Change the Minnesota constitution? Of several proposals gender equality has the best shot
St. Paul -- Several Minnesota lawmakers think the state constitution needs an update.
The 2019 legislative session is not even a month old, but there’s already a handful of bills in the Minnesota House and Senate to amend the state’s founding document.
Several of them deal with enshrining gender equality in the state’s legal framework. The rest would make marijuana legal, protect against unwarranted digital searches, cut the size of the Legislature and impose term limits on those elected to serve there.
Since statehood in 1858, Minnesotans have voted on 213 proposed amendments, approving 120 of them, or about 56 percent, according to the Legislative Reference Library.
Changing the state constitution is tough to do for good reason. Amendments are typically reserved for monumental changes.
Otherwise: “It’s basically the Legislature not wanting to do their job,” said David Schultz, a Hamline University political science professor.
Voters typically prefer lawmakers change laws the old-fashioned way, following the often messy process of shaping legislation through committee and floor votes until it gets to the governor’s desk for consideration.
“If you support something, vote for it,” Schultz said. “Don’t sort of say, ‘I support it, but I’m going to let the people decide.’ ”
In order for an amendment to be put to votes, it needs to win a majority in both the House and Senate. With Minnesota having the nation’s only politically divided Legislature, that’s especially iffy this year — even for proposals like guaranteeing gender equality.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, the Republican majority leader, was unequivocal.
“The most important job of the Legislature this year is to pass a balanced budget, transparently and on time,” said. “The Senate doesn’t plan on pursuing any constitutional amendments in 2019.”
Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman has different plans.
Hortman agreed the budget was the Legislature’s top priority but added that lawmakers could do more than one thing at a time. She noted that the real work on the budget won’t begin until after the next forecast of state finances is released in late February.
That leaves plenty of time for both chambers to consider the gender equality amendment, also known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA.
“It’s well past time that we do that,” Hortman said. “It shouldn’t be too controversial to make sure women have equal rights in the year 2019.”
Hortman added that she wouldn’t rule out considering other amendments but said the process should be used sparingly. She rejected the notion that putting amendments before voters was essentially lawmakers shirking their legislative responsibilities.
“Sometimes you have to give voters the opportunity to weigh in,” Hortman said.
If an amendment makes it to the 2020 ballot it needs to win a majority of every Minnesotan who votes in that election to become law.
The last proposal to clear that hurdle established a council to set lawmakers’ pay in 2016. Amendments requiring voter identification and defining marriage as between a man and a woman both failed in 2012.
Here’s a look at this year’s proposals to amend the state constitution:
Gender equality, aka the ERA
Proposal: Change Article I of the Minnesota Constitution to include: “Equality under the law shall not be abridged or denied on account of gender.”
Key supporters: Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, is the chief sponsor in the House with Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.
There are several similar bills sponsored by other lawmakers in both chambers. One briefly had the support of Republican Sens. Julie Rosen of Vernon Center and Carla Nelson of Rochester, who both pulled their names from the legislation last week.
Details: In addition to amending the constitution to include gender equality there is also legislation that would lift the time limit on ratifying the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Minnesota ratified it in 1973, but the nationwide effort fell short of the support it needed.
Proposal: Amend Article XIII to allow “individuals 21 years of age or older to consume and possess cannabis and cannabis-infused products” and “requiring regulation of cannabis for commercial purposes.”
Key supporters: Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, is the chief sponsor of this amendment that also has backing of 14 other Democratic sponsors.
Details: Minnesota legalized marijuana for medical uses in 2014 and has expanded the conditions it can be used to treat.
The state decriminalized recreational pot in 1976 so people caught with small amounts typically have to pay a fine. But many Democrats, including Gov. Tim Walz, say legalizing cannabis could end startling racial disparities in the criminal justice system related to marijuana.
House Democrats have said legalizing pot isn’t a top priority this session, but they want to explore the ramifications of it. , in the Republican-led Senate, also wants to examine more evidence about the impact before considering any bills.
Shrink the Legislature
Proposal: Change Article IV so the “The Senate is comprised of 49 members, and the House of Representatives is comprised of 98 members.”
Key supporters: Sen. Scott M. Jensen, R-Chaska, and Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, are sponsors of the proposal that doesn’t have a House companion.
Details: Minnesota has one of the nation’s largest legislatures, and every few years some lawmakers try to legislate themselves or some colleagues out of a job.
The size of the Legislature is currently “prescribed by law” with 134 members in the House and 67 in the Senate. Removing 54 lawmakers from the two chambers would be an almost 27 percent reduction in the legislators toiling under the dome in St. Paul.
Term limits for lawmakers
Proposal: Amend Article IV so members of the House and Senate cannot “serve more than 20 years in the Legislature.” The proposal would also limit the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor and attorney general to two terms.
Key supporters: Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, and Sen. Mark W. Koran, R-North Branch, are sponsors. Koran is vice chair of the state government committee the bill was sent to, so it might get a hearing.
Details: Current Reps. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, and Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, have been in the House since the 1970s. If this proposal became law, they and several other longtime lawmakers would be out of a job.
It would also prevent constitutional officers from serving more than two terms.
Minnesota’s longest serving governor was Rudy Perpich, a DFLer who spent 12 years as the state’s chief executive. Lori Swanson just wrapped up her third term as attorney general, and she considered seeking a fourth but chose to run for governor instead.
Protect electronic data
Proposal: Amend Article I to include “electronic communications and data” being protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A warrant would be needed to access electronic data and communications.
Key supporters: Republican Reps. Eric Lucero of Dayton and Tony Albright of Prior Lake are sponsors in the DFL-controlled House, making it a long shot.
Details: The constitution already protects people, their homes, papers and other effects from warrantless searches. This would added electronic communications to that list in a world where people’s digital footprint is growing exponentially.