Commentary - Supermajority amendment is short-sightedBrace yourself. If you like the gridlock in Washington, you will love one of the bills now being heard at the Legislature. It proposes to amend the constitution by requiring a supermajority of the Legislature to approve any increases in taxes or expenditures.
By Robert Beussman, mayor of New Ulm and Lynn Stauss, mayor of East Grand Forks
Brace yourself. If you like the gridlock in Washington, you will love one of the bills now being heard at the Legislature. It proposes to amend the constitution by requiring a supermajority of the Legislature to approve any increases in taxes or expenditures. If it goes to the ballot and is passed, it would lead to bigger legislative struggles, more state shutdowns, budget setting through the Constitution, and the most ineffective government ever seen in Minnesota.
Last year, Minnesota faltered. The inability of state leaders to cross party lines led to partisan gridlock and the shutdown of state government. We thought legislators would learn something from that experience, but instead, some are trying to up the ante through a constitutional amendment that puts increased restrictions on the budgeting process. The amendment would require a three-fifths supermajority of both the House and Senate to approve any increases in taxes or expenditures, turning what is always a difficult process into an impossible task.
If passed, an extreme minority in the Legislature could easily stymie any legislative attempt to fund critical infrastructure, maintain needed programs, respond to emergencies, or even redesign government, leading to a wave of constitutional amendments. The thoughtful, studied legislative process of setting the budget would be replaced by popular vote, with the outcome unknown and the budget process put into further disarray.
Contrary to the intent of the supermajority constitutional amendment, it will not lead to greater accountability. Future constitutional amendments could be used to either increase or cut taxes and expenditures, and new programs could even arise without matching funding.
As mayors of Greater Minnesota cities, we have already witnessed the impact budget impasses at the Capitol have had on our homeowners and businesses, so the thought of having legislators scrambling for ways to fund new constitutionally-dedicated programs is discomforting, at the least. The uncertainty of the system will also exacerbate the tax unfairness now in place, making it impossible to pass any tax reform or fairness through the legislative process.
If future Legislatures cannot increase taxes or expenditures on the state level, they will find it even easier to pass the cost on to local entities, with much more severe repercussions in Greater Minnesota. Past experience has demonstrated that our schools, cities, property taxpayers, nursing homes and state colleges and technical schools will all take a bigger hit than those located in the metro area.
It is not just Greater Minnesota mayors who are concerned about this change to the state constitution. Even a conservative group like the Minnesota Taxpayers Association has said, “At best, supermajorities appear unnecessary. At worst, they can severely hamstring the ability of government to modify tax policy in response to demographic conditions, economic realities and federal changes.”
If the framers of our state had wanted gridlock, they would have enshrined it in the Constitution, but they didn’t, so for over 150 years, legislators have had the job of making tax and budget decisions. By all accounts, this system has served the state well. It is hard to understand why the current group of legislators is contemplating turning the job over to the public. Instead of taking an easy out, they should buckle down and do their job.