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Constitutional amendment proposals carry GOP dreams

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota Republicans look to the state Constitution as a way to enact some of their pet policy dreams.

In some cases, the constitutional amendments are ways to get around Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who would not approve of their policy choices. Other amendments are ones Republicans feel about so strongly that they think they should be in the Constitution, not mere laws.

For issues ranging from voter photographic identification to making it harder to increase taxes, GOP lawmakers are preparing to ask voters to amend the state Constitution. The key question for them now is how many amendments can appear on the Nov. 6 ballot before Minnesotans are overwhelmed and just reject them all.

Thirty-six constitutional amendment proposals have been introduced in the House with 33 in the Senate. Most are authored by Republicans, but Democrats have written their share, too.

In fact, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has introduced a proposal to change how an amendment is passed.

Now, an amendment needs a simple majority vote in the House and Senate to send it to voters. Under the Bakk plan, 60 percent of each body would need to approve an amendment before it lands in polling places statewide.

Senate Republicans established a committee to look over the proposals and make recommendations about what ones should proceed. Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, is working with legislators to find proposals that "complement one another" and "have a keen interest in the public."

History has proven that the more proposed amendments are on a ballot, the more chance the public will reject them.

"There's no magic number," Limmer said, but suggested presenting no more than four and possibly as few as two.

"We don't want to clutter the ballot," Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, echoed. "Five would seem a bit high to me. ... My preference would be three or less."

Lawmakers need to discuss and prioritize amendment ideas, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said.

One amendment proposal already is on the ballot would define marriage as between a man and a woman. That passed last year, with Democrats and a few Republicans strongly arguing against it.

Minnesota law already outlaws gay marriages, but proponents say it would be a stronger statement in the Constitution.

Debate has begun on requiring Minnesotans to present a photo ID before voting. Dayton vetoed a bill last year that would have put the plan into law, but not the Constitution. This year, Zellers and other legislators predict that issue is likely to join the gay-marriage ban on the Nov. 6 ballot.

If Senjem's three-amendment limit prevails, the third amendment is harder to predict.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, and others want to make it harder to raise taxes by requiring a 60 percent majority in each legislative chamber to vote for an increase.

Drazkowski, along with Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, also has suggested an amendment prohibiting workers from being required to join unions and pay dues.

While he said he supports a number of the proposed amendments, Drazkowski agreed three or four amendments would be reasonable for voters to handle.

One proposal popular among Republicans is to dump the current system of electing all judges, replacing it with a system where judges are appointed and voters only cast ballots deciding whether to keep them in office.

Another proposal, designed to keep state spending in check, would limit the two-year state budget to what was collected in the previous two years. Another plan tries to ensure a budget cushion by capping spending at 98 percent of what is expected to be collected during the time the budget is in place.

Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, wants to keep Minnesota government open in case there is a shutdown like last year.

"I will pursue an additional amendment that would prevent that situation from happening again," Carlson said. "If a budget agreement is not reached by the last day of the biennium, funding will continue at a reduced percent of the most recent budget."

Democrats do not like the amendment push.

Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said those efforts could backfire.

"The more amendments they propose, the better, because I think the public can understand a message that says: Just vote no," Huntley said.

Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, contended lawmakers should be careful about using the state constitution as a vehicle.

"The Constitution is too precious to be used as a tool for political gain," she said.

Among the proposed amendments, most of which have little chance, are ones:

- Lowering voting age from 18 to 16 in state and local elections.

- Allowing people to keep guns for self-defense and other legitimate uses.

- Forbidding regular legislative sessions in even-numbered years.

- Prohibiting abortion.

- Limiting how much aid to schools the state can delay.

- Repealing the 2008 constitutional amendment that dedicates some sales tax proceeds to outdoors and arts programs.

- Limiting how long public officials may serve.

Danielle Nordine of the state Capitol bureau and Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.