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Senate kills effort to stiffen requirements for initiative petitions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2011 -The Missouri Senate spent almost two hours this morning debating how to change the state's initiative petition process to make it harder for groups to get issues on the ballot. But in the end, with just hours left in the session, the chamber dropped the issue -- killing a measure that had passed the state House earlier.

The House measure would have required that a percentage of signatures must be collected in each of the state's remaining eight congressional districts. Now, the law mandates that signatures be collected in just two-thirds of the current nine districts. (Missouri loses a congressional district as of the 2012 ballot.)

All sides acknowledged that the effort is prompted by last year's passage of Proposition B, which imposed more restrictions on dog breeders. Rural voters overwhelmingly opposed the measure, but it passed statewide because of strong support in urban and suburban areas. 

The General Assembly bitterly fought over proposed repeals earlier this sesson before passing compromise legislation, signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, that revamped and weakened parts of Prop B.

Said Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington: "It's unfair that our standards are so low, you can stand out at Wal-Mart'' and persuade the public to sign petitions by asking, " 'You like puppies, don't you?' "

House Joint Resolution 16, handled in the Senate by Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, would have gone directly onto statewide ballots asking for voter approval. It initially would have lowered the number of signatures required in each congressional district, so that the required statewide total would have been the same as under current law, even as the requirement expanded to include all districts.

The House bill would have barred paid signature-gatherers.  The Senate haggled this morning over the per-district signature reduction and the matter of paying those who collect the signatures.

While disagreeing over the particulars, several senators in both parties agreed on the need to take some action to curb the crowd of ballot initiatives that have been jockeying in recent years to make Missouri's ballots -- especially in high-turnout presidential election years.

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, blasted what he called "the tyranny of the majority,''  and cited some of the latest initiative-petition efforts for the 2012 ballot.  Engler condemned unnamed "wealthy individuals'' who have poured millions of dollars into initiative-petition efforts.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, singled out wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, who spearheaded last year's successful ballot effort to restrict local earnings taxes statewide.

Engler then noted that Sinquefield is helping to finance a group that plans to circulate petitions for a 2012 ballot measure that would grant the city of St, Louis local control of its police department, which has been under state jurisdiction for 150 years.

Engler backs local control, but asserted that the legislature's likely failure to deal with local control this session will result in a Sinquefield measure on the 2012 ballot that Engler said won't contain the protections for police pensions and other benefits that legislators sought to include in the legislative proposal.

Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, said that the legislature at times only had itself to blame for the plethora of ballot petitions.

While agreeing that "it's too easy to change the state constitution,'' Keaveny said that legislators too often ignored public clamoring for action and "don't step up to the plate."

All sides predicted the effort to alter the initiative-petition process will resume next session. Lembke lamented that the public used to change their legislator when they were unhappy. Now, he said, they change the legislation themselves -- and, in his opinion, not always correctly.

Lembke said that in the old days, people ousted their legislator. Now, they change the legislation themselves.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.