Change state constitution to fix Senate election schedule

On March 6, the Minnesota House of Representatives approved a plan to give back $434 million of the $1.2 billion surplus that the state overtaxed Minnesotans last year. It was an admirable effort, approved with only two dissenting votes.

However, the Minnesota Senate saw no urgency. Instead, it took a blast from Gov. Mark Dayton two weeks later to get the senators to move. The changes were finally implemented by a harried state bureaucracy on April 2, but the result of the delay is that more Minnesotans than necessary had to file amended tax returns.

Part of the issue with the Senate was that it wants to build a new $63 million office building for 45 of the 67 senators. Since the House won’t benefit, it has been a tough sell to the lower body, and original plans for a fitness center and reflecting pool have already been scrapped.

Then, negotiations between the House and Senate broke down over an increase in the minimum wage. In this age of no compromises, rather than negotiate, the Senate proposed that the matter be brought to the voters to add it to the state Constitution. A referendum on a legislative matter is a silly idea; the reason we elect legislators is so the rest of us don’t have to study every piece of legislation that some Minnesotan would like passed and vote on it. Referenda should be saved for true constitutional changes.

The core cause of the Senate’s seeming inability to play nice with others, however, is the fact that the House of Representatives is up for election this year, while not one senator is. The senators know that by 2016, decisions made during the 2013-14 legislative session will be ancient history in most voters’ minds. Thus, while House members and the governor fret about how they are going to survive the 2014 election, the Senate can bully them without fear of voter retribution.

This results from a flaw in the state Constitution. Article IV, Section 4 says in part that Senate terms shall be four years, with the exception that all senators shall face election after reapportionment that follows the new census every 10 years. Thus, the Senate is not up for election in years ending in “4” or “8”, and are elected to only two-year terms in years ending in “0”.

A more appropriate amendment to the state constitution than how to set the minimum wage would be to change Article IV, Section 4 to read in part, “all senators shall be elected to four year terms except in the first election following reapportionment 34 senators shall be elected to four-year terms and 33 shall be elected to two-year terms, such elections being determined by a consecutively numbered series of districts, with senators from odd-numbered districts being elected for four years, and senators from even-numbered districts being elected to two-year terms.”

The result would mean that except for elections in years ending in “2”, when all Senate seats would be up for election, in all other elections about half of the Senate would be up for election. Human nature being what it is, overnight we could then expect the state Senate to be much more attentive to the voters’ — not to mention House members’ and the governor’s — concerns and priorities.