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With the once-frenzied budget process mired in conference committee doldrums, Republican-sponsored constitutional amendments that would clamp down on taxes and spending are filling the fiscal policy void.

GOP pushes budgetary constitutional amendments

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Rep. Steve Drazkowski wants to ask voters if tax hikes should require three-fifths support in the House and Senate. (Staff photos: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Measures would ask voters to limit Legislature’s taxing, spending powers

With the once-frenzied budget process mired in conference committee doldrums, Republican-sponsored constitutional amendments that would clamp down on taxes and spending are filling the fiscal policy void.

In launching the amendment proposals, the current majority caucuses in the House and Senate are positioning themselves to leave the imprint of their fiscal philosophy on the state Constitution should they lose control in the future. Over claims by DFLers of engaging in nonbudget-related distractions, high-profile legislators have backed a flurry of bills that would ask Minnesota voters whether lawmakers’ powers to raise taxes and increase spending should be curbed.

Senate Taxes Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, has introduced one of three key amendment proposals that would constitutionally limit state spending.

“The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for all of our uncontrolled spending, nor can they. So now is the time to ask the voters what they would like,” Ortman said.

Minnesota doesn’t have initiative and referendum laws like other states. Minnesota legislators must approve the wording of a constitutional amendment proposal before it lands on the ballot.

Budget reserve proposal

Ortman on Wednesday introduced her “First Things First” bill to limit spending to 98 percent of forecasted revenues. The remaining 2 percent would go into the state’s budget reserve. The 98 percent limit could only be elevated with the support of three-fifths of the House and Senate. If voters approved her amendment, the state would put into reserve $706 million of the $35.3 billion that’s forecast for the 2014-15 biennium, Ortman said.

If passed, the spending limit would be in effect for the second half of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s term.

More than 30 senators have signed on as co-authors of Ortman’s proposal. Since only four senators can be co-authors of a single bill, clone bills have been introduced to widen the exposure of Republican support for the issue.

“Many of us came here on the mantra that we would deal with the budget first,” Ortman said. “I think that is a two-part measure. The first part is: What are you going to do to fix the immediate biennial budget problem? The second part is: What are you going to do to make sure it never happens again?”

DFLers assailed the timing of the amendment proposals, pointing out that the more immediate $5 billion budget deficit that’s projected for 2012-13 remains unsolved. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the budget-related amendments, along with other amendments related to social issues, are a distraction.

“I would argue that instead of worrying about things that are going to be on the ballot 19 months from now, we ought to be worried about the next 19 days,” Bakk said.

Ortman prefers her proposal to another bill by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha, that passed the House Taxes Committee on Monday night. Drazkowski wants to ask Minnesota voters to decide whether they want tax increases to require three-fifths support of the House and Senate instead of the simple majority currently required. Drazkowski’s bill, which didn’t have a Senate companion as of press time, has 30 co-authors.

“This would help us as a Legislature,” he said of the amendment.  “Instead of focusing on taxation as a first response to a budget situation, it would force us to bring about a more thorough analysis of the budget situation and of the options that we have, and exhaust those before going to a tax increase.”

Drazkowski said that a similar proposal passed the Republican-controlled House in 1999.

The other prominent fiscal amendment proposal currently being offered dates back to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration and would limit spending to the amount of revenue collected in the previous biennium.

Electoral calculus in play

DFLers say they doubt Republicans can live up to the budgetary discipline that the amendments would require. Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, who was Taxes chairwoman when DFLers last controlled the House, said the budget bills that Republicans have crafted this year contain roughly $1 billion in “hidden” revenue and would fail to meet the terms of the amendment proposals.

“All of the stuff they are doing [with the amendments], they are not even following,” Lenczewski said. “To me that’s the height of hypocrisy.”

While the next general election is still well over a year away, the amendments have important strategic value for Republicans, said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.

In contrast to the 2010 GOP wave election, Republicans are anticipating an election next year in which Minnesota Democrats will turn out to vote for President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “They need to come up with a way of negating that increase,” Schultz said, “and one way to do that is take a page from the Karl Rove playbook from 2004 and put up a series of constitutional amendments to [bring] out [GOP] constituencies.”

The First Things First and three-fifths majority proposals are red meat for the fiscal conservatives Republicans will be counting on at the polls next year. They join a palette of proposed nonfiscal amendments, such as a gay marriage ban and a measure to add voter photo ID requirements to the Constitution.

But the amendments that focus on fiscal issues may prove to have a particular allure for Republicans, Schultz said, since they figure to be popular with voters who are frustrated by the slow economy and relatively high unemployment rate. Such proposals “appeal better in a tight economic environment,” he noted. “They appeal to swing voters better than the social issues.”

For Republicans, the optimal strategy for pushing a fiscal amendment question involves finding a proposal that excites conservatives without eliciting widespread opposition from organized labor. At the outset of the 2011 session, Drazkowski introduced an amendment proposal that would make Minnesota a right-to-work state by forbidding the establishment of closed union-only shops.

After the bill was introduced, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 5 Executive Director Elliot Seide told Capitol Report that the proposal would “guarantee strong labor turnout in the next election” if it was submitted to voters. Drazkowski’s labor proposal has not emerged as one of the ballot questions making progress as the session nears adjournment.

Some Democrats think the amendment bills might serve a more immediate political purpose as the 2011 legislative session runs its course. They have speculated that the amendment proposals could be used as bargaining chips with Dayton.

“Do I really believe they want to move all seven of these [constitutional amendment proposals] off the House floor and onto the ballot?”  Lenczewski said. “I don’t believe that. I think some of it is to go in and say, ‘Well governor, we won’t push this onto the ballot if you do X, Y and Z.'”

The politics of constitutional amendments put Dayton at a disadvantage, because they go from the Legislature straight to the ballot, bypassing his office altogether. But Bakk doesn’t think Dayton will be interested in taking concessions from Republicans on the amendments.

“How would the governor be assured that if they made some kind of a deal this year, that next year they simply wouldn’t reintroduce the bill and put it on the ballot next year?” Bakk asked. “I think the two sides probably haven’t built the trust level with each other to carve off some kind of deal that would hold for two years.”

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