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Missouri Senate Dems filibuster all night over plan to make constitution harder to amend

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, talks with staff during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, center, with staff during session on Jan. 25. Rizzo is part of a Senate Democrat filibuster of an effort to make it harder to amend the constitution.

Missouri Senate Democrats made good on their promise to filibuster a proposal that would make it more difficult to amend the state constitution.

Democrats staged an all-night talk-a-thon that started on Monday afternoon and continued Tuesday morning. The filibuster began just days before the legislature is slated to adjourn for the year. It’s unclear whether the GOP-controlled legislature will be able to finish work on changes to the initiative petition process.

Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman’s resolution would require any constitutional amendment to be approved in five out of eight congressional districts. Currently, only a simple majority is required.

Coleman’s resolution passed out of the Senate earlier this year. But the House added other items, including a ban on noncitizens voting on constitutional amendments.

Democrats in the Senate have said for weeks they would filibuster Coleman’s resolution unless those other provisions, which they have derided as ballot candy, are taken out. They contend those provisions are aimed at confusing voters into thinking they’re voting for something else — and have noted that it’s already illegal for noncitizens to vote in Missouri.

“You and I both have had conversations where someone said: ‘Hey, could you just take one piece of ballot candy? You can pick it, just take one,’” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, during a discussion with Democratic Sen. Lauren Arthur. “I’m like, ‘No, I'm not deceiving the voters just a little bit.’”

Some of the Senate’s more conservative members have said they won’t accept any version of Coleman’s resolution without the other provisions. And Coleman, R-Arnold, said on Monday that she wanted to pass the House’s version of what Republicans have called IP reform.

“The proposal that was moved out of this body back in January was done to keep the process moving,” Coleman said. “We are now at the end of the session. And it is my fervent hope that we're able to pass the version as returned by the House out of this chamber.”

At this point, the only likely route of passing a version of Coleman’s resolution with other provisions would be to use what’s known as the "previous question"— a rare maneuver that cuts off debate on a bill. Republicans have generally been skittish to use the previous question, since it often prompts Democrats to grind Senate business to a halt. And it’s not clear if there are 18 GOP senators who would be willing to vote to end the Democratic filibuster.

Arthur, D-Kansas City, said using the previous question to dislodge Coleman’s resolution could have consequences that stretch beyond the 2024 session.

“It is my hope that senators kind of keep a clear head about this issue in the grand context of everything else,” Arthur said.

Janice Jernigans, 75, of St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood, signs a petition for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024, at The Pageant in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Janice Jernigans, 75, of St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood, signs a petition on Feb. 6 for a Missouri constitutional amendment that would legalize abortion up until fetal viability.

Abortion ballot item looms large

Missouri Republicans have sought to raise the bar to pass constitutional amendments for years, contending that it’s too easy for well-funded groups to go around the legislature to win approval of measures that the GOP-controlled General Assembly won’t pass.

In the past few election cycles, Missourians have backed constitutional amendments to expand Medicaid, enact campaign donation limits and legalize marijuana for adult use. Even though he didn’t vote for Coleman’s resolution, House Majority Leader Jon Patterson said he agrees philosophically that the constitution should be harder to change.

“I think we've seen in the past 10 years, special interests come in and get what they want using the IP process,” said Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit. “And I think when you have the constitution, which is our founding documents, it should be harder to change than a simple majority. It should reflect consensus and compromise.”

One of the reasons why Republicans are pushing the so-called ballot candy is because voters in other states, like Arkansas and Ohio, have rejected efforts to raise the bar to amend the state constitution.

“The problem with IP reform, and what makes it hard to sell, is that it can’t be narrowed down to a two- or three-second sound bite,” said state Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Bowling Green. “It's not the Second Amendment or the right to life. You have to explain it. And if you have to take a minute or two to explain something, it just is much harder to get that across the finish line.”

Some Republicans have ramped up the pressure to pass the constitutional threshold boost because of a potential ballot initiative to legalize abortion in Missouri. Those GOP lawmakers have wanted voters to decide on initiative petition changes in August — and, if passed, increase the threshold to approve the abortion legalization measure.

But Democrats have pointed out that such a plan could backfire. They’ve said if Coleman’s resolution passes in August, there’s likely to be a lawsuit to make sure November ballot initiatives would need only a majority to pass — and not require passage in five congressional districts.

“Let's say that voters approve it, there's no guarantee that that means that there's going to be a higher threshold applied to the abortion measure in November,” Arthur said.

Rizzo noted that if the threshold boost passes in August and the abortion legalization initiative only needs a majority to pass, it could effectively make abortion legal in Missouri for the foreseeable future since repealing it would then require a higher threshold than a simple majority.

This year’s session ends at 6 p.m. Friday.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.