Thursday, May 12, 2011

Take My Vote, Please

Thursday's Star Tribune greeted me with two depressing headlines:

Gay Marriage Amendment Moves Closer to the Ballot


Big Show of Support for Voter Photo ID [from the Minnesota Poll]

For those playing along at a home that isn't in Minnesota, both of these issues are likely to be put before the voters as amendments to our state constitution in 2012.

As I've written before (and MinnPost's Jay Weiner has ably demonstrated), there's no valid reason to change voting requirements, and the proposed changes would disenfranchise legal voters without catching even a minor number of unqualified voters. The most likely category of unqualified voters -- released felons -- would not be turned away under the bill: just people who don't drive, or who move a lot, or who are students. And it will cost towns and cities a bunch of money they don't have, and risk technological snafus that could disenfranchise even more people.

My reasons for opposing the "gay marriage" bill are probably apparent enough. I see no reason for the state to say two people can't legalize their commitment to each other. If same-sex couples could legally marry, there's no way that any dissenting church would be forced to perform such marriages. On the other hand, passing a constitutional amendment that prevents the state from marrying two consenting adults appears to me to be a clear governmental establishment of religion.

But almost worse than the establishment of religion, in this specific case, is the use of the state constitution to deprive a minority of a right. The proposed amendment puts the rights of a minority to a vote of the majority. As has been pointed out by other commentators, imagine where civil rights would be in the South if those rights had been subject to a vote by the Southern majority.

All of this makes me question the idea of initiative and referendum. I'm no scholar of the question, but the devolution of California's governance since the state moved to government by referendum is clear. And none other than my favorite economist Ed Lotterman wrote on this very question the same day as the Strib articles.

Writing in the Pioneer Press, Lotterman convinced me that I shouldn't have voted for the 2008 Legacy Amendment, which placed a sales tax into the state constitution, and dedicated the money to natural resources, the arts and culture (you know, the one with the logo I wrote about a while ago).

Lotterman argues that "in the long run, [dedicated sales taxes] add little to overall spending on the specified purposes because legislators tend to make offsetting decreases in regular appropriations." Even though offsetting decreases were prohibited by the amendment, they're already happening.

His second reason for opposing it was that "since a dedicated sales tax automatically generates a pot of money, agencies that have access to it without overtly going through a legislative request tend to be more casual about spending it than they are about funds for which they have to compete." The current example is the local brouhaha over Neil Gaiman's $47,000 honorarium for speaking at the Stillwater library. Lotterman appears to have nothing against Gaiman, but he asks: "What if the Metropolitan Library Service Agency had looked at its own budget and asked itself, 'Would spending $90 per person for a less-than-two hour event be a good use of money compared with other things we might spend $47,000 on?' I doubt that they would have chosen this particular event."

That does sound about right, I have to admit. Lotterman writes:
It is not that all funds from the dedicated tax are wasted, nor that there is no system for allocating these funds (there is). But the inherent nature of such dedicated taxes is that they diminish incentives for ranking priorities and for careful consideration of competing needs. The result is that society gets fewer of its needs and wants satisfied for each tax dollar than if the same amount had gone through regular budgeting channels. This is what economists call an efficiency loss.
But as a voter who supports a clean environment and arts funding, it would have been very hard for me to vote against the amendment. It's just like dangling an "ooo, shiny!" object in front of a toddler or a crow. And the voter ID amendment is similar -- the "common sense" response is to say, Well, yeah, I have to show an ID to cash a check, why shouldn't everyone have to show one to vote? Or, yeah, it's gross thinking of two guys having sex. They shouldn't be able to get married like me.

And that's it -- it's all too easy to never look into the many, many reasons against a referendum measure before going to cast a ballot to take away someone else's rights. There's a reason we have legislatures, as flawed as they may be.

Update: I originally wrote this piece on May 12, but couldn't post it because of the great Blogger crash of 2011. Today's Star Tribune led with a story on another finding from the Minnesota Poll: 55 percent of Minnesotans say they oppose the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It makes me feel better, but doesn't change the fundamental point that a right should not be subject to a majority vote.

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