2 lawsuits challenge proposed amendments before petitions hit streets

No hearings have been scheduled yet — but two different lawsuits filed this month in Cole County circuit court seek to block proposed constitutional amendments even before their supporters can begin gathering signatures on the initiative petitions.

The proposed amendments would change the way:

• School districts can hire and contract with teachers, principals and other staff.

• Voters can approve, or modify, tobacco taxes in their cities or counties.

Although the two petitions target different issues and parts of the Constitution, Jefferson City attorney Marc Ellinger is involved in both.

He’s one of the lawyers filing the suit challenging the tobacco tax issue. And he was the attorney who submitted the education-related petition to Secretary of State Jason Kander’s office earlier this year.

State law requires the state auditor to prepare a fiscal note and summary of the proposal’s affect on state and local governments, and the secretary of state to write a ballot title that explains the issue to voters and potential petition-signers.

Both lawsuits ask a judge to reject the current language prepared by Kander and Auditor Tom Schweich, and order that language to be replaced.

The language on the tobacco petition says: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to allow voters to approve or modify local taxes within their city or county on cigarettes or tobacco products, or on the selling of cigarettes or tobacco products, to be used for local health care, local public education, and local job creation programs?

“The proposal will result in no direct costs or savings for state and local governmental entities. ...”

The lawsuit against it was filed on behalf of two men who “have a personal interest in opposing and advocating against the passage” of the proposal. The case was assigned to Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce.

As part of its pleading, the 12-page suit said Schweich’s fiscal note summary “fails to account for” additional costs to local governments, lost revenues to local and state governments and any impact on the state’s existing “Healthy Initiatives Fund.”

And the suit said Kander’s ballot statement has several problems, including failing to “state that the unlimited taxes may be imposed on local businesses for unrestricted use in government programs” or that the proposed amendment “creates a new initiative petition process in local jurisdictions where one does not now exist.”

The language for the education issue reads: “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:

• require teachers to be evaluated by a standards based performance evaluation system for which each local school district must receive state approval to continue receiving state and local funding;

• require teachers to be dismissed, retained, demoted, promoted and paid primarily using quantifiable student performance data as part of the evaluation system;

• require teachers to enter into contracts of three years or fewer with public school districts; and

• prohibit teachers from organizing or collectively bargaining regarding the design and implementation of the teacher evaluation system?”

The auditor’s fiscal note had no specific numbers, but said each district’s decisions “will influence the potential costs or savings impacting each district,” and that parts of the proposal could mean “significant potential costs may be incurred by the state and/or the districts.”

Representatives of four Missouri public school districts — two teachers and two district officials — filed the suit. Their case was assigned to Circuit Judge Dan Green.

The 16-page suit complains Schweich’s fiscal note was based on information from only three of Missouri’s more than 500 public school districts — and from several state agencies with no direct knowledge of the proposal’s fiscal impact on local schools.

And, the lawsuit said, Kander’s ballot language “as a whole fails to inform voters” that the proposed amendment would “permit public school teachers and administrators to be ... fired, demoted or laid off without cause or due process.”

The ballot language also fails to tell voters that districts would be required “to use a state-approved performance evaluation system” for teachers and administrators, limiting the “districts’ local control” over their employees.

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