Senate leader wants to put brakes on ballot questions

9:29 PM, Jan 10, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk put his name on a bill that would make it tougher for lawmakers to put constitutional amendments on the ballot in Minnesota.

The Iron Range Democrat decried the "sign wars" that marked an extraordinary election year in 2012, when voters in Minnesota were asked to decide two constitutional questions.

"Minnesotans shouldn't ever have to live through something like that again," Bakk complained.

His bill would require support from three-fifths of the members in both chambers of the legislature to approve a proposed constitutional amendment.

"This should at least ensure that these amendments have some bipartisan support, rather than coming from one party," Bakk told reporters at the State Capitol.

Bakk's measure would also slow down the timetable for changing the Constitution.  If it became law, only one chamber of the legislature could vote on an amendment during a single session.

And that proposal would not go on the ballot until a year after it wins approval in the State Capitol.

Currently only a simple majority is required -- 34 votes in the Senate and 68 votes in the House -- to pass an amendment. Those proposals go straight to the voters, without giving the governor an opportunity to veto them.

Both the Marriage Amendment and Voter ID amendment passed the legislature by tight margins, with virtually all of the support coming from Republican members.

"They put a purely partisan amendment on the ballot," Bakk remarked. "Amending our constitution was used as a way to get around a governor who didn't agree with a majority in the legislature."

His bill, known as Senate File 4, was part of the first batch of legislation introduced in the young 2013 session.

The voters defeated both amendments, after a bruising campaign season that cost backers and opponents millions of dollars in advertising.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, an Eden Prairie Republican, said the defeat of those amendments served as a reminder that it's not easy to convince the public to change the Constitution.

"There's a high threshold of passing a constitutional amendment once you get it out of the Legislature," he said. "You've got to get it through a majority of the voters, in a regular election. I think there's a fairly high threshold."

Hann disputed the notion that Republicans, by passing the Marriage Amendment bill in 2011 or the Voter ID bill in 2012 were trying to circumvent Gov. Dayton.

"The idea that we need to thwart the will of the governor, go around the governor, I don't think that's legitimate."

The Marriage Amendment was an attempt to put the state's existing statutory ban on gay marriage into the Constitution, to prevent future legislatures or the courts from undoing it.

The Voter Photo ID bill, on the other hand, was vetoed by Governor Dayton in 2011.  It returned in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment in 2012.

Sen. Bakk was asked whether erecting roadblocks to ballot questions takes away power from the voters. He disagreed.

"This is an additional restriction on legislative power, to check the power of the legislature when it comes to amending our constitution."

His proposal would not require a change in the Constitution. It could be done by a statute, passed by the Legislature on a simple majority and signed by Governor Dayton.

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