University who’s studied direct democracy, says that voters do a relatively good job passing judgement on measures, often using some of the same techniques used by swamped legislators. Like lawmakers, they often don’t read every word of every measure but use shortcuts: who’s for it, who’s against it, who’s putting money on which side and what is going on with the economy. Washington voters, for example, rejected the Costco liquor measure the first time because it took too much liquor tax revenue from cities and counties.

Minneapolis’ tortured history with its charter

All the concern about putting democracy directly in the hands of voters often tends to ignore the power most cities in Minnesota already have. In fact, 107 charter cities (out of the state’s 853 total cities) don’t need any change in the constitution to give power to voters to initiate or pass judgement on ordinances. The Legislature gave them that ability during the Progressive Era, when it allowed cities to create their own governing documents — home rule charters — part of which specifically gave charter commissions the option of providing recall, initiative and referendum authority.

The League of Minnesota Cities notes that initiatives must be “legislative in character” — that is, measures that are “general in nature and lay down a permanent and uniform rule of law.” Some cities do not allow taxes to be increased or reduced by initiative, for example. And a handful of cities allow either initiatives or referendums, but not both.

And then there’s Minneapolis, which has a tortured history with charters. According to his history of the city, “The Growth of an American City,” Iric Nathanson wrote that after St. Paul quickly adopted a home rule charter in 1900, Minneapolis repeatedly failed to get enough votes to pass a modern charter. The fundamental disagreement: how strong a mayor the city wanted.

It wasn’t until 1920 that a charter got approved. And as Nathanson writes, it came at a price: “In order to win popular support, the city’s charter commission merely codified the existing municipal governmental system into a new charter and abandoned any attempt to overhaul or reform it. ”

Barry Clegg, the current chair of the Minneapolis charter commission, said there has never been a move create initiative and referendum via the city charter in the 95 years since the first charter was approved. “Despite more than 150 amendments since that time, initiative and referendum has never been proposed, either by the Charter Commission, the City Council or by citizens petition — at least not any petition that obtained the necessary number of signatures to appear on the ballot,” Clegg wrote in an email.

Three times charter rewrites went before voters — in 1926, 1948 and 1960 — and were defeated each time. “The only complete rewrite to succeed was the Plain Language Charter in 2013 and that was drafted with a goal of avoiding substantive change so initiative and referendum was not included,” Clegg wrote.

Is change coming?

Twice in the past year, demonstrated voter interest forced the Minneapolis City Council to confront policy issues. Backers of a minimum wage measure submitted enough signatures for ballot placement via a charter amendment, while those advocating a major influx of money for parks showed poll results indicating they could do the same.

Each time, questions were raised as to whether the proposed charter amendments were valid. That is, were they attempts to change the “form and functions” of city government, the putative province of charter amendments, or were they simply initiatives posing as charter amendments?

In both cases, however, the effect of the pressure moved the City Council to do what backers wanted. The council adopted a compromise deal for funding parks reconstruction. And after voting against placing minimum wage on the ballot, a unanimous council directed staff to draft a minimum wage ordinance to be voted on by next spring.

Yet amendment sponsors remain unhappy that the council fought so hard against the measure. While their attention will remain on pushing the council to adopt a city-only wage hike, they are considering a longer term strategy that includes initiative and referendum in Minneapolis.

Ginger Jentzen, the campaign director for the $15 Now campaign, said the organization spent a lot of time meeting with community groups, unions and individual workers to craft a measure that would raise the wage in a way that would help workers but also pass muster with voters. A poll by Patinkin Research of likely voters gave the issue 68 percent support. And once signature gathering began, it took nine weeks to get enough to qualify it for the ballot.

Ginger Jentzen holding 20,000 signatures to be verified by the city clerk.
MinnPost photo by Kristoffer Tigue
Ginger Jentzen delivering 20,000 signatures in favor of voting on raising the minimum wage to Minneapolis City Hall earlier this year.

None of that would have been necessary had wage backers thought the council would act on its own, she said. “If the city council wasn’t going to move, the only recourse working people have is taking the decision back to the people,” she said. “I would say the staff direction [to come back with an ordinance] is absolutely a victory for the movement and the pressure it brought on the city council.”

Both Jentzen and Newby dismissed the concern that the city would be inundated with ballot measures if the option was available. They pointed to the infrequent use of initiatives and referendum in Minnesota’s other charter cities that already have the power. “The floodgates have not been opened to rain hellfire down on citizens,” said Newby. “But somehow, when communities of color and our most-vulnerable workers rose up to use this tool, suddenly the world was gonna end.”

