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Missouri House Committee Looks To Make It Tougher To Get Initiatives On The Ballot

Union members and supporters gathered at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall this month to notarize and count petition signatures to block Missouri's new right-to-work law. (Aug. 8, 2017)
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Legislation under consideration at the Missouri House of Representatives would make it harder to use the initiative-petition process.

An election cycle in Missouri that saw 371 petitions submitted to change the state’s laws or constitution is prompting a new discussion among lawmakers about ways to limit the process.

The House Committee on Elections and Elected Officials heard several hours of testimony on nine proposals Wednesday, though it did not vote on any of them. Measures making similar changes are awaiting first-round approval in the Senate.

Some of the proposals charge a fee for filing petitions. Others would increase the number of signatures required to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot, or require a larger majority of voters to approve constitutional amendments.

“My concern is, 'How do we do something to make sure that, if we’re changing our constitution, it’s something that’s widely agreed by the people of the state?', but I also don’t want to make it more difficult for people, or unreasonable for people, to get something on the ballot,” said Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a proponent of reforms.

Ashcroft is backinga bill, sponsored by Rep. Chrissy Sommer, R-St. Charles, that would charge a $500 refundable filing fee for each petition, with additional fees for longer petitions. Groups that pay people to get signatures for constitutional amendments would also be charged $64,000 to help local governments cover the cost of verifying signatures. It also standardizes the forms used to gather signatures.

A separate proposal, from Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, would set the filing fee at $350. It does not include the fee for using paid circulators. That bill has the backing of groups like United For Missouri and First Rule, a production company connected to Rex Sinquefield.

Ashcroft supports requiring a two-thirds majority to approve constitutional amendments. Currently, it requires just a simple majority. He does not agree with boosting the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot, although he pointed out concerns he was with the current requirements.

As it stands, backers of amendments need to get signatures totaling eight percent of legal voters in six of the state’s eight Congressional districts. Because of the way the districts are drawn, that threshold can be met in just three counties.

“Most people don’t do that, but I wanted to highlight the fact that if we’re going to amend our constitution, that affects everyone in the state, but it really doesn't take a wide swath of the state to actually put that question on the ballot,” he said.

The changes the committee is considering vary. Some would require that eight percent total be met in all state House districts, or all counties. Others boost the total to 15 percent.

The measures are facing a slew of opposition, mostly from Democrats and Democratic-aligned groups.

“Citizen participation in the policy-making process is a proud and honored tradition, both in this country and in Missouri,” said Jacob Walker, the organizing director at Missouri Health Care for All. “The petition process in Missouri serves a vital purpose, allowing those citizens to have an impact. So, we would oppose any measures that would impose new fees or higher fees on citizens wishing to file a petition, that would make it harder for citizens to qualify for a constitutional amendment, or that would make it harder for Missourians to pass constitutional amendments on Election Day.”

Nicole Lynch with Empower Missouri added: “We believe that it is important to protect the democracy, and the rights of the people to file and follow through with an initiative petition.”

Not all of the proposals will become law. For one, the new thresholds are all different. Additionally, many will require voter approval because they are constitutional amendments.

House approves minimum-wage exemption, expungement notification

Also on Wednesday, the full House sent a measure to the Senate that exempts private schools from the minimum-wage increase voters approved in November.

Most businesses will have to boost their hourly pay to $12 an hour by 2023. But public schools were not included. Supporters of the private-schools exemption, including State Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, said the playing field needed to be leveled.

“I’m very familiar with the financial difficulties of operating a small Christian school, many times on a shoestring budget,” Baker said. “We shouldn’t carve out public schools and leave those that it’s even more difficult to operate financially in the lurch.”

Democrats countered that by law, wage increases cannot be mandated for public schools, but said they had tried to include funding in the budget to boost salaries. Adding exemptions, they said, directly contradicts the will of the voters.

Also on Wednesday, the House approved a bill that requires the Department of Health and Senior Services to notify people who receive a medical marijuana card that they may be eligible to have marijuana-related convictions expunged. It does not grant those expungements.

And in the Senate, Democrats led by Scott Sifton, D-Affton, filibustered a series of Republican bills that change the way juries handle punitive damages and some rules related to what evidence is admissible at trial.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.