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Frustrated Republicans plan to junk up state constitution

Many Tea Party members and some Supreme Court justices love it too fervently, but the U.S. Constitution is a thing of beauty. It has served well for nearly 225 years as the key document of a diverse, complex and ever-changing nation.

Virgil Swing
Virgil Swing

Many Tea Party members and some Supreme Court justices love it too fervently, but the U.S. Constitution is a thing of beauty. It has served well for nearly 225 years as the key document of a diverse, complex and ever-changing nation.

Except for the Bill of Rights, adopted just two years after the Constitution itself in 1789, the document that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others drew up has been amended only 17 times -- and two of those (adopting and ending prohibition) canceled each other out.

Only seven amendments have been adopted since 1919, before most of us were born.

The Minnesota Constitution adopted in 1858 was a similarly utilitarian and logical document. But Minnesota legislators and residents have amended it 119 times -- and many changes clearly don't belong in the constitution.

But more abuse of this document looms on the horizon, mostly because Republican lawmakers can't stand that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton won't go along with some of their wishes.

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Already on the ballot this fall is an amendment to say marriage in Minnesota must involve a man and a woman, never mind that a Minnesota law already says that. This amendment should be defeated, and I'll write more about that in coming months.

In the legislative session that opened recently, Republican lawmakers want to put before state residents proposed amendments to require a photo ID at polling places, to require a a two-thirds or a three-fifths supermajority to increase taxes and to make membership in labor unions voluntary.

Another 10 or so proposed amendments are also in the hopper for this session. GOPers say they must go this route because unlike with other legislation, Gov. Dayton can't veto action to put amendments on the ballot.

Some amendments likely won't clear the legislature even with its Republican majority, and some will be pushed back to later years. But some will likely join the same-sex marriage ban on this fall's ballot.

I've written many times about the mistake of putting major spending decisions in the constitution. Proceeds of the state lottery, which was itself a mistake, are constitutionally dedicated. So are rules for distributing state gas taxes. The most recent such mistake came in 2008, when voters approved a 3/8 percent increase in the state sales tax and limited the money to environment and heritage programs.

Putting such decisions in the constitution says that lawmakers in that year know better than later ones what state spending priorities should be. Not all these unwise amendment were pushed by Republicans; DFLers had a hand in many.

If the requirement for a two-thirds or three-fifths vote to raise taxes becomes part of the document, it will be extremely difficult in dire financial times to find money to deal with problems. I'd hate to see the state emulate the feds' profligate ways, and I'm no fan of tax increases -- but it's foolish to foreclose that option, which a supermajority vote requirement would do in times of extreme partisanship.

Indeed, one DFL legislator suggested that if Republicans succeed in doing with constitutional amendments what is normally done through laws, Democrats will follow suit later with their spending priorities.

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Aside from this mistaken shift to amendments, two adjoining states have tried another form of direct democracy that is also usually a mistake.

Three Iowa Supreme Court justices were recalled from office in 2010 solely because they ruled that same-sex marriages were legal in that state. And Wisconsin had several recall attempts of lawmakers from both parties in 2011, and more are on the 2012 agenda.

Recalls should never be used just because one group objects to a single policy or vote by a public official or judge. Such disputes can wait to be settled at the next regular election.

If voters start finding many proposed constitutional amendments and recall votes on their ballot, they should turn down all but the most logical ones and consider sending back to private life (at the next election, of course) the legislators that junked up the ballot.

One of the many ways California developed a dysfunctional state government is that lawmakers and private-interest groups succeeded in cramming too many issues onto the ballot.

Minnesota should remain better than that.

Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at vswing2@chartermi.net .

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