State Legislature faces increased number of proposed constitutional amendments

Stephanie Kudrle

Constitutional amendments have been at the forefront of controversy at the State Legislature this session, Minnesota elected officials said.

The unusually high amount of constitutional amendments proposed this session has divided legislators over issues such as gay marriage, the death penalty and abortion.

While some legislators said constitutional amendments give citizens a say in public policy, others were cautious about which issues should be part of the constitution.

House Speaker Rep. Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said there were about 30 bills proposing constitutional amendments this year, several more than in previous years.

Sviggum said issues that have not been addressed in the past contribute to the large number of amendments this year.

“It comes to a peak,” he said. “Not only do we have new ones, but we have ones that didn’t pass in 2002 all the way back to 1990.”

Although Sviggum said he does not mind letting voters decide on an issue, the Legislature must limit the number of issues on a ballot.

A constitutional amendment deals with the basic structure of the state law and both chambers of the Legislature must pass it before it can be placed on the ballot.

Citizens have the chance to vote on amendments during even-year elections. To pass, the amendment must be approved by a majority of voters who go to the polls.

House Minority Leader Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said he thought it was unusual to have so many constitutional amendments proposed that deal with controversial social issues.

“I think what’s happening here is politics instead of policy,” he said. “Republicans in the House and Senate are trying to divert attention from economic issues.”

Most of the proposed amendments have not passed, Entenza said. A bill that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman was the only constitutional amendment passed so far this session.

“Banning gay marriage was a political issue pushed by the White House,” Entenza said. “Republicans are using it to try to make up for the president’s lack of popularity regarding the war and economy.”

He said he expects the debate over gay marriage to continue next year, even though the bill failed in the Senate last month, effectively killing it for the session.

Sviggum said the marriage amendment was a necessary reaction to the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that said same-sex couples could marry.

“It’s policy, not politically motivated at all,” he said. “It’s happening in almost every state.”

There are several other amendments in the Legislature that the chambers must vote on before the session ends in mid-May in order to appear on the November ballot.

Minority Whip Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Paul, said constitutional amendments give citizens a necessary say in public policy.

“Our power as elected representatives is given to us by the people,” he said. “We should allow them to have a vote on the ballot.”

Minnesotans have high standards for their constitution, Kleis said, adding that issues do not necessarily pass even if they are put on the ballot.

Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, said she evaluates the harm and benefit of every constitutional amendment proposed.

“They say ‘Let the people vote,’ but we have a responsibility in what we propose for the people to vote on,” she said.

Rest said the Minnesota Constitution is easier to change than those in some other states and legislators need to be cautious about what they ask people to vote on.

“It becomes difficult to undo,” she said.

While other states require a two-thirds majority in their State Legislature to pass constitutional amendments to the voters, Minnesota requires a simple majority, Rest said.

Tom Scott, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University, said some legislators might try to pass constitutional amendments because it is difficult to undo them.

“The best bet from anybody’s standpoint is get the amendment added because it’s nailed down forever,” Scott said.

It is difficult to amend the state constitution, Scott said, because both chambers have to pass the same bill and voters are reluctant to change the constitution’s basic structure.

Most legislators agreed it should be difficult to change the state constitution.

Sen. David Gaither, R-Plymouth, said it is also important for controversial issues to be heard on the chamber floor.

“I was disappointed some of the amendments didn’t get heard,” he said. “It’s important to have open public debate.”