Our Opinion: An initiative to restore, not dilute, power

An excellent constitutional concept to empower people has been transformed over time into a grotesque mutation.

The unenviable task facing well-meaning lawmakers is how to restore the original concept without diluting it.

The concept — the initiative petition process — provides a mechanism for grassroots efforts by people to propose laws in the absence of legislative action. The concept traces its Missouri roots to at least 1875.

In recent history, however, wealthy individuals and/or out-of-state interests have supplanted grassroots efforts.

And, because official ballot language and/or cost estimates frequently are challenged in court, petitioners have responded with multiple variations on a single issue.

Developments that have prompted lawmakers to consider changing the initiative process include:

• More than 140 proposed petitions have been submitted to the secretary of state’s office since November 2010.

• Those 143 proposed petitions have generated 50 lawsuits in Cole County Circuit Court.

• Three separate petitioners have submitted 61 different petitions on three separate issues, according to a representative of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The accessibility of the initiative process is both virtue and flaw. What clever petitioners contend is working within the system’s flexibility, purists perceive as abuse.

State representative have advanced legislation to tighten regulations governing initiative petitions. A bill sponsored by Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartsville, would require initiative backers to gather signatures from at least 1,000 registered voters in support of the language before starting the petition effort in the state’s congressional districts.

With regard to the proliferation of petition efforts, Dugger said: “They’re almost getting, kind of, out of hand.”

We don’t disagree, but our chief concern is how do we curb abuse without chilling a time-honored concept that empowers people to influence government?

Credit Dugger and his supporters for crafting legislation worthy of discussion and refinement.

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