Ironically, it’s clear that creating initiative and referendum powers is a proper subject of a charter amendment. And if such a signature gathering campaign was successful, subsequent campaigns to let voters initiate policy issues — like a citywide minimum wage — would be legal in Minneapolis.

Newby said activists are currently looking at expanding initiative and referendum powers via amending the charter, though in the short term they plan on testing the theory posed by the Minneapolis council — that members support the issue of minimum wage but not the method of using direct democracy to get it. Activists are organizing throughout the city to keep pressure on council members. A rally and march earlier this week was part of that effort.

A ‘challenging way to govern’?

Mark Andrew, the former Hennepin County commissioner who’s now the leader of Save Our Minneapolis Parks, said his group had a similar experience to that of the minimum wage backers. Without the threat of a successful referendum, he said, the mayor and council would not have supported the massive influx of new maintenance and repair money. “We ran into a wall in city hall,” Andrew said.

It was only after showing city leaders a poll that suggested 74 percent of voters would support higher taxes to repair neighborhood parks that they were able to persuade city officials to make a deal. “I do not believe they would have acted on it without the specter of a referendum,” Andrew said.

Mark Andrew
MinnPost file photo by Karen BorosMark Andrew

In the lead up to the council vote on the 20-year parks funding deal, which also included money for roads, several council members expressed concern about a public vote on parks funding. It was likely to pass, they thought, and they would be left to balance other city spending demands. “The allocation of resources can never be a popularity contest,” Council Member Lisa Goodman said in the spring. If it was, sewers would never get funded, she said. “And we can’t have major decisions on spending be by referendum. I don’t need my constituents to order me to fund parks.”

“If we go off on a referendum here and a referendum there, that is a really challenging way to govern,” Council President Barbara Johnson said.

Despite his belief that the deal would not have happened without a threat of direct democracy, Andrew reflects a common sentiment: that initiatives and referendums can be dangerous, calling them a “blunt instrument.”

When he was on the Hennepin County board, his impression was that they were used elsewhere by the political right — often to undo progressive legislation. As such, he opposes a change to the state constitution. “We have representative democracy, and it forces public issues to be vetted in some detail and that is not always the case with initiative and referendum,” he said.

And though on the local level initiatives and referenda can “can be powerful,” he said, “It can also be misused. As a tool, it needs to be used very discretely and rarely.”

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Comments (40)

  1. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/15/2016 - 12:23 pm.

    Democracy vs Representative Republic

    The only democracy we have is in electing representatives for us. If the representatives no longer represent us we remove them or we move to a referendum that defines a democracy.

    The problem with the $15/hour minimum wage issue is that it would be voted down in a referendum. It’s only chance is to have elected officials not represent the wishes of the voters. Then we’ll have kiosks/iPads/tablets/robots instead of human beings serve us…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/15/2016 - 08:45 pm.


      Our system was designed as a representative Republic, not as a pure Democracy, which most of the Founders wanted no part of.

  2. Submitted by Evan Ravitz on 09/15/2016 - 01:54 pm.

    Pls learn from Colorado experience

    Colorado has a stellar history of ballot initiatives, partly because they are easier here than almost any other state. That’s how we became the first state to get a renewable energy mandate and to legalize marijuana, and may become the first with Single Payer Healthcare this November. Here are my favorites in the last 20 years: http://spryeye.blogspot.com/2012/01/case-for-ballot-initiatives-and.html

    That’s why Colorado has been targeted by organizations like ALEC to impede citizen initiatives. We’ve turned down their proposals as referendums twice, so this time they’ve contrived an “astroturf” ( fake grass roots) ballot initiative called Raise the Bar. Thanks to Alec Exposed, here is their national plan: http://goo.gl/UDQpr9

    Those of us defending direct democracy have concluded that the best way to improve the process is for the Secretary of State to allow the signing of initiative petitions online. This will remove much of the advantage of big money because it will save the cost of hiring most petitioners. It will also save the Secretary of State the considerable time and expense of comparing physical signatures, since ID will be by driver’s license, etc just as for registration, change of address, etc.

    • Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/15/2016 - 02:18 pm.

      Or Use California’s Example

      where an initiative DESTROYED the entire public education system in the state at every level,…

      a debacle from which the state is only lately beginning to recover,…

      and a hot-button-issue-of-the-moment initiative on gay marriage ended up costing the state a massive amount of money to seek to defend.

