Minnesota constitution – a work in progress


It’s Sunshine Week, the annual shout out to open government – a great way to celebrate is to dig deep into some of the information by and about state and local government. Though for the most part focus is on open meetings and data access, public information resources in libraries, archives and museums throughout the state – and increasingly online – offer a rich record of Minnesotans through the decades. An armchair dip into the online resources will expand your definition of access to government information. Warning – you may lose yourself in the stories.

Because we are currently floundering in information and misinformation about State Constitutional amendments, I took a mental dip into the historic records of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, one of the state’s information treasures. It came as no surprise to learn that staff at LRL had collected and preserved everything anyone could ever want to know about the history of proposed amendments to the State Constitution whether the amendment was adopted or rejected.

Suffice to say, since the first amendment was proposed and approved there have been scores of proposals. That first amendment, passed May 1, 1858, was to establish state government. That same year the people of Minnesota adopted an amendment to authorize a $5 million railroad loan – an amendment the voters repealed two years later in an amendment that required popular approval of tax to pay railroad bonds. The more things change…

In a different vein in 1865 and again in 1867 Minnesotans rejected proposed amendments to authorize Negroes to vote, an amendment that finally passed in 1868. By 1875 Minnesotans authorized the legislature to grant women suffrage in school affairs – the school board members probably had a hankering for pie and coffee at their meetings. Two years later Minnesota males rejected a proposal amendment to authorize women to vote in local elections.

The Governor was authorized to use the veto pen with passage1876 of a 1876 amendment to allow the chief executive to veto appropriation bills. Next came an era of government organization. Voters approved amendments to establish biennial sessions (1877), to extend terms of representatives to two and six years (1877) and to prohibit special legislation on certain subjects (1881), while they rejected a proposal to regulate compensation of legislators in 1881.

In 1886 the issue was the provision of loans to state school funds to counties and school districts. By 1896 voters approved an amendment to permit cities, towns and villages as well as counties and school districts, to borrow school and university funds. Tax issues took precedence as voters approved of inheritance taxes (1896) and taxing large corporations (1896) while rejecting several tax-related initiatives.

In 1898 Minnesotans wisely approved an amendment to permit women to vote for and serve on library boards.

An initiative and referendum proposal was rejected by handily rejected by voters in 1914 and again in 1916. In 1918 Minnesotans narrowly rejected an amendment to prohibit the manufacture and the sale of liquor.

Minnesota voters rejected a 1952 proposal to clarify the meaning of who shall be entitled to vote. Four-year terms for constitutional offers were approved in 1958. That same year voters approved three to one to prescribe the place where a person moving to a new precinct within 30 days before an election may vote, eliminating obsolete provisions on the voting rights of persons of Indian blood. By the same margin Minnesotans approved a 1960 amendment to provide for succession to the office of government to provide for continuity of government emergencies caused by enemy attack.

Many Minnesotans voting in the 2012 election will recall casting a ballot, or being confused by some more recent proposals including authorization the 1988 of a state-operated lottery; in 1990 the vote was to dedicate 40% of the lottery proceeds to the environment and natural resources. That amendment covered the trust fund until 2001; in 1998 the environmental trust fund, expanded to include preservation of the state’s arts and cultural heritage and increased ales and use tax was approved by a huge majority; by 2008 voters were more divided but approved what is known today as the Heritage Fund.

These are just a new of the two hundred plus amendments rejected or approved by Minnesotans since 1858. Topics of proposed amendment run the gamut – government organization to taxes to the courts, the railroads, farms, highways, lotteries and prohibition. This year it’s the Marriage Amendment.

Lots more on the history and the ratification process on the LRL website. This take on the state’s bumpy constitutional history offers an intriguing mental excursion for Sunshine Week and an informed approach to the 2012 election. Click on the LRL website and explore how Minnesotans have spoken up on a host of issues over the decades.