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?
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”