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Legislature likely to consider several constitutional amendments
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Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, says a constitutional ban on gay marriage is an assault on Minnesota's gay community. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty's plan to bring back the death penalty is just one of many constitutional amendments lawmakers are likely to consider this year. Amendments have been proposed on everything from banning gay marriage to dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to the environment. The Legislature has debated several proposed constitutional amendments over the last few years, but none has reached the ballot since 1998.

St. Paul, Minn. — Over the next few months lawmakers will consider at least a half dozen proposals to change the state constitution. Unlike other bills, the proposed amendments bypass the governor's office.

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Image Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson

If a majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate approve the proposed amendments, they go directly to the people -- on the ballot for this fall's election. If a majority of people voting in the election approve the amendment, it becomes the law of the state, off limits even from the courts to overturn.

One of the high profile proposals this year involves gay marriage. Several lawmakers are upset that the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled last year that gay couples have a right to marry. Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, said Minnesota needs to constitutionally protect marriage, so that courts here could never allow gay couples to marry.

"The current defense of marriage act in the state of Minnesota was overwhelmingly passed by the legislators," Holberg said. "An opportunity for the public to comment on this important public policy issue should be the way to go considering what we've seen in the courts."

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Image Rep. Phil Krinkie

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, says the proposal is an unnecessary assault on Minnesota's gay community. Dibble, the only openly gay member of the Senate, noted that Minnesota already has a law that bans gay marriage.

"We're taking our constitution," Dibble said. "This our sacred document, our foundational document and using it for discrimination for the first time."

While the gay marriage debate may be the most emotional, other proposed constitutional amendments will focus on dollars and cents.

A DFL proposal would limit the the amount of one-time spending and budget shifts lawmakers could use to fix a state budget deficit.

We're not talking about changing laws, we're talking about changing the makeup of our constitution and governance of this state.
- DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson

Another proposal would require the legislature to limit spending.

Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, said that amendment would constitutionally tie growth in the state budget to the inflation rate and population growth. He said he wants lawmakers to change the way they approach the budget.

"We have great debates about which need is greater, which areas should get additional appropriations," Krinkie said. "Seldom are we in a situation where we're truly looking at evaluating programs which are ineffective or outdated."

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he's against Krinkie's proposal because it doesn't give state officials enough flexibility to balance the budget.

Sviggum, however, does support another amendment that would allow the public to put questions on the ballot by collecting signatures. He said the proposal would be stricter than California's initiative and referendum, where numerous proposals are considered every election. Sviggum said his plan would be more limited.

"Involving and enhancing citizen participation in this process is a good thing," Sviggum said. "It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing to get citizens more involved in the process and some limited initiative and referendum."

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Image House Speaker Steve Sviggum

But Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said his caucus won't support the Initiative and Referendum proposal.

"For folks who want initiative and referendum," Johnson said, "I suggest they turn in their election certificate."

Voters rejected a similar initiative and referendum amendment in 1980. Johnson says it's unlikely that the Senate will approve any constitutional amendments this year.

"We're not talking about changing laws," Johnson said. "We're talking about changing the makeup of our constitution and governance of this state."

Typically many more amendments are proposed then end up reaching the ballot. But recent history also shows when a proposed amendment makes it to the ballot, voters are more likely than not to pass it.

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