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With the House and Senate now in Republican control, issues that have long been bottled up appear to stand a chance of making it onto the ballot in the next statewide election in 2012.

Republicans weigh ballot pushes

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Steve Drazkowski is proposing a constitutional amendment to give employees the right to opt out of belonging to a labor union in their workplace. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Specter of vetoes could produce a spate of constitutional amendment proposals

The rearranged political scene at the state Capitol could prove to be a recipe for constitutional amendment proposals.

For almost 40 years, at least one legislative chamber has been controlled by DFLers. With the House and Senate now in Republican control, issues that have long been bottled up appear to stand a chance of making it onto the ballot in the next statewide election in 2012.

A few constitutional amendment proposals have already surfaced. And with Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor’s office, constitutional amendments could be an avenue of choice for Republicans seeking to advance policies that he would otherwise veto. That’s because constitutional ballot proposals that pass the Legislature go straight to voters for approval in 2012 without crossing Dayton’s desk.

The new legislative order is cause for optimism in the eyes of Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, who has been lobbying unsuccessfully for years to get legislators to pass a ballot proposal that would change the constitution to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

“Until both bodies shifted, we weren’t going to have an opportunity to bring it up,” Prichard noted. “This has made it a possibility.”

In Minnesota and elsewhere, bills to amend state constitutions have been a key means for Republicans to generate voter turnout by rousing their base with amendments that address themes of limited government and social conservatism.

During the 2004 presidential election year, former Republican state Sen. Michele Bachmann led a heated campaign to get her gay marriage amendment on the ballot.

Even though Minnesota has a so-called Defense of Marriage Act in statute, Bachmann raised the specter of activist judges who might rule counter to the will of the people. Similar proposals were presented to voters in states like Ohio, where they boosted turnout among conservatives.

In Minnesota, Bachmann’s bill died in the DFL-controlled Senate.

While DFLers controlled both houses of the Legislature, the most compelling constitutional amendment debate centered on the Legacy amendment, which raised the sales tax to pay for outdoors and cultural projects. The Legacy amendment passed with bipartisan support and was not considered a turnout mechanism for either political party. Voters approved it in 2008.

In the early going of the 2011 session, Republicans, who last year campaigned on job creation rather than social issues, are not making waves about amendments for gay marriage and abortion.

But some DFLers think nonbudget-related constitutional amendments are in the offing.  Last week, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, wrote a letter to GOP House Majority Leader Matt Dean of Dellwood, in which he expressed worry that Republicans will spend time on “divisive social issues and constitutional amendments.” Winkler favored a rules proposal by Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, that would have precluded taking up constitutional amendments until the biennial budget was resolved. But that proposal was defeated.

“Putting social measures on the ballot will do nothing to get Minnesotans back to work, deliver the highest quality education for our students, or improve Minnesota’s quality of life,” Winkler wrote. “In fact, the partisan nature of these issues would do little more than inject divisive politics into the legislative process at a time when we should be doing the work Minnesota voters sent us here to accomplish.”

On important initiatives like photo ID at the polls and limiting state spending, Republicans say they would prefer engaging with Dayton over going the constitutional amendment route. But numerous contested issues could arise as constitutional amendments if Dayton applies his veto pen.

Andy Cilek, president of the Minnesota Voter’s Alliance, which supports photo ID at the polls, said Dayton’s actions could force Republicans’ hand.

“If Dayton makes a mistake and doesn’t sign it, then the next logical move for proponents will be a constitutional amendment,” Cilek said.

Republicans also might try to put state spending limitations on the ballot for voters to decide.

Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, said he has talked to legislators about the idea of putting a curb on spending in the Constitution. He noted that Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for an amendment that would limit state spending to the amount of revenue that was collected in the previous biennium. Krinkie does not think the Pawlenty proposal or similar amendment ideas will gain traction until later in the session.

“I would suspect if those types of amendments are being discussed, it would be several weeks or months before we see anything like that coming forward,” Krinkie said.

But Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, on Thursday introduced legislation that would require the next biennium’s budget to be limited to the amount of revenue anticipated in the November 2010 economic forecast. Downey’s bill does not put forth a ballot question.

David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University, said Republican leaders will have to weigh closely the political value of advancing amendment proposals. In particular, he said, they need to be aware that some proposals could mobilize more opponents than supporters.

“It could cut two ways,” Schultz said. “One possibility is they put up popular things like bans on gay marriage and photo ID, which I think still has support, and that sets them up to be in control after 2012. Or conversely, if they look like they are pushing a hard-right agenda, it could boomerang against them,” thus jeopardizing some of the party’s hard-fought suburban swing district gains in 2010.

Eliot Seide, executive director of the AFCSME Council 5 public employees union, is betting that Republicans would elicit a backlash from a constitutional amendment proposal by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, titled the Freedom of Employment amendment. The amendment, in which Minnesota voters would be asked if the Constitution should be given a new section that expressly allows workers to choose whether they want to be in a union, could tap into the anger that private sector workers and the unemployed feel about public employee benefits. But Seide said the proposal would have the opposite political effect.

“Putting this on the ballot will guarantee strong labor turnout in the next election. It could backfire on Rep. Drazkowski and his Republican caucus,” Seide said.

Drazkowski, however, says the issue should not be bottled up by the political forces at the Capitol.

“I think, ideally, we would give the people a chance to weigh in on this,” he said. “The state government belongs to the people and whatever we can to give them the most direct voice to their government, we need to do it.”

About Charley Shaw

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