      I would FAR prefer that we elect representatives who can take the time to study important issues and devise well-though-out legislation,…

      than that we allow the latest hot-button issue to be demagogued into law by ignorant people,…

      and let’s face it, the general public IS ignorant on a whole variety of issues,…

      some of them are even “deplorable.”

      The founders were too wise to trust direct democracy.

      They knew each other and their friends and neighbors too well for that.

      Those who would cast aside their wisdom and who regard the checks and balances they devised into our system of turning ideas into laws as “elitist,”…

      are likely the same people who would NOT bother to study and research important issues,…

      and would be far too willing to make law based on what they believe must CERTAINLY be true,…

      (which is far too often PROVABLY false);…

      the kinds of people who STILL very willingly fall prey to every snake oil peddler or pied piper they see on TV.

      It takes maturity and patience to win what you want the old fashioned way,…

      but in the end, that’s the ONLY way that works.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/15/2016 - 05:15 pm.


        I second that whole heartedly…

        $15/hour sounds great until the businesses start relocating to the first ring suburbs, or using a lot more of those check yourself out scanners. For a community that has such high unemployment, it seems there are some serious pros/cons that need to be evaluated.

        I also enjoy / am scared by those “Man on the Street” sketches where he/she asks the typical citizens simple political questions and the people do not know the answers.

        • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/16/2016 - 05:25 am.

          Here’s a question just for you,

          because you follow and pose possible consequences very well.

          Would a $15 minimum wage further dislocate low tier labor as it may be the marginal dollar at which many somewhat more qualified people who would not apply at current rate might find $15 personally workable?
          So, would raising the minimum reduce unemployment at the targeted lower end—or not?

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/16/2016 - 07:25 am.


            Interesting question. So are you proposing that the high unemployment rate for minorities is a self inflicted choice? That they are simply choosing not to work because the jobs do not pay enough to leave unemployment, welfare, cash jobs, or however they are currently paying their bills?

            Usually the folks here report that it is employers and society being unfair/biased that is causing that high unemployment rate. Where as I believe that the academic achievement is leaving many of them unqualified for many jobs. (ie that’s why I am tough on Parents & Schools)

            If your proposal is correct, it may help entice more workers in to the market. But I don’t think there are an excessive number of lower income jobs that are going unfilled. And I think the law will pressure some of those jobs to leave Mpls proper.

            Please remember that American consumers are the ultimate capitalists, they shop anywhere to save money, get better quality, get better reliability, keep up with trends, etc. So if we arbitrarily raise costs here, they will choose to shop elsewhere.

            If you doubt me: checkout the cars on the road, the appliances in the homes, the cell phones in our hands, etc.

            • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/16/2016 - 02:50 pm.

              No proposal here…

              Truly a question for discussion. Is there a marginal dollar amount that would bring some group (say, some group with somewhat higher skill sets than typical minimum wage pools) to that wage, thereby giving employers a generally higher level employee for $X, and thereby further freezing out the group intended for the increase?

              Economists discuss “marginal utility” in formal models. College students, for example, consider their own utilities of borrowing vs. working. Would $X higher minimum wage possibly affect their choices here?

              • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/17/2016 - 12:10 am.

                Good Point

                The most likely candidates would be the “retired” fixed income crowd.

                They may not bother with part time jobs for $9/hr, but for $15/hr they may appreciate some extra spending money. And if they are educated, communicate well, are reliable, etc, what Supervisor would pass them by for a younger person who didn’t or barely passed High School.

                That is an interesting twist that I had not thought of…

                • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/18/2016 - 12:23 pm.

                  We shall see, won’t we?

                  I’m naturally more interested in micro-econ considerations these days rather than macro effects, so more of these intended/unintended consequences must be discussed by professional econ and market leaders. Unless scaled, the jump from $9 to $15 presents a structural shift, not an incremental increase.
                  Good chat, John. Thanks.

                  • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/19/2016 - 09:27 am.

                    It is scaled

                    In fact, none of the places that have passed a $15 minimum wage actually have a $15 minimum wage currently. I believe Seattle will be the first, as some employers have to be there in 2017 (but it won’t be effective for everyone until 2021).

                    • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/21/2016 - 09:06 am.

                      Thanks, Sean

                      I pretty much figured that would be the case here, but did not bother to verify. Seattle is the city I hear discussed, so you provide the perfect example. Thanks.

        • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/16/2016 - 08:55 am.


