Our view: Make it tougher to amend the constitution

Governing by referendum has never been a good idea.

The "let the people decide" method of putting controversial issues on the ballot sounds reasonable at first, but too often it's a dereliction of duty, a way for lawmakers to seek political cover regarding controversial issues — or a way to circumvent the legislative process and avoid a governor's veto pen.

All that's needed in Minnesota to move a proposed amendment from legislative chambers to the ballot is a simple majority in the House and Senate. That's too easy, especially for contentious issues that break largely along party lines.

Most states require legislative majorities of three-fifths or two-thirds to propose constitutional changes. Besides a supermajority, some states take it even further, requiring that proposed constitutional amendments must gain approval in two legislative sessions before they can appear on the ballot.

Minnesota lawmakers took a step Monday toward making it more difficult to amend the state constitution. And with irony that's not lost on us, it will take a constitutional amendment to do it.


The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved two bills that would require a three-fifths vote of both houses of the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. One bill was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a DFLer from Cook, and the other is being carried by Richard Cohen, a DFLer from St. Paul. Similar bills have been introduced in the House but haven't been discussed in committee yet.

Bakk first introduced his bill in 2010 because he believed it had become too easy to rewrite the constitution with a simple majority at the polls. Between 1982 and 2010, voters approved 17 of 18 amendments that lawmakers put on the ballot. Of the 213 amendments proposed since the state was founded in 1858, voters approved 119 and defeated 94.

The supermajority requirement would provide a safeguard from the swinging pendulum of political majorities. It's a safe bet that the Republican-backed definition-of-marriage and voter ID amendments wouldn't have been on the 2012 ballot if this rule had been in place.

The Democrats also have used partisan clout to try to amend the constitution. In 2006, DFLers used the legislative majority to move an amendment to require the state's sales tax on motor vehicles be dedicated solely to transportation projects. While we agree with the outcome, it should have been handled legislatively, not placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

Just last week, Rep. Tom Anzelc, a DFLer from Balsam, introduced a constitutional amendment that would raise the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2015 and adjust it for inflation permanently starting in 2016. A minimum wage increase is likely to pass in some form this year, but again, this should not be embedded into the constitution as a hedge against failed legislation.

The constitution shouldn't be a venue for partisan politics. Let's set the bar higher for amending it.

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