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Missouri Senate passes initiative petition changes certain to trigger strong opposition effort

 The Missouri Senate in session.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
The Missouri Senate floor on April 20, 2023.

The Missouri Senate passed a proposal raising the threshold for passing constitutional amendments Thursday but rejected an alternative that would have quieted well-funded opponents.

Under the measure sent back to the House, any constitutional amendment proposed by initiative would need 57% of the vote or a simple majority statewide and in five of eight congressional districts. When the measure passed the House in February, the threshold was set at 60% with no alternative majority possible.

The House will decide next week whether to negotiate over the differences or send the proposal to voters, GOP leaders said at their weekly news conference.

The vote came quickly Thursday morning, a day after a Democratic filibuster blocked progress on the bill for more than four hours the day before. In exchange for Democrats letting the bill come up for a vote, Republicans agreed to remove provisions from the bill aimed at prohibiting activity that is already illegal — taxes targeting real estate and foreign sponsorship of initiative petitions.

A ban on non-citizens voting, which is also already illegal, is still included in the bill.

Democrats decried all three as “ballot candy” aimed at tricking voters to support an unpopular proposal.

“This is another way to get people to vote against their interests because of the ballot candy that is in here,” Sen. Barbara Washington of Kansas City said during the filibuster.

Senate Republican leaders said they are satisfied with the proposal.

“It doesn’t put up barriers that are so high that you can’t do it, that you can’t get the requisite number of votes,” Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said at his weekly news conference.

Within minutes of the 24-10 party-line vote in the Senate, opponents were denouncing the proposal as an effort to silence voters.

“This is a clear and unprecedented move to end majority rule in Missouri,” Caitlyn Adams, executive director of Missouri Jobs with Justice Voter Action, said in a new release.

And Progress Missouri, a liberal advocacy group, in a statement from spokesperson Kelli Kee, called the bill “a deceptive trick,” adding “voters aren’t as stupid as some politicians in Jefferson City think they are.”

Those groups generally oppose the GOP on major issues. But the Missouri Association of Realtors, a group that generally stays out of ideological fights, has promised to combat almost every proposal to increase the majority needed for passage.

This week, in negotiations with Republican leaders, the Realtors agreed to not oppose raising the majority to 54%. An email from Realtors association CEO Breanna Vanstrom, shared among several lawmakers and obtained by The Independent, made it clear the offer was good only for this legislative session.

The Realtors leadership “determined that this would be considered a ‘measured and minimal’ change…based on a review of other proposals currently before the General Assembly,” Vanstrom wrote. “This determination does not extend to any other changes that may be proposed this year, nor does it preclude the association from acting on changes to the initiative petition process that may be proposed during the next or future General Assemblies.”

After the vote, Sam Licklider, lobbyist for the Realtors, said if the Senate version appears on a ballot, the Realtors will oppose it.

“I am disappointed that the Senate elected to go with a piece of legislation that may be constitutionally suspect and hope that cooler heads will prevail,” Licklider said.

The chance to neutralize well-funded opposition was not a factor in the Senate majority’s consideration of the proposal, Rowden said.

“I don’t think we make decisions in this building based on the politics outside the building,” he said. “At least, we don’t do any more than we have to.”

Along with the 57% threshold for passage and the alternative concurrent majority provision, the biggest change from the House-passed version is a limit on legislative changes to initiatives changing state statutes.

Currently, lawmakers can make any changes they desire in, or even repeal, statutes enacted by initiative. That happened in the 1990s after voters approved campaign finance limits and it happened in the 2010s after passage of a proposal regulating dog breeders.

Under the provisions added in the Senate, lawmakers could only change a statute passed by initiatives with a 57% majority in each chamber during the first five years after its enactment.

The ease of changing statutes is one reason many initiatives target the constitution, because a revision can only be made at a subsequent election. That has added thousands of words that would fit better in the statute books to the constitution.

The current state constitution was approved by voters in February 1945 and was just under 27,000 words long. An amendment protecting stem cell research, added by initiative in 2006, was about 2,000 words.

The medical marijuana amendment, another initiative approved in 2018, is almost 8,000 words. Legalizing recreational marijuana in November added 14,000 words in a new section and 2,000 more for revisions to the medical marijuana section.

The limit on statutory changes was welcomed by House Democratic Leader Crystal Quade of Springfield, but she said it was not enough to silence her opposition to the proposal as a whole.

“Our caucus is obviously very much against doing anything that is trying to take away the voice of voters, which we believe that going after the initiative petition is exactly that,” Quade said.

House Republican leaders said they were not sure whether they will accept the Senate changes.

“We just got the information,” House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson said. “We’re trying to digest that information, see what we agree with, what we don’t agree with. Hopefully we will work something out for the people of Missouri.”

During the Wednesday filibuster, Democrats said the initiative petition changes are being pushed because Republicans don’t like the measures voters have approved in recent years, including marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion.

“It is a dictatorship piece of legislation and it is a control mechanism,” Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said as she and other Democrats ticked off major initiatives approved by voters that the Republican majority in the legislature would never have put on the ballot. “It’s always a power grab. If it ain’t a power grab, it is a money grab.”

The filibuster ended, Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo of Independence said at his weekly news conference, because the removal of some of the ballot candy made winning an election campaign against it more likely.

“The backstop, and the thing that we are putting our faith in, is people at the ballot box,” Rizzo said. “And the real thing that we were looking for was a fair fight. And we believe, even though it’s probably got some stuff in there that we don’t like, it’s a more fair fight than what we would have gotten.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and state legislature as the Deputy Editor at The Missouri Independent.