Initiative petition changes move forward

Lawmakers this year have been supporting proposed changes to the way initiative petitions are proposed and circulated in the state.

“I found, when I got involved with this,” said Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa and chairman of the Financial & Governmental Organizations and Elections Committee that helped write the bill, “there are people who would like to make (the petition process) a lot easier.

“There are people who would like to make it a lot harder.”

Missouri’s Constitution allows people “to propose and enact or reject laws and amendments to the constitution by the initiative.”

The Constitution also sets the requirements for the percentage of registered voters’ signatures needed to qualify a proposed amendment or law change for a statewide vote.

State law then provides more details of the process to be followed — and this year’s House and Senate bills propose changes in the law.

“We’ve heard some pretty horrific stories across the state, about the ways that signatures are collected,” Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, told Wasson.

Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, filed the Senate version of the bill.

As passed by the Senate, its provisions include requiring people circulating a petition to affirm, under penalty of perjury, that: they are at least 18 years old; never have been convicted of an offense involving forgery; and, if they’re being paid to circulate the petitions, who’s paying them.

Current state law defines several crimes for mishandling a petition, including signing someone else’s name to a petition, signing a petition more than once or signing a petition when the signer isn’t a registered voter.

Now those crimes are a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, but the Senate bill increases those violations to a Class D felony, which carries a possible prison sentence of up to four years.

And the bill adds several new crimes to the list, including submitting a petition knowing that it includes names of people who didn’t sign it; it contains signatures obtained by fraud; or it includes signatures obtained because of an exchange of money or something else “of value.”

The Senate sent its bill Thursday to the House on a 30-3 vote, which came only a couple of hours after Wasson’s committee took testimony on the House version, passed March 7 on a 151-3 vote.

“It’s pretty much the same as the Senate bill,” Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, told the committee.

In recent years, proposed petitions often have ended up in legal battles in Cole County’s circuit court.

Both the House and Senate bills would require any lawsuits to be resolved within 180 days, unless the court finds a “good cause” for extending that time.

Both bills also would require the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Legislative Research to hold a public hearing on a petition proposal, after the secretary of state says it received enough signatures to be placed on the ballot.

“You could have people come and testify on the bill and, maybe, bring the good and bad points out,” Dugger said.

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