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Fewer referenda

Minnesotans will vote on at least one constitutional amendment this fall and reports from St. Paul indicate that lawmakers are considering adding several more to the ballot. It’s a trend that Minnesotans need to keep an eye on, because legislating via amendment is a trend that could prove destructive in the long term.

There are several reasons for lawmakers to put what ought to be simple legislative questions out for voter approval in the form of constitutional amendments. For one thing, it lets lawmakers wash their hands of the result by “leaving it to the people.” While that makes lawmakers’ lives easier, it also raises the question of what good legislators are doing if they won’t do their jobs. Amendments are also a means of getting passed into law changes that can not make it through the usual legislative process — for example, bills which the governor would veto. And, of course, amendments are harder to overturn than simple laws.

While there may be some good in the last point, subverting the basic legislative process is a mistake. Minnesota has, by and large, done well over the years when its legislature and governor have worked together to hammer out laws that serve the state. Bypassing that process serves only to deepen a political divide that makes it difficult to get the people’s business done in the ordinary way.

Nor does leaving it to the people, cutting out the deliberative and less-emotional circuit-breaker of the usual legislative process, serve the state well — near-disastrous experiments such as California’s proposition system have amply shown.

Legislative amendments might sound good. But the reality is that they are an end-run around a long-standing process that exists for good reasons. Like most short-cuts, they will ultimately go wrong.