Boundaries of democracy deserve deeper analysis

Date: 18 May 2006 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Boundaries of democracy deserve deeper analysis

by David Morris

Originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 18, 2006

In its May 16 editorial, “We count on legislators to strike a balance,” the Pioneer Press asked “when and why should we vote?” Its answer? In the case of a Hennepin County sales tax to fund a Twins ballpark, citizens should not have the opportunity to vote on the issue directly. “We elect a governor and a Legislature … to duke it out and make decisions. If they get the balance wrong, they get tossed. By popular vote.”

On Feb. 24, 2002, another Pioneer Press editorial, “New Twins park: Voters should be heard on funding proposals,” took the opposite position. “(R)espect for public sentiment requires that those local contributions should be approved by citizens, not simply imposed by officeholders. Seeking public approval is particularly important in this case because voters in both St. Paul and Minneapolis have rejected or limited ballpark subsidies in recent years.”

As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously insisted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I’d not fault the editorial board for changing its collective mind. I do fault it for not explaining better why it has done so. A casual reader might conclude that the change in editorial position is less principled than it is opportunistic.

In its defense, the newspaper argues in its newest editorial, “throwing every issue up for general referendum would be chaos.”

Few if any are suggesting a referendum on all issues. That would indeed lead to chaos, at least administratively. More to the point of the present debate, existing laws require referendums on some issues, including the imposition of a local sales tax. Would the Pioneer Press propose that all local sales taxes could be imposed without a local referendum? That would be consistent with its current argument. Why simply exempt a Hennepin County local sales tax for a Twins ballpark?

What about local referendums on school district bonds? Should these be abolished? That would seem to be the conclusion drawn from your editorial argument, for there, too, voters can throw the bums out if they “get the balance wrong.”

Which brings up another point. Almost 70 percent of Hennepin County legislators voted to oppose a local sales tax without a referendum.

Yet the tax may still be imposed. If more remote legislators “get the balance wrong,” local voters cannot kick them out. Given your editorial logic, such a situation should lead you to endorse the imposition of a local sales tax without state legislative approval.

Do you?

The Pioneer Press’ editorial was not arguing about whether we should build a publicly subsidized ballpark. It was arguing about the proper boundaries of our democracy. The nature of the subject demands a much higher level of analysis than it was given.

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. (

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.