Diminishing democracy? What budget amendments would mean for MN

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As progress on balancing the state budget stalemates, Republican lawmakers have proposed an array of budget-related constitutional amendments that they say will limit government growth. Nan Madden, director of the Minnesota Budget Project, begs to differ. She warns that the amendments would limit the state’s flexibility in dealing with its budget issues.

“None of them give the state more tools. In fact, they really tie the hands of legislators; they would create more gridlock at the Capitol. They also would make it harder for Minnesotans to understand what’s going on in terms of budget decisions and hold their elected officials accountable.”

She adds that, when passed by the Legislature, a proposed constitutional amendment goes straight to the ballot, bypassing the governor’s office. Once in place, the only way to change such an amendment is to bring it back to the ballot box and ask voters to amend the constitution again.

Madden says one of the amendments would severely restrict how much the state could spend from year to year, by limiting the budget to the same level as the previous budget cycle.

“In a recession, that means we would lock in recession levels of spending. That would give other states a competitive advantage because, as we move into a recovery, they would be able to start to reinvest in their public investments, while Minnesota would have to wait another two years. That would prolong the effects of the recession here and not allow us to respond to changing circumstances.”

She says we could learn lessons from Colorado, which has a strict budget limit in its constitution and has been in a much tougher economic situation as a result. Colorado’s general fund plummeted 17 percent following the 2001 recession – far worse than the national average of only 4 percent.

Two additional proposed amendments each would require a 60 percent super-majority vote to pass certain budget items. Supporters of these amendments say it’s a means of building consensus, but Madden warns it opens the door to political game-playing.

“It empowers a small minority of legislators to hold back their votes on much-needed legislation on order to get concessions on unrelated issues. It actually leads to more gridlock and indecisiveness at the State Capitol.”

If approved, the questions would appear on the November 2012 ballot.

Additional information is available from the Minnesota Budget Project at www.mnbudgetproject.org.