Minnesota Legislators Hope to Update Constitution for Digital Data Privacy

While it's an issue that cuts across the usual partisan battle lines, the coalition of legislators still faces an uphill battle to bring their "data privacy" amendment to a popular vote next year.

by David Montgomery, Pioneer Press / February 17, 2015
Minnesota State Senate Chamber Flickr/Matt Lewis

(TNS) -- Pick another issue -- maybe any other issue -- and they'd be at each other's throats.

But on Monday, the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance shared a stage with Occupy Minnesota, with the American Civil Liberties Union and an anti-Affordable Care Act advocacy group, with liberal DFLers and conservative Republicans. These unnatural allies agreed on one thing: limiting the ability of government to access electronic data.

"There won't be many opportunities for you to see a group this ideologically diverse and bipartisan," said state Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover.

Petersen, a Republican with libertarian leanings, wants to amend Minnesota's constitution to extend the existing protection against unreasonable search and seizure to electronic data. It's an issue that cuts across the usual partisan battle lines, but even this odd coalition faces an uphill battle to bring their "data privacy" amendment to a popular vote next year.

An amendment to the Minnesota constitution requires a majority from both houses of the Legislature, followed by approval from voters at the next general election. Unlike normal laws, it doesn't need a signature from the governor.

Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said it's "a big surprise" to see the coalition backing Petersen's amendment.

"It's hard to think of another issue that would bring them together," he said.

But getting groups on the left and right to agree on an issue doesn't guarantee passage.

"The question is, where is the political center on this -- the more moderate members of each party?" Schier said.

While most bills may split lawmakers on a left-right divide, Schier said the data privacy amendment might be better described as an insider-outsider split, with populist activists clashing against establishment leaders.

That's especially clear in the state Senate, where top leaders have been noticeably cool to Petersen's amendment.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, has the amendment in his committee but has so far declined to schedule it for a vote -- making its route to passage much more difficult.

While Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, hasn't been closely involved in the measure -- "To be honest with you, I wonder if Sen. Bakk is even aware of this proposal," proponent Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said Monday -- he's not enthusiastic about it.

"I'm generally reluctant on the whole idea of constitutional amendments," Bakk said Monday when asked about the amendment. "So, I think it would be unlikely we're going to consider something additional for the ballot in 2016."

Some opponents and analysts argue the existing protection against unreasonable search and seizure is sufficient, though Petersen and others disagree.

If the amendment is to have a chance, initiative could come from two areas.

In the Senate, Dibble said he'll be talking to other members of the majority DFL caucus and trying to get them on board.

"Hopefully we'll be able to engage Chair Latz," said Dibble, a committee chairman himself.

Alternately, the House of Representatives could pressure the Senate by passing their version of the amendment. It's already passed one House committee, and has support from prominent House lawmakers in both parties.

Bakk said has yet to discuss the issue with House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

The only other constitutional amendment currently on the 2016 ballot is a proposal to let an outside commission set legislative pay.

©2015 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)