          The Twin Cities have the second lowest unemployment rate of any major metro area in the country. Now, certainly, it’s probably somewhat higher in Minneapolis proper (and in certain areas there are greater challenges), but overall Minneapolis still has a very strong labor market for a large city.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/15/2016 - 04:28 pm.

      Learn from Colorado

      The only difference is that in Colorado, the voters have been smart enough to avoid the catastrophes that voters in California and other states have passed. It’s still a terrible way to legislate.

      The single-payer initiative is going to lose badly, and will be a big setback to that cause everywhere.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/15/2016 - 03:35 pm.

    Initiative and Referendum

    First, the jargon. Initiative and referendum are not the same thing. An initiative is where a measure is put on the ballot by petition of the voters. Referendum is where a measure is passed by the Legislature, but referred to the voters for approval or rejection.

    Second, the author ignores an important reason why legislating by initiative works so poorly: It is harder to repeal a bad law. If the Legislature passes a bad or unworkable law, it can easily be repealed or modified by a simple legislative majority. States with initiated legislation set a much higher bar to modify such a law, and it is easy for a minority of legislators to block even a needed reform. California is a prime example of that–all of the various tax limitations and funding mandates can’t easily be harmonized, because a supermajority cannot be assembled for either tax increases or spending cuts.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/16/2016 - 05:05 am.

      Thanks RB

      Many of us learned this difference in 10th grade. Of course, that was a very long time ago for many of us.
      Your simple definitions should be easy to remember for most folk. One might think these are obvious in meaning; however, apparently not so.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/15/2016 - 03:42 pm.

    avoiding the issue

    It’s pretty much agreed that, had the parks-renovation group and the $15 minimum wage group taken their proposals to a vote by citizens of Minneapolis, the City Council’s reluctance to address our parks’ needs and abusive low wages for our citizens would have been overridden: the people of Minneapolis want both good neighborhood parks and better wages at the bottom of the economic scale. It is that threat that got the Council to devise a compromise on the Parks funding and scurry to put together SOMETHING that looks as though they really care about hourly wage-earners.

    The powers that absolutely do not want government mandating any worker rights do not live in Minneapolis, or vote here. They run businesses based in, or at least present in, this most vibrant city in Minnesota. They fear a popular ballot issue, because it is only with large numbers of feet, or ballots, that the common people can overrule the desires of Big Money.

    And, how can the common people have any influence on politicians who are only up for re-election every four years? Pressure brought to bear by the masses must be by the masses, with petitions and marches and open resistance to the Rule of Big Money that obtains, sadly, in Minneapolis

    Our City Council might want to take heart at the newest Census report on American incomes: For the first time since 2007, before the Great Recession, wages for the bottom two-thirds of Americans rose at a greater percentage than for the 10 percent at the top. Much of that low-wage increase was due to cities and states that have imposed a higher-minimum-wage law! Not only do those at the very lowest wages get increases, so do the workers just above them, so more money at the bottom raises all boats except the yachts of the wealthy. That’s encouraging.


    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/15/2016 - 05:23 pm.

      Thems Fighting Words

      I can go with most diverse, but the “most vibrant city in Minnesota”.

      One must need to a resident to understand that.

      • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/16/2016 - 08:54 am.

        Yes, most vibrant

        More theater seats per capita than anywhere else outside Manhattan.
        Twins, Timberwolves, Lynx, Vikings
        World Class Orchestra and choirs
        Night life
        Convention center

        You need to get out more, John.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/16/2016 - 09:53 am.

          Agreed. But I am working so much to help pay the high tax bills to fund those stadiums, theaters, transportation systems, etc. 🙂

          Besides I find an open field with Izzie (my hunting dog) at dawn much more vibrant than sports, theater, and those other expensive hobbies.

          Different strokes for different folks. 🙂

          • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 09/16/2016 - 11:03 am.


            And I’m working to help pay the tax bills for the Legacy Amendment that protects our natural resources so that you have birds and whatnot to hunt with your dog.

            Some of us enjoy the amenities of the city AND the countryside.

            As you say, different strokes.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/16/2016 - 12:54 pm.


              I only hunt private land and was against the Legacy fund bill that raised our regressive sales tax rate. (ie hard on the poor and fixed income folks) But as you say, the artists, bikers and hunters did think it was a good investment. And it has raised a lot of money for the cities and the rural areas. See this link.


