Committee endorses senator’s proposal to amend initiative petitions process

State Sen. David Sater has, for a long time, thought it’s too easy to amend Missouri’s Constitution.

“There were 370-some initiative petitions sent to the secretary of state’s office last year,” Sater, R-Cassville, told the News Tribune, “and there’s going to be that many more, again (for the 2020 election).

“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue — it’s an issue that I don’t want our Constitution to be for sale to some very rich corporation, or rich individual, to change our Constitution.”

This week, the Senate’s Local Government and Elections Committee recommended the full Senate pass Sater’s proposed constitutional amendment that would require — in order to be placed on a statewide ballot — initiative petition proposals would have to be signed by at least 15 percent of total number of registered voters in each congressional district who voted in the most recent election for governor.

That’s nearly double the current requirement, which is only 8 percent of the total vote in the last governor’s election, and currently the signatures must come from six of the state’s eight congressional districts.

“I want to make sure that each congressional district has representation,” Sater said, “because the way things are right now, you can pick out five (populous) counties (in the state) and get enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot — and not have to go down into my (Southwest Missouri) district at all.”

And, where a measure now goes into effect if approved by a simple majority of the voters casting ballots, Sater’s proposed amendment would raise that to a two-thirds vote.

“I wanted to set the bar high,” he explained.

A separate proposal, by Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, also would require a two-thirds majority to pass a constitutional amendment proposed by an initiative petition.

But neither proposed amendment would make that requirement for an amendment placed on the ballot by lawmakers.

“(This) creates a huge and, to our view, arbitrary hurdle for approval of initiative petition amendments in comparison to amendments submitted by the Legislature,” Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association, told the News Tribune about his testimony against both proposed amendments.

“This also points out the curious possibility that an initiative petition and a legislative referral could present exactly the same change to amend the Constitution — perhaps on the same ballot at the same election — and yet, one version would require a simple majority while the other requires a supermajority.”

Matthew Panik, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s vice president for Government Affairs, testified in favor of both proposed amendments.

“We’d be open to looking at — however a measure gets to the voters, whether (by) initiative petition or from the General Assembly — requiring that higher threshold.

“But again, when you’re talking about the Constitution, I think it’s reasonable to have this higher threshold. … We don’t want to just throw every issue into the Constitution (and) it shouldn’t change it every two years.”

Shawn D’Abreu, a lobbyist for the group Missouri Health Care for All, also testified against both resolutions.

“We’re concerned about the impact it would have on the overall process of policy making in Missouri and also the precedent that it sets,” he told the News Tribune.

“The initiative petition process already is very difficult and, with the composition of the General Assembly, it currently can be sometimes difficult to deal with issues within the General Assembly through the legislative process — so citizens need to have an alternative, to have a voice in public policy making.”

Panik said: “What we’ve seen recently, and what you’ve seen at the ballot, is this eagerness to go to the ballot with controversial measures,” he said. “These are things which normally are vetted at the General Assembly and, maybe, sent to the voters from the General Assembly.

“Right now, what we’re seeing is issues being sent right to the ballot, with slick advertising and sound bites about how great these measures are … and adding dozens of pages to our state Constitution.”

But, Fajen argued: “Considering how difficult it already is, Sen. Sater might just as well offer language to eliminate the initiative petition process, since that will likely be the practical effect.

“The supporters of Clean Missouri submitted well over 300,000 signatures to ensure the measure qualified in six of eight districts. Under (Sater’s proposal), supporters of a constitutional petition would need to collect considerably more signatures to be sure to qualify, perhaps as much as 800,000 signatures.”

Panik said the proposed amendment would “bring more accountability back into the process (and) let the General Assembly be the main vehicle for setting policy in the state — but still have the initiative petition process there for when we really need it.”

Sater agreed.

“I believe in the vetting process that goes through, right here at the Capitol.”

But, D’Abreu countered: “It would be improper to say that one has ‘vetting’ and the other doesn’t.

“If you know how things work around the Capitol, (you know) that vetting process isn’t as thorough as it would appear (and), in the initiative petition process, it goes through several steps including going to citizens individually and making the argument that this is a good policy.”

D’Abreu also noted: “The authority that each representative and senator has comes from the citizens so that means whatever trust those citizens have placed in them, that trust should be reciprocal.

“In the initiative process, citizens have the right — and the responsibility — that what they are agreeing to they think is best, according to their own conscience.”

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