Why the Reform Party Reforms Won't Work
by Ted Rueter
Third parties have played an important role in American politics. The
Republican Party, founded in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854, was formed to oppose
the expansion of slavery. The Libertarian Party, established in 1971, seeks
to protect citizens from governmental tyranny. The Green Party was founded
in the United States in 1986 to promote economic justice and save the
And then there's the Party of Jesse. The Minnesota Reform Party is based
on two not-so-great ideas: (1) their trash-talking hero; and (2) tinkering
with the mechanics of elections and government.
We've all heard plenty about Jesse. But few people have bothered to
examine the "good government" agenda of the Minnesota Reform Party.
major points of that agenda are:
"We support providing the citizens of Minnesota the right to recall elected
"We support eliminating campaign funding from PACs, unions, and trade
associations, substituted with state and federal funding of campaigns."
"We support having state statutory and state constitutional initiative
"We support voting on Saturdays and Sundays--not Tuesdays--so working
people can get to the polls."
"We support reducing the costs of campaigns by shortening the election
cycle to no more than four months."
Also, Governor Ventura has vowed to push for a unicameral legislature.
These are all bad ideas. They are all either unworkable,
unconstitutional, meaningless, or counterproductive. They would do nothing
to improve the material conditions of life for Minnesotans. And they're
certainly not a compelling basis for a political party.
Let me examine each idea in greater detail:
RECALL OF ELECTED OFFICIALS: This idea has been a failure in other states.
In California, for example, recall elections have become an attack tool of extreme
partisans. Doris Allen, the former Speaker of the Assembly, was recalled by
her Orange County constituents for the offense of voting with Willie Brown and
the Democrats to organize the Assembly. Anyone who thinks that recall elections
are a truer kind of democracy should know that voter turnout is miniscule. Finally,
recall elections often pander to the emotions of moment. Do we want a political
system that is hyper-sensitive to the demands of an angry mob? Legislators should
be responsible, not just responsive.
BAN SPECIAL INTEREST CONTRIBUTIONS: Whatever you think of the idea, it's clearly
unconstitutional. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court, in BUCKLEY v. VALEO,
ruled that campaign contributions are a First Amendment freedom. The Reform
Party proposal is clearly unconstitutional.
Most attempts at campaign finance reform have followed the law of
unintended consequences. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1974
banned corporations from contributing to political campaigns. However, it
specifically sanctioned the creation of political action committees--which
reformers now view as the greatest evil. FECA also restricted individual
campaign contributions to $1,000--thus insuring that presidential candidates
would spend even more time and effort raising money. Further, George W.
Bush's astonishing success at fundraising shows that the 1974 "reforms"
(which provide for limited public funding) have proven ineffective.
INITIATIVE AND REFERENDUM: Initiative and referendum was first used in South
Dakota in 1898. It became a part of the California constitution in 1911, as
a result of the Progressive reforms. Currently, 23 states have initiative and
referendum, allowing voters to rule on such hot-button issues as affirmative
action, medical marijuana, bilingual education, HMOs, taxes, gambling, same-sex
marriages, guns, and physician-assisted suicide. In 1996, Oregon had a record
16 questions on the ballot.
Initiative and referendum is truly a terrible idea. California's
Proposition 13, passed in 1978, is a perfect example. It requires a 2/3
vote to increase local property taxes. What could be more appealing than a
tax control measure?
But Proposition 13's simplistic approach has had devastating
consequences. While the Golden State used to have one of the best public
school systems in the nation, now it has one of the worst. Schools are
woefully underfunded, test scores have plummeted, and buildings are falling
apart. UC-Berkeley, long one of our greatest universities, lost 30 percent
of its funding.
While its schools were being degraded, so were California's cities.
Proposition 13 created incentives for strip mall development. Local
governments in California have to generate revenues somehow. They know they
won't be able to raise property taxes. So what do they do? Desperately seek
WalMart, K-Mart, and SchlockMart, for the sales tax revenue. And forget
about convincing local governments to authorize construction of affordable
housing--it doesn't bring in enough cash.
In addition, Proposition 13 institutionalized tax inequities, especially
between the young and the old. Proposition 13 freezes property tax
valuations at their 1978 levels--until the property is sold. In other
words, the bungalow owned by a little old lady for 40 years has a property
tax valuation of $55,000, while the same property--if purchased by a
30-something--would be taxed at current market value (probably quadruple the
In general, initiative and referendum makes compromise impossible,
increases the power of big money, and results in legislation by slogan
rather than informed deliberation.
WEEKEND VOTING: This isn't the 1950s. Many people work on weekends--or go
out of town. Weekend voting is just as likely to decrease voter turnout as increase
And what is the problem with voter turnout in Minnesota? In 1998,
sixty-one percent of Minnesota voters showed up at the polls--highest in the
If we're really serious about increasing voter turnout, there are more
effective ways to do it. Oregon is experimenting with voting by mail, and
Louisiana is experimenting with voting via the Internet.
But is increasing voter turnout an end in itself? After all, voter
turnout by testosterone-driven teenage wrestling fans is what gave us
Governor Ventura. And what was the predominant reason for their vote?
SHORTEN THE ELECTION CYCLE TO NO MORE THAN FOUR MONTHS: How in the world does
the Reform Party plan to do this? I have a few ideas for them to consider:
Ban candidates from speaking to the Rotary Club.
Prevent candidates from calling their cousin to ask for support.
Forbid candidates from talking to Eric Eskola.
Prohibit Jason Lewis from having candidates as guests.
Order MINNESOTA LAW AND POLITICS to cease publication.
This "reform" is laughable.
UNICAMERAL LEGISLATURE: Governor Ventura touts Nebraska's unicameral legislature
as a model for Minnesota. But all is not well in the land of the Cornhuskers.
A 1998 report from the non-partisan Minnesota House Research office suggests
that a unicameral legislature saves neither time nor money. "During the
regular biennial session," says the report, "the Unicameral routinely
uses 150 legislative days, whereas the Minnesota Legislature uses fewer than
120 legislative days." In addition, says the report, special sessions in
Nebraska occur roughly as often as Minnesota, but tend to last longer.
There are also some procedural disadvantages to a unicameral legislature.
In Nebraska, committees routinely meet in executive session to mark up
bills, which is unheard of in Minnesota. In addition, a unicameral reduces
the flow of ideas and diminishes legislative deliberation. Also, if
unicameralism meant a smaller state legislature (the only way to
significantly reduce costs), citizens would have less direct contact with
Finally, what is the problem with Minnesota's bicameral legislature? How
would a unicameral legislature improve education or transportation or health
care in Minnesota? Is Nebraska better off than Minnesota?
Jesse makes the argument that a unicameral legislature would eliminate
insidious conference committees, where all sorts of nefarious deal-making
takes place "behind closed doors."
This is talk-radio nonsense. In Minnesota, as the Governor should know
by now, all conference committee meetings are open to the public and the
press. In addition, another term for "back room dealing" is compromise--the
essence of democratic government.
Indeed, a unicameral legislature would eliminate "back room dealing"
granting near-dictatorial power to committee chairman. Under a bicameral
legislature, if a committee chairman refuses to hear a bill that the other
body supports, it may be considered in conference committee, and then by the
two bodies as a whole. Under a unicameral legislature, if a committee
chairman refuses to hear a bill, it is DOA. Talk about anti-democratic!
Years ago, H.L. Mencken said that "there is always a well-known solution
to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong." Sounds to me like
Reform Party reforms.
Published in Minnesota Law and Politics, May 1999