Missouri Republicans aren’t giving up on making state constitution harder to amend
As the 2023 legislative session sputtered to a close, House Speaker Dean Plocher stood before a throng of reporters talking about what happened — including the failure to change ballot initiatives.
Republicans wanted to send a ballot item to voters that would raise the threshold to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 57%. The Des Peres Republican said something that many in Missouri politics assumed all along: Making the constitution more difficult to amend was critical in stopping an initiative petition to expand abortion access in Missouri.
“We are pro-life,” Plocher said. “And if the Senate fails to take action on IP [initiative petition] reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri.”
Some Democrats, like House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, said Plocher was saying “the quiet part loud” about the motivations behind trying to get voters to approve a measure raising the constitutional amendment threshold. But in many respects, the proposal will have a far bigger impact than just stymying one potential initiative petition.
Both supporters and opponents of making it harder to change the constitution say it will provide more decision-making authority to the Missouri General Assembly. Backers of the idea argue that’s a better way to vet legislation, while detractors contend that it will take away a moderating influence on the state’s policy and politics.
And even Republicans who philosophically support the idea of restricting how constitutional amendments are passed aren’t confident that Missourians will sign off on an idea that makes it harder for them to approve major policy initiatives.
“It’s not just complicated policywise, it’s complicated politically,” said state Rep. Bill Hardwick, a Waynesville Republican who says that many of his constituents tell him the constitution is too easy to amend. “If I say: ‘I’m going to make it more difficult for you to defy your elected officials … and amend the constitution,’ that doesn’t intuitively sell either. Because at the same time, there’s a growing distrust of the political establishment and political class — not unjustified, I think.”
A long-running goal
Efforts to make the Missouri Constitution more difficult to amend aren’t new.
In 2014, then-state Rep. Elijah Haahr of Springfield introduced a measure that would raise the threshold to pass an amendment from a simple majority to 60%. Variations of this idea have bounced around the legislature for the past few sessions, with no proposal making it through both chambers.
But 2023 was expected to be the year that the legislature sent something to voters, especially since it was a major priority for House and Senate leaders. The House ended up passing a measure raising the threshold to 60%, while the Senate approved a different version that allowed an amendment to pass with a majority if it succeeded in a certain number of congressional districts.
Ultimately, a conference committee version of the ballot item that would boost the threshold to 57% passed the House but lost momentum amid a meltdown in the Missouri Senate. House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson of Bonne Terre said the final version of the measure made sense.
“I’ve always believed that the constitution should be a living document, and not an ever-expanding document,” Henderson said.
While lawmakers failed to pass the legislation this year, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said there’s nothing stopping legislators from trying again on the issue in 2024. If that happens, and Gov. Mike Parson puts the ballot item in the August 2024 primary, it’s possible that any abortion-related initiative that gets voted on in November 2024 could require more than a majority vote.
”If we could have gotten it done this year, that would have been fantastic. And kind of checks the box, so we didn't have to talk about it next year,” Rowden said. “But the fact that we didn't pass it this year puts more pressure on us next year — no doubt about it. But it does nothing to change the outcome relative to whether abortion is going to be enshrined in our constitution or not.”
Even among Republicans, there’s not a lot of confidence that any proposal to raise the constitutional amendment threshold will be popular with the public.
A measure boosting the percentage needed to approve a constitutional amendment or a statutory change to 60% failed miserably in Arkansas – which like Missouri is a heavily Republican-leaning state.
And it’s likely that groups of all political ideologies that have used the initiative petition process in the past will organize against any effort to make it more difficult to amend the Missouri Constitution.
“If my leadership and my members feel that it is too broad or too overreaching, then I suspect they will vote to oppose it,” said Sam Licklider, the chief lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Realtors. “If it's something fairly minor and not destructive to the process, then they'll likely stay out of it.”
Licklider noted that his organization did polling on whether it should be more difficult to change the Missouri Constitution, and only between 38% and 41% of respondents thought it was a good idea. He went on to note that there was some irony in Republicans championing the idea, given that then-Gov. John Ashcroft was a big opponent of Democratic efforts to restrict the initiative petition process in the 1990s.
Henderson, though, is more optimistic about the chances of any proposal to raise the constitutional amendment threshold.
“Our message is basically what I've told you before: We feel like people are getting taken advantage of at the ballot box,” Henderson said. “The constitution is a pretty sacred document.”
Much of the opposition to ballot items to restrict the constitutional amendment process comes from Democrats, especially since the party strongly supported recently successful efforts to expand Medicaid and to legalize marijuana.
“Why are we making it harder for the citizens to get things done?” said Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia. “It's just not fair.”
But the idea of making it harder to amend the constitution is not universally popular in the GOP.
Republican political consultant David Barklage strongly opposes any bid to constrict the initiative petition process, contending that it’s a shortsighted move by a GOP majority that believes the political trends in the state will stay static forever.
“Republicans and reformers for the entire history of state government have used the citizens petition to get things done,” said Barklage, who has worked on a number of ballot initiative campaigns during his career. “And so it is shortsighted by this group that is in there now who don't have a historical perspective, to argue to get rid of this critical constitution balance and check.”
Barklage said that raising the threshold to amend the constitution will give more power to a state legislature that tends to be more politically extreme than it was in the past.
“We will kill it so hard, because it's such a fundamental affront to a bipartisan group,” Barklage said. “The conservatives today and the liberals today are now closer to anarchists on both sides than in any time in history.”
Both Barklage and Scott Charton, who has also worked on a number of ballot initiative campaigns over the years, don’t believe that any proposal can overcome what they see as a messaging barrier. Charton said it will be easy for opponents to argue that any restriction on the initiative petition process is essentially making it more difficult for citizens to influence public policy.
“There is no indication I've seen in polling or otherwise that Missourians want to give up their power in favor of politicians to make the decisions for them,” Charton said. “It would be a very hard thing to pull off, because most Missourians are content with the idea that they have the referendum power over politicians. And why would they want to give that up voluntarily?”