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story.lead_photo.caption Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testifies on legislation regarding initiative petitions Wednesday before the Missouri House Elections Committee. Photo by Tim Bommel/Mo. House of Reps.

After starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday — then breaking for the House's morning and afternoon debate sessions — members of the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee worked into the night Wednesday, hearing testimony on 10 bills that mostly seek to change or modify the state's initiative petition process.

Missouri's Constitution allows residents to submit petitions seeking to add new laws or constitutional provisions, or change existing ones, with a statewide vote required to approve the proposals.

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For constitutional questions, supporters of the petition must get signatures from at least 8 percent of the registered voters "in each of two-thirds of the congressional districts in the state," while changes to the statutes require signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters.

That means, currently, signatures must be gathered in at least six of the state's eight congressional districts.

However, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft told committee members Wednesday morning, that could be accomplished by circulating petitions in only three of the state's 114 counties (and ignore the City of St. Louis).

He told reporters that would be Jackson, Jefferson and St. Louis counties.

That's because parts of the 1st and 2nd districts are in St. Louis County, while Jefferson County includes portions of the 2nd, 3rd and 8th districts, and Jackson County includes parts of the 5th and 6th districts.

"Most people don't" circulate their petitions only in those three counties, Ashcroft told reporters, "but I wanted to mention that, to highlight the fact that if we're going to amend our Constitution, that affects everyone in the state.

"But it really doesn't take a wide swath of the state to put that question on the ballot."

Ashcroft said his biggest concern is, "How do we do something to make sure that, if we're changing our Constitution, it's something that is widely agreed by the people of this state?"

He noted some constitutional amendments win voter approval during primary elections with a 30 percent turnout of the state's registered voters, allowing a little more than 15 percent of the state's total registered voters to change the Constitution.

The secretary of state said he'd prefer amendments and law changes to come through the Legislature, where bills have public testimony during committee hearings, and are subject to debate and being amended during the debate process.

"It's public," Ashcroft argued. "We know who's for it. We know who's against it.

"With the initiative petition process, you really don't have that it's all or nothing."

Still, he supports the idea of people being able to pursue petitions when the public feels lawmakers aren't doing what the public wants.

Rep. John Simmons, R-Washington, sponsored a bill that would charge a $350 filing fee for the petitions — a fee which would be refunded if the petition received enough signatures of registered voters to qualify for being placed on the ballot.

"We are witnessing special interest groups using the rather weak initiative petition laws that we have," Simmons told the committee at the beginning of the day.

Simmons noted the secretary of state's office does much of the work in processing petitions when they are filed, and then in certifying the signatures once they're collected.

"By adding this fee, the secretary of state will be able to focus on valid initiatives," he said, without spending time on petitions that sponsors likely don't intend to circulate.

Lobbyist Woody Cozad testified: "You have this large number of applications for (initiative petitions) coming in.

"The secretary of state has to process them, and it seems sensible there should be some sort of charge for that."

Lobbyist Ron Berry, representing the American Federation of Teachers-Missouri, opposed the proposal, noting "the filing fee would put us up as being one of the higher states for a requirement like this."

He also noted "a lot of different groups that normally don't work together are in agreement" in their opposition to most of the bills on the committee's agenda.

State Rep. Chrissy Sommer, R-St. Charles, sponsored a bill that would charge a $500 refundable filing fee for each petition submitted, plus a $25 per-page fee for each page of text covering more than 10 pages.

Her bill also would create a "Secretary of State's Signature Verification Fund," charging 40 cents per signature whenever a petition campaign paid to have at least some of their signatures gathered.

And it would make knowingly signing a petition using the wrong name, signing without being a registered voter, or signing the same petition more than once a Class A misdemeanor crime.

She acknowledged it might be difficult to determine who had signed a wrong name or forged someone else's name, since those false signatures likely wouldn't be discovered until after signature pages were submitted.

Sommer said her bill was drafted mainly by Ashcroft's office, and deferred many questions to the secretary — who spent nearly an hour answering lawmakers' questions.

He supported some kind of proposed fee, "to offset the costs to the local election authorities" for the time spent verifying whether signatures were from valid, registered voters.

Ashcroft also said he supports a filing fee "high enough that people don't file 60 petitions with no intention of getting signatures on them" — which, he said, happened this last election cycle.

Former state Rep. Carl Bearden, now head of United for Missouri, supported some parts of the bill, but said he couldn't support it in its present form.

"Our problem is not with grass roots sorts of operations" and their petitions, Bearden said Wednesday evening. "Anything that's been proposed (in these bills) will not stop people with money.

"They'll just spend more money."

And Cozad noted the proposed filing fee will face legal challenges.

"When you guarantee a (constitutional) right, it's hard to charge for that right," he said.

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Among the other bills on the committee's agenda Wednesday were:

Simmons' proposed constitutional amendment to require initiative petition sponsors proposing constitutional amendments to collect signatures equivalent to 10 percent of the legal voters in three-fifths of the counties in the state, or at least 69 of the 115 counties. His proposed amendment also would require a two-thirds favorable vote, statewide, to enact proposed constitutional amendments.

Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, proposed an amendment also to require a two-thirds majority vote to enact an amendment — but would require only a simple majority to repeal any amendment voters had added to the Constitution before Dec. 3, 2020. His proposed amendment also would require initiative petitions to gather signatures from 8 percent of the registered voters in each of the state's 163 representatives' districts.

Sommer's proposed amendment to keep a simple majority requirement for any constitutional amendment placed on the ballot by the Legislature — but require a two-thirds majority vote to pass any amendment proposed by initiative petition.

Committee Chairman Dan Shaul, R-Imperial, proposed an amendment to require signatures from at least 8 percent of the registered voters in all congressional districts, and to base the minimum number of signatures required on the total number of registered voters at the last general election.

Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Dardenne Prairie, proposed an amendment also to require signatures to be collected in every congressional district.

Rep. Tim Remole, R-Excello, proposed an amendment to require petitions to be signed by registered voters in every county of the state, but keeping the minimum required signatures at 8 percent for amendments and 5 percent for law changes.

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