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Ashcroft: 27 petitions filed since Nov. 6 election

Ashcroft: 27 petitions filed since Nov. 6 election

December 29th, 2018 by Bob Watson in News

FILE: Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, center, answers questions from the press Thursday November 1, 2018, during a press conference in the governor's office at the Missouri State Capitol.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has received 27 proposed initiative petitions, with proposals for the Nov. 4, 2020, general election.

However, just under half of those have already been withdrawn or rejected for not meeting criteria required by the state law.

The remaining 14 proposals include four constitutional amendments to protect union agreements and fees, and two proposed amendments to make Missouri a right-to-work state.

Two proposed amendments would require Supreme Court and appeals court judges to be elected, rather than appointed under the Nonpartisan Court Plan that's in effect today.

One amendment to the initiative petition process includes the sentence, "Changes to election laws are prohibited without voter approval."

Another proposed amendment would change the just-passed Clean Missouri amendment to give the new, nonpartisan state demographer additional responsibilities to propose new congressional districts, as well as the legislative districts.

And one proposed change to state law would expand Medicaid services to people whose incomes are 133 percent of the federal poverty level, as envisioned originally by the Affordable Care Act.

Ashcroft's office is currently taking public comments on all of those proposals.

Missouri's law allows people to begin filing petition proposals the day after the November general election, and they must be submitted to the secretary of state's office no later than six months before the next statewide general election.

"There's no telling how many we're going to get," Ashcroft said Friday. "I think you're going to see initiative petitions grow.

"The last cycle was record-setting," with 371 petitions filed. However, only five made it to the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Ashcroft said several factors drive people and groups to submit proposed changes to Missouri's Constitution or laws, including no limits on contributions to the election campaigns for issues and the current political imbalance between Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature.

"I think people are saying, 'The way to get something done is to spend money and do the initiative petition process,'" he said. "And if you don't get it the first time, you keep trying."

He supports the initiative petition process, but thinks more people need to let the Legislature work first.

"I think we need to find a way that it is normal to get changes done through the Legislature," Ashcroft said, "and that big items don't have to evade the Legislature to be done.

"But we still need to have that (petition process) because, sometimes, the Legislature might not want to act on something, and the people of the state need to have the ability to say, 'This has to be addressed.'"

Ashcroft said one advantage of having lawmakers debate proposals is the debate process itself.

"You have the opportunity to discuss the pros and cons, and you have open hearings where people can come (and) testify," he said. "That's the best way for our laws to be made."

The initiative petition laws require someone to file a proposal with the secretary of state's office, which checks the proposal to see if it conforms to the law's requirements, and also writes a ballot title.

The attorney general's office also checks the petition to make sure it complies with the law, and the state auditor's staff contacts state and local government agencies to determine an estimate of the proposal's impact on state and local budgets.

"There's a lot of work that has to be done" even to determine that a petition doesn't meet the criteria for being circulated, Ashcroft said, under the state law provisions.

"There's a lot of time and effort (by the state employees)," he added, "and, in one respect, the citizens who pay taxes are subsidizing" the work the petitions cause.

Some people have filed as many as 60 different petitions, Ashcroft said, even when they expected to circulate only one.

"It just seems like they're trying to 'game' the system," he said, "and I don't want to support anything that's going to make the people have less trust in our elections or have less trust in the fairness of the process."

Still, he said, he doesn't want to limit Missourians' ability to submit proposed constitutional or statutory changes.

"We don't want to stop people from being part of the process, but we want to stop people from trying to game the system, and we want to stop people who are filing things for other reasons," Ashcroft said.

"If you really have an idea that you want to get on the ballot, we're not trying to stop that."

Ashcroft said he and his staff are talking with lawmakers about possible changes to the initiative petition law, and at this point, he's not backing anything specific.

Among the choices are requiring a higher vote percentage than 50 percent to get something passed, and requiring that petitions not be submitted until mid-January, rather than right after the last general election.

There's a discussion of a possible filing fee, which would be refunded if the petition received enough signatures from Missourians to place it on the ballot.

Others' ideas include limiting the ability of groups outside Missouri to circulate petitions.

The secretary of state would like to see fewer petitions filed — especially by the same people or groups covering the same issue.

"The last two-year cycle was very front-loaded, I would say. Not quite a third of (the total) of initiative petitions were filed in the first month and a half," he said.

In November and December 2016, the secretary of state's office received 117 petition proposals between the Nov. 8 general election and the end of the year.

Although there's no official reason for that surge, Ashcroft said many have speculated at least some of the volume was caused by people hoping outgoing Democrat Jason Kander's staff would write the ballot language, rather than having Republican Ashcroft do them after his inauguration.

"I'm not sure that's good for the state or for the people," Ashcroft said, "because, if this office is functioning correctly, when it comes to writing that language, there should be very little difference between what is going to be written if I'm the secretary of state or you're the secretary, or you name it.

"Because, with regard to those initiative petitions, we're not supposed to be picking winners and losers — we're supposed to just be trying carefully to say, 'This is what you're voting on. You decide.'"