Why I dislike constitutional amendments

There have been seventeen amendments to the Iowa Constitution since I have been able to vote. There is one pending, and three proposals have passed the first of two successive general assemblies, which is required before qualified Iowa voters approve or disprove them.

Although I cannot remember how many of those amendments I have voted for, and how many against, in recent years I have voted “no” on most of them. It’s not because I’m a negative person, it’s because there is a legitimate reason to reject them. A proposal to amend Iowa’s Constitution, guaranteeing the right to bear arms will be on the ballot this November. At the end of this series, I will comment about my objection or support of that proposal.

This is the first part of a series about the reasons why I object to most amendments to Iowa’s Constitution. The series begins with the most recently approved amendments and ends with my first opportunity to approve or disprove a constitutional amendment in Iowa.

Natural resources (approved by Iowa voters in 2010) Art. VII, § 10

2008 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Democrat

2009 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Democrats

I objected to the constitutional amendment that created a “natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund.” The constitutional provision was to be funded by appropriations passed by the legislature. As suspected, the appropriations have never been made, rendering the constitutional amendment virtually useless. But that’s not the reason I objected to it. It’s a sales tax, the most regressive tax of all, which always burdens the least of our society.

Disqualified persons (approved by Iowa voters in 2008) Art. II, § 5

2006 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Republicans

2007 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Democrats

Like the Natural Resources amendment, this constitutional change had good intentions. This amendment repealed the language that disqualified certain persons from voting. However, in correcting the amendment, it didn’t go far enough. The old language disqualified any “idiot, or insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime” from voting. The new language eliminated the idiot and insane person and incorporated a “person adjudged mentally incompetent.” The new amendment kept the restriction on a person who has been “convicted of any infamous crime.”

My opposition to this amendment was the fact that legislators didn’t have the courage to eliminate the ‘infamous crime’ provision.

When indictment necessary – grand jury (approved by Iowa voters in 1998) Art. I, § 11

1996 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Republicans

1997 Leadership = Senate – Republicans: House – Republicans

This amendment changed two aspects of criminal law. First, it eliminated the requirement that a simple misdemeanor fine be limited to one-hundred dollars. Next, it deleted “justice of the peace’ and replaced it with ‘an officer authorized by law.’ The language for the amendment was introduced at the request of the Iowa Attorney General. He had claimed that one-hundred dollars meant little in terms of deterrence today; that it was a lot of money in 1857 when the constitution was adopted, but that most Iowans could be dissuaded from committing simple misdemeanors if the fine were set by law instead of cemented in the constitution.

Jesus said the “the poor you will always have with you.” Mark (14:7). Evidently, that biblical statement did not resonate with the state’s AG. Most Iowans facing misdemeanor fines in 1998 were living well below the poverty level, and that has not changed. But, in a turn of decency, the AG did make sure that the fine would be set by the legislature, hoping that the minimum would be one-hundred dollars. Today, the fine for a misdemeanor is “at least one hundred five dollars but not to exceed eight hundred fifty-five dollars.” Iowa Code § 903.1(1)(a).

Depending upon where the judge is located in Iowa, a defendant will be fined anywhere from less than the minimum (but charged court costs or fees) to the maximum. Either way, defendants are more than likely to not have resources to pay fines. In the past five years, court debt has increased by at least $200,000,00. Unpaid fines, fees, etc. are increasing at an exponential rate yearly. Also, the state has utilized the questionable ethical efforts of a Texas law firm to go after these unpaid costs.

I voted against it.

Rights of persons (approved by Iowa voters in 1998) Art. I, § 1

1995 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Republicans

1997 Leadership = Senate – Republicans: House – Republicans

I voted for this amendment. It did one particularly important thing. It added “and women” to the Rights of persons section in the first article of the Iowa Constitution. “All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights – among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness.”

There is little case law on this section of the Iowa Constitution. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been addressed. “It is well-established that the protections of Iowa’s inalienable rights clause are not absolute.” Atwood v. Vilsack, IA S.Ct. (Dec. 29, 2006)See Gacke, 684 N.W.2d at 176. Does that mean that adding “and women” to the Iowa Constitution was meaningless? No, but the Court has side-stepped this constitutional guarantee for decades.

Fish and wildlife protection funds (approved by Iowa voters in 1996) Art. VII, § 9

1993 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Republicans

1995 Leadership = Senate – Democrats: House – Republicans

The amendment of 1996 is self-explanatory.

All revenue derived from state license fees for hunting, fishing, and trapping, and all state funds appropriated for, and federal or private funds received by the state for, the regulation or advancement of hunting, fishing, or trapping, or the protection, propagation, restoration, management, or harvest of fish or wildlife, shall be used exclusively for the performance and administration of activities related to those purposes.

I’m sure I voted for this amendment. I see no concerns or objections. It is only right that money collected in the course of fees, licensing, and grants for fish and wildlife be appropriated to support those activities.

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