Missouri lawmakers act fast on citizen access to the ballot

January 24, 2023 GMT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers moved quickly to pass more restrictions on amending the state constitution during one of the session’s first hearings Tuesday.

Republican legislative leaders in the House and Senate have cited cracking down on constitutional amendments as a top priority for the session, arguing that it’s now too easy to enshrine policies in the constitution.

Currently, signatures from 8% of voters in six of Missouri’s eight congressional districts are needed to put a proposed constitutional change on the ballot for a statewide vote. It takes 51% of votes to amend the constitution.

Many of the proposals debated Tuesday would make it harder for citizens to put measures to a public vote and increase the percentage of votes needed to pass citizen-led constitutional amendments.

A bill by Rep. Mike Henderson, a Republican from Desloge, would require petitioners to collect signatures from 10% of voters in all eight congressional districts to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and would require a two-thirds majority to enact such measures.

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“This would put before the Missouri voters the question: Is a simple majority to change the constitution of our state too low a threshold?” Henderson told a House committee on election law.

Any proposals passed by the Legislature to make the initiative petition process harder would have to go before voters for final approval.

GOP lawmakers have been trying for years to crack down on initiative petitions, which have been used to enact policies that the Republican-led Legislature either avoided dealing with or opposed.

For example, a 2020 citizen-led ballot initiative forced the state to expand Medicaid coverage, despite years of resistance from Republicans. Voters then legalized adult recreational use of marijuana in 2022, a long avoided topic in the Legislature.

“The people only do this when the Legislature is unresponsive to the majority of the people,” said Dan Viets, a leader of the marijuana legalization campaign and a successful 2018 campaign for medical marijuana. “It’s an extremely important part of our system.”

Several bills would make it easier to pass constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers compared to ones by citizens.

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Republicans still appear divided on the best tactic for changing the amendment process.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden has said he’s skeptical of efforts to increase the number of voter signatures needed for citizens to get policy proposals on the ballot, which would effectively limit the number of citizen-driven proposals that the public could vote on. Rowden instead has advocated to increase the number of votes needed to amend the constitution.

Lawmakers who want to change the petition process often cite the legalization of bingo through a constitutional amendment, although it was lawmakers who put the question before voters in 1980.

“I like bingo,” Henderson said. “Bingo is a good thing, but I’m not sure bingo should be in the state constitution.”

It now requires a statewide vote to make even small changes to bingo policy.