The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 14, 2013

Minnesota voters are ready for referenda

WHY IT MATTERS: With great political discord and polarization today, we need another tool to hear what voters -- not parties -- really want

The Mankato Free Press

---- — In a seemingly “dog bites man” report released last week, the Vital Statistics on Congress notes there is great discord in the U.S. Congress. So much so, the report says, there is an environment that does not allow Congress to operate in a routine manner or by its own rules.

One of the authors of the report, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, said “The most striking feature of the contemporary Congress is extreme partisan polarization, which has reached the level not seen in well over a century.”

So it shouldn’t be too surprising that another bit of news from the Gallup poll finds that the majority of Americans — fed up with the polarization of our national leaders — favor national referenda as a way of getting their voice heard. Sixty-eight percent of those polled said they would favor such change if enough voters signed a petition to request a popular vote on the issue.

This grass roots effort, a feeling that we the people can do better, is laudable and something the Minnesota lawmakers should take up yet again.

We say again because while half the states provide for referendums or initiatives, after repeated attempts Minnesota is not one of them. It’s a pity that our lawmakers are receiving so little input from us, the governed, while making such monumental decisions that can affect, well, us the governed.

The state has tried a number of times to adopt this process, most recently in 2002. But while the majority of those voting favored the initiative, it failed to achieve the “supermajority” required.

According to the Initiative & Referendum Institute, the first attempt was in 1914 and was approved by a 3-to-1 margin but it fell short of the majority of all votes cast in the election. In 1916, the Legislature passed the amendment again and voters again approved by 4-to-1 margin. However, it was only 45 percent of all voters so it lost again. The Progressives gave up saying the supermajority was an “insurmountable obstacle.”

It failed again in what I&RI called lackluster efforts from Republican Gov. Al Quie in 1980.

It was revived in the late 1990s by then state Rep. Erik Paulsen with support from Gov. Jesse Ventura and passed the House twice in 1991 and again in 2002. However it failed to get a vote on the Senate floor.

In 2005, Republican Paulsen and Democratic Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona penned an op-ed piece that said “Let’s trust the people and provide them with the chance to be able to directly speak on the major issues of the day. It is time to make government more responsive and accountable by bringing I&R ballot reform to Minnesota.”

Today, there seems little appetite for giving more of a voice to the people. In fact, the latest attempt at campaign “reform” was an “un-reform” according to Prof. David Schultz of Hamline University noting the Legislature’s steps, to a large extent, “dismantled the remaining vestiges of … reforms in the 1990s and a giant step backward in government integrity.”

We are in volatile times of great discontent as witnessed by recent elections. In 2010, the state GOP made history when it took control of both houses, the first time since 1972. A mere two years later, the Democrats took over control of the legislative and executive branches, the first time in 22 years. Clearly such upheaval cannot mean a mandate for either party but rather a frustration from the electorate to be heard.

Yes, Minnesota voters do have the opportunity to approve constitutional amendments and, in fact, there have been over 200 attempts since 1858. However, there has been great blowback from people opposed to altering the Constitution when what really is being sought is voter input on key issues.

This can be achieved with less drama than changing the Constitution and that is through referenda. We think — especially in today’s environment when people are feeling more disenfranchised — the time has come for referenda in Minnesota. Who will be the champion this time?