After legal weed vote, Missouri GOP fast tracks bill making it harder to amend constitution
Opponents to the measure say it's a rash response to recent ballot initiatives where voters approved policies Republicans have blocked in the legislature — including Medicaid coverage for low-income adults and marijuana legalization.
A top Republican priority — making it harder to amend the Missouri Constitution by initiative petition — is in the best position to be this year’s first bill to pass through both legislative chambers.
On Monday, the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee heard testimony on the House-passed measure that would increase the threshold needed for voter approval of a proposed constitutional amendment from a simple majority to 60%.
House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, said the proposal is a response to recent lengthy constitutional amendments that do more than their headline purposes. He argued a 2018 initiative called Clean Missouri was sold as an ethics proposal to limit lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions and included a new method of drawing legislative districts.
“A lot of people feel they have been tricked sometimes,” Henderson said.
Lawmakers rewrote the redistricting provisions and voters approved it in 2020 with 51% of the vote. The first two bullet points that appeared on the ballot summary written by lawmakers that year had nothing to do with redistricting, instead focusing on banning lobbyist gifts and further reducing campaign contributions.
Another reason to make it harder to amend the constitution, Henderson said, is the lengthy amendments that add thousands of words to the state charter.
The state constitution approved by voters in February 1945 was just under 27,000 words long. An amendment protecting stem cell research, added by initiative in 2006, was about 2,000 words. The medical marijuana amendment, another initiative approved in 2018, is almost 8,000 words. Legalizing recreational marijuana in November added 14,000 words in a new section and 2,000 more for revisions to the medical marijuana section.
“I believe it should be a living document but I do not believe it should be an ever-growing document,” he said.
The committee did not hold a vote on Monday, and along with Henderson’s proposal it held hearings on seven other measures – two statutory proposals and five constitutional amendments – intended to make changes in the initiative process.
With Republicans holding supermajorities in each chamber, the early committee hearing increases the likelihood both chambers will agree on a single bill before the session ends in May. If that happens, Missouri voters would see it on the November 2024 ballot or, if he chooses, Gov. Mike Parson could call a special election as soon as August.
Opponents argue that it is a poorly thought-out response to votes in favor of policies Republicans have blocked in the legislature – including Medicaid coverage for low-income adults as well as marijuana legalization and Clean Missouri.
Former state Sen. Bob Johnson, a Jackson County Republican, warned that, in the future, it could be Republicans who want to enact policies Democrats dislike. For most of the time he was a lawmaker, Republicans were in the minority.
“I saw situations where a lot of times the minority in a legislative body doesn’t believe they have been treated fairly and they go to the initiative petition,” Johnson said. “And majorities in legislative bodies change.”
Henderson’s amendment contains two other provisions. One would require a public information meeting organized by the Secretary of State’s Office in each congressional district more than 15 days before an election including an initiative proposal.
The other, called “ballot candy” by detractors, would restate a current requirement that only Missouri residents who are citizens of the United States are eligible to vote.
The other proposals heard Monday range from simple ideas – Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, would eliminate a required legislative hearing on initiatives that make the ballot – to ideas that would make it almost impossible to pass a constitutional amendment by initiative.
Committee Chairwoman Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, is proposing bills to require petition circulators to be registered Missouri voters and apply a 60% majority requirement to initiatives that would increase taxes or require the state to spend more than $10 million.
Other ideas would
- Leave the statewide majority requirement unchanged but also require an amendment to pass in at least 82 of the state’s 163 Missouri House district;
- Set the threshold for passage at two-thirds majority;
- Require that the total vote in favor of a constitutional amendment proposed by initiative be equal to a majority of all registered voters in the state. In elections with turnout below 50%, no initiative could pass because it would be mathematically impossible.
Opposition to the proposals has attracted a broad coalition from right to left.
Fred Steinbach, former mayor of Chesterfield and finance director for former Republican Gov. John Ashcroft’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns, noted that Democrats tried to limit access to the initiative process more than 30 years ago.
“In 1992, my former boss John Ashcroft vetoed similar attacks on the process,” Steinbach said. “These attacks were proposed by the then-Democratic majority who were upset that conservatives used the citizen initiative to pass the Hancock Amendment with only 55% of the vote.”
Supporters of the proposals said they want to reduce the influence of money from outside the state on policy proposals.
Major business and farm lobbying groups are backing the proposals. Constitutional amendments are including too much, said Philip Arnzen, lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“We believe some of those are getting a bit cumbersome,” Arnzen said, “and we believe the legislature is a better place for complex policy.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.