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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 planet.

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. The five major points of that agenda are:

"We support providing the citizens of Minnesota the right to recall elected state officials."

"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 and referendum."

"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 previous rate).

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 it.

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 nation.

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? "Jesse's cool."

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 legislators.

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" by 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 the Reform Party reforms.

Published in Minnesota Law and Politics, May 1999

 
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