Four bills making initiative petition process harder passed by Missouri House committee

Party-line votes approve versions of proposals to make it more difficult to pass for constitutional amendments

By: - January 26, 2023 12:59 pm

State Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, sponsored legislation to raise the bar on initiative petitions seeking to amend the constitution (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

A Missouri House committee approved four versions of proposals to overhaul the initiative petition process Thursday on party-line votes, despite warnings of well-funded opposition if lawmakers put one on the ballot.

The differences among the competing proposals were enough that House Elections Committee Chairwoman Peggy McGaugh, R-Carrollton, said she didn’t feel comfortable combining them.

“I thought there were enough nuances that we needed to have options,” McGaugh said after the four 11-5 votes in her committee.

The vote was taken in a special meeting of the committee less than 48 hours after a lengthy public hearing on the proposals. That sped up the normal process, which would have seen votes taken at  the committee’s regular meeting next week.

Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, criticized that speed, arguing it gave Democrats little time to prepare amendments, which under House rules have to be ready 24 hours before a committee vote.

And alluding to warnings of a major opposition campaign, Adams said he hopes that the “resounding defeat” he expects at the polls will put an end to debate on changing citizen-led issue campaigns.

But he’s not certain even a defeat can end the push to change the initiative process.

“There are some pieces of legislation that are zombies and vampires, that no matter how many times you kill them, they come back,” Adams said.

Since early in the 20th century, Missouri voters have had the ability to propose new laws and constitutional amendments – and challenge laws passed in the General Assembly – by gathering signatures to put issues on the ballot. 

Currently it requires signatures equal to 8% of the vote cast for governor in six of the state’s eight congressional districts to propose a constitutional amendment and 5% in six districts to propose a change in state law.

Republicans have made it a priority to change the thresholds for getting constitutional amendments on the ballot and to pass them. A constitutional amendment has become the preferred way of proposing initiatives because it takes a second statewide vote to change anything passed by voters, while a statutory change can be altered by lawmakers with a signature from the governor.

All initiatives, like ballot measures proposed by lawmakers, require only a simple majority to pass.

The first proposal approved in the committee Thursday, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, was amended to keep the current threshold for ballot access while adding a 60% majority requirement for amendments proposed by initiative. Henderson’s original bill increased the requirement for ballot access to  10% of the vote cast for governor in all eight congressional districts to be placed on the ballot in addition to the 60% majority on election day to pass.

The changes proposed in the other plans approved by the committee vary in the ways they raise the bar. One would keep the simple majority for statewide passage but also require that it receive a majority in 82 of 163 Missouri House districts. Another would require a constitutional amendment to receive a majority equal to more than half of all registered voters, making it impossible to pass anything when turnout is less than half of the electorate.

Any significant change will draw opposition from groups that have used the ballot to limit new taxes, expand Medicaid or legalize marijuana in recent elections. The Missouri Association of Realtors, which spent more than $10 million over two elections on successful initiatives, has already said it is ready to oppose changes.

The Senate will likely wait for a House bill before conducting floor debate. Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said Thursday that Republicans will not be deterred by promised opposition.

He did, however, acknowledge that will make it more difficult to pass at the polls. Rowden noted that “it’s really easy for the other side, just to say, hey, these crooked politicians are taking away your voice. So if that message has a bunch of money behind it, yeah, I think it makes it harder for that to pass.”

Senate Democratic Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said if voters can’t sidestep legislators by taking issues to the ballot, they will start changing the legislature.

“Last I checked, they were in the majority,” Rizzo said. “So if they’re gonna change the legislature, it won’t be beneficial to them.”

This article has been updated to correct an error on the signature threshold for ballot access in the committee’s version of Henderson’s proposal.

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.