Republicans renew push to make it harder for voters to amend Missouri constitution

By: - January 12, 2022 4:26 pm

Rep. Mike Henderson, R- Bonne Terre, discusses his measure to reform the initiative petition process during a committee hearing on Jan. 12, 2022 (screenshot).

After years of watching Missouri voters amend the state constitution to raise the minimum wage or legalize medical marijuana, Republican lawmakers are once again pushing to make the initiative petition process harder. 

A measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, would ask voters to increase the number of signatures needed for initiative petitions to amend the constitution. 

It would also ask them to raise the threshold for an initiative petition to be approved by voters, from a simple majority to a two-thirds majority. 

“We have one of the easiest procedure processes in the country for amending our constitution,” Henderson said, about the measure during a committee hearing on Wednesday. “Since the last Constitution was written in 1945, our Constitution has been amended more than 60 times.”

Henderson’s legislation is among nearly 20 proposals filed by Republicans that increase the requirements for initiative petitions to succeed. Republican proponents say the measures impede outside interests from pushing amendments to the Missouri Constitution.

However Democratic legislators, along with a number of voting advocates, spoke against the legislation on Wednesday, saying that it would take away the people’s power and voice.

Rep. David Smith, D-Columbia, said it reminds him of a scene from the 1980s film “Wall Street.” Michael Douglas plays a stockbroker who obtains a mass amount of wealth and power, and his protege asks him, “How much power is enough?”

“I feel like that’s what’s going on here,” said Smith, adding that it’s already difficult for Democrats to pass legislation as the minority party in Jefferson City. 

“My concern is it’s basically passing that burden on to the citizens now – that high threshold of getting things done,” he said, referring to the two-thirds vote threshold. “It’s almost killing the initiative petition process to some degree, and I feel like we should be honest with people and tell them that’s what it’s doing.”

Since the last Constitution was written in 1945, our Constitution has been amended more than 60 times.

– Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre

In recent years, Missouri’s constitution has been amended by initiative petition to rein in campaign spending, expand Medicaid eligibility and legalize medical marijuana. 

During the Wednesday hearing, Rep. Jeff Coleman, R-Grain Valley, pointed to recent voter-approved constitutional amendments as the reason lawmakers need to take action.

Specifically, Coleman referenced the 2018 Clean Missouri initiative petition, which reworked the legislative redistricting process and was largely funded by out-of-state interests.

“You can go back to Clean Missouri as a really good example in the monies that came into our state from outside because they wanted to change our Constitution,” Coleman said.

Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, cited a study out of University of Missouri that found four-fifths of all proposed constitutional amendments between 1910 and 2008 were submitted to the voters by the General Assembly. And those proposals were more likely to be approved by the voters than the ones submitted through initiative petitions. 

“It seems like the General Assembly is the one making the Constitution more thick,” Windham said. 

Henderson said the General Assembly’s proposals would also have to meet the two-thirds vote threshold. 

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Windham asked Henderson if he believes the changes would make it more expensive and difficult for grassroots initiative-petition efforts to succeed – and not just those backed by out-of-state groups. 

Henderson said that he believes it would make it more difficult, but added, “I think it’s worth it when we’re going to include all the people in the state of Missouri.”

Under his proposal, petitions would have to be signed by 10 percent of the voters in every congressional district in the state. Currently, they must be signed by eight percent of voters in two-thirds of the congressional districts in the state.

Last legislative session, Republicans pushed similar measures, but they didn’t succeed. And many of the same advocates who fought them last year were there to testify again on Wednesday.

Marilyn McLeod, president of the League of Women Voters of Missouri, said Missouri’s initiative petition system has been in place for more than 100 years and it’s a state “treasure.” 

“Our organization believes that the two-thirds [vote] of an election is so high that it’s virtually impossible to reach,” McLeod said, “so that just seems an unnecessary lift.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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