For Republican Sen. Dave Thompson, time is running short.
The freshman from Lakeville has spent the last six months readying a ballot initiative that would enshrine so-called “right-to-work” language in the state’s Constitution. The bill, which is being pushed by GOP Rep. Steve Drazkowski in the House, would outlaw making union membership compulsory in any workplace. But the 2012 session is in full swing and quickly approaching its first committee policy deadline in mid-March, and talks on right-to-work have stalled as internal GOP discussions of constitutional amendments in the House and Senate have heated up.
The Republican caucuses are debating how many ballot initiatives — and which ones — to push this session. Any amendments approved would bypass Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature and head straight to the voters this fall. The Senate GOP has held two caucus sessions to discuss amendments, the most recent on Tuesday afternoon. House Republicans haven’t yet discussed them in open caucus, but member-to-member conversations have heated up in the past week.
The right-to-work amendment is the main point of contention in both chambers. While a contingent of hard-line conservatives in both caucuses is pushing hard for right-to-work to become part of the ballot mix, more moderate members are pushing back against the proposal, which would be certain to draw many millions of outside dollars to Minnesota. Next door in Wisconsin, a labor law dispute drove thousands of protesters to the Capitol last year, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker is headed toward a recall election. In Ohio, Republicans enacted restrictions on public employee unions only to see the law defeated by voters in a November referendum.
Thompson dismissed any strategic concerns over putting the measure on the ballot. “The sense that I get is virtually everybody supports the idea of this and thinks it’s the right direction for Minnesota,” he said, “but there’s fear [that this could hurt Republicans politically], and I don’t think policy should be driven by fear. It should be driven by strong convictions and the desire to do the right thing.”
In recent days it has been suggested that Thompson or other right-to-work proponents might even invoke Senate Rule 5 to bring the measure to the floor if it doesn’t begin moving through committee. (The bill is currently in Sen. Geoff Michel’s Jobs and Economic Development Committee, where it has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.) Rule 5 may be employed to recall a bill from committee, either for referral to the Rules Committee or to be placed on Senate General Orders.
But according to one longtime Republican observer of Minnesota legislative politics, “It would be a nuclear option to use Rule 5 that way [without the blessing of leaders or the affected committee chairs]. It would anger a ton of members, and it would demonstrate a real weakness on the part of the right-to-work crowd of legislators, because it would prove that they have been unable to lobby their colleagues and win them over.”
On the other hand, the observer noted, forcing a procedural Rule 5 vote on the floor would also offer the amendment’s financial supporters outside the Capitol a blueprint for applying district-by-district pressure to reluctant GOP legislators.
Thompson, Drazkowski barnstorm
Backers of the amendment here have launched an aggressive campaign to get it on the ballot. Thompson and Drazkowski have traveled to towns in southern Minnesota to talk to conservative groups about right-to-work, while the GOP-aligned PAC Freedom Club has even targeted brochures in a handful of districts represented by purportedly reluctant Republican senators, including Julianne Ortman, Claire Robling and Carla Nelson.
Nelson says that while she has spoken out against “legislating through the Constitution,” she hasn’t made a final decision on right-to-work, so she was surprised when a constituent called her after receiving a right-to-work mailing from the Freedom Club. “I didn’t see it as a negative thing, but more as informational. They’re trying to get information out about the issue,” she said. “It would have been nice to know they were going to do that, but I guess that’s not exactly how these things work.”
By some accounts, there are suspicions within the Senate Republican caucus that one or more right-to-work proponents in their ranks have leaked information to the Freedom Club and other groups, letting them know which senators have spoken in caucus about their hesitation to support the right-to-work amendment.
When asked whether some senators held that suspicion, Ortman said, “I’m not going to comment on that.”
Right-to-work falters in House;gun amendment gains steam
But the biggest stumbling block for right-to-work is likely the House Republican caucus.
At least half a dozen House Republicans have privately expressed intentions to vote against it if right-to-work came to the floor, and some lobbyists say that 20 or more GOP caucus members staunchly oppose putting it on the ballot — some out of opposition in principle and some owing to the political backlash it could unleash. Republican Rep. Tony Cornish is openly on the record against the measure and expresses confidence that it will fail if taken up for a vote.
“I just don’t see the votes to pass it,” Cornish said.
One House Republican who wished to remain anonymous acknowledged the worries regarding a widespread backlash and added that a number of the more “practical” caucus members in both chambers are upset because Republicans from safe GOP districts are pushing right-to-work without considering the impact it might have on colleagues who face closer re-election battles on their own home turf.
Other Republicans have come out against right-to-work, too, including Sen. Jeremy Miller and Rep. Morrie Lanning. House Speaker Kurt Zellers has said while he personally supports the idea of right-to-work, he doesn’t see a broad appetite for it within his own caucus.
Most observers agree that as few as two and as many as four Republican-sponsored amendments will land on the ballot in 2012. With gay marriage already set for a vote and a voter photo ID bill moving steadily through the process, that leaves few openings for the more than two dozen GOP amendments introduced in both chambers.
In the House, a constitutional amendment to require a 60 percent supermajority vote of the Legislature to raise taxes garnered a lot of buzz immediately after the July special session. In the Senate, Ortman introduced an amendment bill that took an entirely different tack by capping state spending at 98 percent of the amount forecast to be collected in the biennium. But talks regarding budget amendments have quieted considerably since last summer, and few expect them to be part of the mix in 2012.
Alongside right-to-work, lawmakers say there’s an appetite among both House and Senate Republicans to add a constitutional amendment to ensure the right to keep and bear arms to the list.
Though there would be no tangible legal impact — the amendment would add to the state Constitution what is already a federal constitutional guarantee — the bill generates significant support in both chambers. It has at least three authors in the House, including Cornish.
“If [the leadership] wants to try three [amendments on the ballot], it makes a lot of sense to have the right to keep and bear arms, because historically states have seen a 76 percent or higher passage rate. It’s a sure winner,” Cornish said. “I’m going to push hard for the third one to be right to bear and keep arms. I don’t think we have to lobby so hard for that one.”
Team of senators weighs amendment field
Senate Republicans appointed a group of four caucus members — Judiciary Chairman Warren Limmer along with Thompson and Sens. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Benjamin Kruse — to compile and present a political dissection of the major constitutional amendment proposals. The caucus is polling members on the various amendments, and a decision on which ones to support should be finalized within two weeks, he said.
That will put some lawmakers in a tough position. Miller, a freshman lawmaker from Winona, says he would prefer to have no constitutional amendments at all.
While he supports the idea of a photo identification requirement at the polls, he has heard concerns from local government officials about the cost of implementation.
“Overall, my preference would be to work through the legislative process we have in place,” he said. “That’s the advantage of working through the legislative process. We can address those issues.”
The same is true of right-to-work, he said. He has been approached by some union members who are not happy with their union representatives or the dues they have to pay, he adds, but “that’s not enough reason for a constitutional amendment.”
Limmer is supportive of the idea of amendments. He authored the gay marriage ban amendment that passed both chambers last spring.
“What we have to remind them is that we aren’t making policy, we are giving the policy decision to the public,” Limmer said. “It’s hard to pass blame on a lawmaker when we passed the decision-making on to the public.”