  5. Submitted by David Markle on 09/15/2016 - 04:35 pm.

    Another example

    Whenever I bring up the need to have a Met Council elected directly by voters (from districts of equal population), opposing voices arise.

    The present appointed body lacks transparency, accountability and fully adequate authority. I think it only seems non-political because it’s cowed by local elected officials.

  6. Submitted by David Madson on 09/15/2016 - 07:48 pm.

    Please No Initiatives

    My heart is in MN and my temporary (now 21 years) home is in CA. Please please please DO NOT have ballot initiatives. It is a HORRIBLE way to govern.

  7. Submitted by Peter Roethke on 09/15/2016 - 08:38 pm.

    Problems of Accountability, Complexity, and Abuse

    I tend to think referenda are a bad idea.

    First, referenda result in decisions that no one is accountable for. The city council is held accountable at the ballot box. With direct referenda, however, policy is set by the public, which does not face an accountability mechanism. The California example is instructive: the public cuts the tax base while simultaneously mandating expenditure. It also enables deep-pocketed individuals to put their pet projects on the government agenda, with the ironic result that “direct democracy” furthers the goals of the ultra-rich.

    Second, referenda reduce inherently complex issues into binary “Yes/No” propositions. This is a bad way to make political decisions because complexity creates a niche for the very special interests that direct democracy seeks to combat. For instance, Los Angeles County faces a ballot proposition in November to raise the sales tax for transportation infrastructure. Touted as an anti-congestion transit measure, the tax has drawn swarms of interested parties to hammer out a deal that directs billions of dollars to freeway expansion and plugging the holes of local municipal road maintenance budgets. This isn’t apparent from the language of the question posed, which talks vaguely of infrastructure investment. Voters cannot plausibly devote the time necessary to make granular decisions regarding funding streams, and it is insulting to force them to make such decisions in absurdly low-information environments.

    Finally, referenda are bad because sometimes people get caught up in bad ideas due to economic anxiety, cultural tribalism, or something else. From the electoral college to “Footnote Four”, the US has a long tradition of anti-majoritarianism. Undemocratic? Perhaps. But remember that the West German Basic Law of 1949 (still the German constitution) explicitly prohibits referenda for the express reason that they were the favored tool of political legitimation employed by the National Socialists.

    Legislative institutions may be maddening, but it seems like a dangerous idea to attempt to undermine them.

  8. Submitted by Roy Everson on 09/16/2016 - 01:47 am.

    Click bait headline

    Why is Minneapolis afraid of democracy? No reflection on the article, but the header’s nonsensical premise makes me predisposed to disagree with the writer’s views. It’s not unlike that annoying right-wing ploy that goes “if you don’t believe rich folks have a right to use their money to pollute nature and abuse consumers and workers — then you are against freedom and liberty ”

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 09/16/2016 - 07:32 am.


      As I recall, the writers don’t get to write their own headlines – someone else on MinnPost staff does that for them.

      If MinnPost staff wishes to chime in and confirm or correct this, please feel free.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 09/16/2016 - 07:36 am.

    Let the Mpls voters have their way and pass $15

    An hour minimum wage. If it adds jobs and helps with employment then they were right, if it costs jobs and hurts the very folks who voted it in, they asked for it. Unfortunately it takes years to undo bad policies but folks will have to live with their vote. Maybe if we had a vote you would see the anti $15 dollar folks (small business owners) come out and explain how it will affect their workers. It is simple economics, if a bakery employs 5 workers at $10 an hour and the owner (who works 55 hours a week) makes $65,000 a year, pays his workers $15 an hour, he now makes less than $15.000 a year. Somehow, in our need to bad mouth business (you didn’t build it, evil business 1%’ers) the public has bought into the lie that small business owners make millions and are greedy. That is simply not true. If you want to talk about big business in bed with politicians and crony capitalism hurting everyone except DC elites, that is something we need to do.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/16/2016 - 08:44 am.

      Continuing that thought

      That Owner then needs to decide if they will cut the number of employees / automate, if they can raise prices and/or if they can justify staying in the business in that market.

      Now if it is just Mpls that raises the cost, the ability to raise prices will be limited.

      If it is all of MN, then many service providers can send the cost increases to the customers in the way of higher prices.

      Which then raises the cost of living and doing business in MN for all. Driving all the businesses to make the same decisions shown above. Including the manufacturing firms who compete globally.

      It is a thorny complicated issue.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/21/2016 - 09:08 am.

        Yes, it is

        Mainly because most small business owners are not selling pastries to locals. Most are selling goods in other markets like Wisconsin and the Dakotas, for example, nationally and in some cases internationally.

