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Latest effort to change initiative process gets a hearing

The words "Constitutional Amendment No. 3" standout from a yellow sample ballot.
Rebecca Smith

JEFFERSON CITY — House resolutions proposing changes to the state’s initiative process got pushback at a hearing Tuesday. Some said proposed changes would effectively limit voting power of urban voters in favor of rural voters.

Both joint resolutions stipulate that a measure proposing an amendment to the Missouri constitution would take effect when passed by a majority of voters statewide and also in a majority of the state’s congressional districts. Senators who have proposed similar legislation have tied up floor action out of frustration that their resolutions have not be sent to committees for hearings.

Past efforts tried to raise the overall statewide percentage required to adopt a ballot initiative.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, introduced the resolutions that would outlaw foreign governments and political parties from sponsoring initiative petitions, donating or contributing money in an initiative petition effort or disbursing any electioneering communication for or against an initiative petition.

Previous efforts to pass marijuana reform via the initiative petition process, according to Lewis, served to overturn the wishes of voters in rural counties.

“The voices of those mainly rural voters were not heard,” Lewis said during the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee meeting. “Now, they are overwhelmed with marijuana in their communities, and their voices were overwhelmed by the heavily-populated counties.”

Opponents of conservative-led initiative petitions said they saw these resolutions curbing citizens’ ability to participate in the democratic process.

“Here in Missouri, we’re seeing an all-out attack on direct democracy, as well as the concept of one person, one vote,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel of the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition. “This is not about political party. This is about the ability of Missourians to make their voices heard.”

Others who testified at the hearing weren’t so sure. They instead voiced support for legislation that protects the rule of a concurring majority of the voting population.

“Over the past several years, we’ve seen several constitutional amendments changing our constitution,” said Susan Klein, director of Missouri Right to Life. “We all have to live by our constitution, and I think looking to make sure all of us have a voice and a vote when it comes time to change our constitution is good for our state to do.”

Another bill, HB 1749, sponsored by Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, requires that no initiative petition nullifies or amends federal law, among other provisions. The bill would also invalidate signatures collected on an initiative petition if a court ordered a substantial change to the official ballot title.

“As far as I’m concerned, they are denying the citizens of this state the right to vote and participate,” said Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City. “I think (Republicans) are going to be severely disappointed down the road if they want to make some changes, and they won’t be able to do it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and it’s going to mess them up.”

Initiative petitions have been a way for Missouri voters to propose new laws and constitutional amendments since the early 20th century, as well as put up a challenge to legislation passed by the General Assembly.

This process has been used to pass new laws on medical marijuana, expand Medicaid and limit new taxes.

Currently, voters who file an initiative petition must acquire signatures totaling 8% of the vote cast for governor in six of the state’s eight congressional districts to propose a constitutional amendment and 5% in six districts to propose changes to the laws of the state.

Changes to initiative petition legislation have been a priority for Republicans. After the legislature failed to enact changes last year, conservative lawmakers expressed fear voters will attempt to pass a law expanding abortion access via the initiative petition process.

Groups supporting the effort to put a ballot initiative to restore abortion rights in Missouri officially launched their effort last week, according to The Missouri Independent.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.