ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Constitutional amendments favored by one political party but not the other, like the two failed measures from 2012 to ban gay marriage and require photo identification for voting, would become much less frequent under a proposal a state Senate committee backed Monday.
Bill sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, told the Senate State Government Committee that the state constitution should have a stronger cushion against partisan pressures. Right now, a simple majority vote of the House and Senate sends an amendment to the statewide ballot; the governor has no power to stop it. Bakk's amendment, if it makes the 2014 ballot and is approved by voters, would require that all proposed amendments clear a 60 percent supermajority in the House and Senate in order to make the ballot.
"I think this is a discussion the Legislature should have this year," said Bakk, DFL-Cook. "Amending the constitution is really, really important business."
In 2012, Republicans who controlled the House and Senate sent the voter ID requirement and gay marriage ban to the November ballot over the objection of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL legislators, then in the minority. Voters defeated both measures. In 2006, Democrats used the legislative majority to forward an amendment to require that the state's sales tax on motor vehicles only be spent on transportation projects, which passed.
Sen. Dick Cohen, sponsoring a bill similar to Bakk's, said none of those amendments would have made the ballot under a supermajority requirement.
"If we're going to amend the constitution, that should be on a bipartisan basis," said Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. "We should not have constitutional amendments devolving into partisan fights."
In 2008, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers approved the so-called Legacy Amendment, which hiked the state sales tax to raise money for programs in natural resources and the arts. Bakk said he supports those programs, but believes the sales tax increase should have been done in state law and not enshrined in the constitution.
Bakk said his bill has GOP backing, and several House and Senate Republicans have sponsored similar proposals. Constitutional amendments have upsides and downsides for both parties, depending on who controls the Legislature. Democrats could pursue amendments raising the minimum wage or hiking taxes on high incomes, while for Republicans it would be a way to advance longtime conservative goals like making Minnesota a "right to work state" or other limits on union organizing.
Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said making it more difficult to put amendments before voters could end up stifling citizen influence on the political process.
"On the really controversial, tough issues in our society, are the people going to decide or not?" Thompson asked. "Even with a 60 percent threshold, it's going to be much less likely we get issues before the people."
Cohen initially sought an even higher threshold of a two-thirds legislative majority, but the State Government Committee opted for Bakk's slightly lower threshold. A 60 percent supermajority is also necessary for the House and Senate to authorize bonding debt for funding of state construction projects.
Bakk said the amendment is one of his own top legislative priorities, but said he is still gauging support from colleagues. Bakk told committee members he believed he could win support from 41 senators — a 60 percent majority of that chamber, and a threshold that will require at least a few Republican votes.
"I think it's a good government reform," Bakk said.
Several Democrats and Republicans in the House have similar bills, but none have been heard in committee yet.