        Now, this is micro economic consideration, mainly because it directly affects pricing models. An exemption, or at least serious legislative modification, for small business below a designated gross revenue point often is seen as a “fair” accommodation; however, such allowance often does not help small employers who are specialty shops/manufacturers (the residents of our industrial parks). They sell into regional and national, even international trade markets. Price pressures mean much to them. Again, it very much becomes a matter of marginal utilities.

  10. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/16/2016 - 11:19 am.

    Seattle passed a similar $15 minimum wage ordinance two years ago (like the Minneapolis proposal, it’s graduated in and not yet $15). Unemployment there is below the state and national levels and is at an 8-year low.


  11. Submitted by joe smith on 09/16/2016 - 11:48 am.

    Pat, if that truly is the case lets make it $50 an

    Hour and end poverty once and for all…..if it does not pass the common sense test, it usually doesn’t work. The same left think tanks tell you being in debt is good, 0% interest rates are good, welfare stimulates the economy, GM buyouts were a great idea….. As I stated let the folks vote and if it works great for them, if not, they suffer the consequence.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/16/2016 - 02:41 pm.

      Yet Again

      It was only a matter of time before the old “Why not raise it to $50” canard got trotted out again.

      It makes no sense, as economics or rhetoric. A minimum wage is just that, a minimum. Increasing it beyond a level you think workers deserve does not mean there is no upper limit to what a minimum could or should be.

      “The same left think tanks tell you . . .” You left out Benghazi, e-mails, and The Deplorables. You’re slipping.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/17/2016 - 03:55 am.

        “workers deserve”

        is not a phrase of economics.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/18/2016 - 09:21 pm.

          Fixed Income Folks

          I am busy wondering what the elderly and welfare fixed income folks deserve?

          Since their income will not raise until the CPI increases, all of these government forced cost increases must be very painful. That is unless the folks believe that the businesses won’t pass the increases along to the consumers.

          • Submitted by Jim Million on 09/19/2016 - 09:10 am.

            Gasoline Prices Lower

            That was the spurious rationale for not even a modest Social Security benefit increase for 2016. I wonder how many of the folks you note believed that to be relevant. Had they still been commuting to work, they might have noticed the “savings.” Ha! Circular or not, the argument was false.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/19/2016 - 04:19 pm.

          Deserving Workers

          It is a term of irony.

          On the other hand, why should economics be divorced from morality?

          • Submitted by Helen Hunter on 09/21/2016 - 02:10 pm.

            Why should economics be divorced from morality?

            It shouldn’t, it isn’t, and it can’t be. However, one of the most usual moral criteria applied to the question: “How much should the people at the bottom of the wage system be paid?” is “They can’t be paid so much that they’re raised to our level.” (“$50 an hour”?)
            Questions or observations about this moral assumption are rarely raised in these discussions. Questions like: Why is work organized the ways it is, with arbitrary judgements about the economic value of different jobs? Why are making decisions about the value of other people’s work financially rewarded at so much higher a level than the actual work of the economy: building, nursing, customer service, educating, making deliveries, inspecting, maintaining, cleaning? Who has decided that women’s home and childraising work has no economic value at all? Why are some communities condemned to chronic poverty? Why is there a belief that a poor class (“the bottom of the wage system”) is NECESSARY to our capitalist system?
            I heard in this discussion troubling assumptions about the ability or willingness of us ordinary citizens to understand complex or even simpler political and economic issues, a distrust of direct democracy as OPPOSED TO representative democracy (they can and do coexist). I know that many of us don’t trust our own abilities, either. This can be changed, by trusting ourselves to understand even complex issues, by caring enough to find out facts and history, by trusting that even though the present system makes it hard for us to feel like important members of our semi-democracy, WE DO get to choose how much we know and how we involve ourselves in what is after all our own lives.

  12. Submitted by JP Idstrom on 09/26/2016 - 01:43 pm.


    I am a bit surprised that an article on this subject that was written by Mr. Callaghan (a superb journalist in every respect) and mentions Washington State did not mention the train-wreck there that is Tim Eyman, a professional initiative organizer posing as a watch repairman. If progressives want an example to confirm fears that the initiative process might be hijacked by tax-cutting conservatives, they need look no further. Washington has a decidedly mixed record on this issue. One person, Eyman, has singlehandedly screwed up Washington education. Minnesotans are right to be deliberate on this issue.

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