Initiative changes ready for Missouri Senate debate, but time is running out

About four years ago, Rep. J. Eggleston attended a public meeting on the host of statewide measures set to be voted on in that year's elections. Constituents were confused about what the measures would change, he said.

Eggleston, R-Maysville, walked through the potential impact of the proposals, which included medical marijuana and a minimum wage increase. About 30 community members attended the event.

"I had so many people come up to me afterward and say, 'Thank you. We knew something was going on. We knew we weren't getting the full story,''' Eggleston said at a recent hearing. "So having this public discourse really helped them be an informed voter."

The experience led him to sponsor House Joint Resolution 91, which would send approved initiative petitions to the Legislature as a bill for a vetting process before citizens voted on them.

Numerous measures to create a stringent process for citizens to amend the Missouri Constitution have been proposed this legislative session, and HJR91 is one of two to pass the House so far. More than 15 pieces of legislation were filed proposing changes to the signature-gathering and amendment processes for initiatives.

The proposals have faced strong opposition. Opponents said the provisions would make an already difficult process nearly impossible.

"Legislation that reduces the power of the voter is not in the interest of a democratic society," said Angie Dunlap, president of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis in written testimony on one of the measures.

Eggleston's proposal would create what is known as an indirect initiative petition process, which is different from Missouri's current system that sends initiatives straight to the ballot. Nineteen states have a petition process for amending the constitution; Missouri is one of 15 that do it by direct initiative petition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

If passed by the Legislature and state voters, HJR 91 would require petitioners collect signatures in every congressional district and two-thirds of voters approve any changes in the state Constitution. That compares to the current requirements of a simple-majority vote and six of eight congressional districts.

The other measure to pass the House, HJR 79, sponsored by Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, also would require a two-thirds majority vote and signatures from each congressional district. It would also increase the signature requirements for constitutional amendments from 8 percent to 10 percent of voters in each district.

HJR 79 has been picked up in the Senate by Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo. A revised version was approved by a Senate committee last week and is headed to the full Senate for debate.

Another proposal in the Senate would make it even harder for groups to get issues on the ballot. SJR 31, sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, would create a 15 percent signature threshold.

It's unclear which provisions might ultimately pass. James Harris, lobbyist for the Opportunity Solutions Project, has testified on a majority of these proposals. With only two weeks left in the legislative session and major items, such as the budget, still incomplete, it may be difficult for these changes to pass, he said.

Eggleston would like to see a "greatest hits" of the initiative petition proposals be passed, and he is open to other approaches, such as requiring signatures from state House districts, for example.

Proponents of the swath of proposals said the changes would protect the constitution from constant change; most do not change provisions for proposing new laws by initiative petition.

Republicans are focusing on making it harder to amend the constitution because, increasingly, that is the route initiatives take.

State laws can be changed by the Legislature, but the Constitution can be changed only by state voters.

Several laws that were passed through the initiative process, such as measures regulating dog breeders and outlawing concealed weapons, were eventually overhauled by the Legislature.

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said this year's sweeping proposals to change the initiative process are a response to citizen-initiated policy changes that are unpopular with the Republican-controlled legislature. Medicaid expansion, passed by state voters in 2020, is one oft-cited example.

"I want to make sure that the people of Missouri still have a voice," Razer said.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

HJR 91: Initiative petitions

Sponsor: Rep. J. Eggleston

HJR 79: Constitutional amendments

Sponsor: Rep. Mike Henderson

SJR 31: Modifies the initiative petition process

Sponsor: Sen. Bob Onder