Missouri House panel debates legislation to change the initiative petition process

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Legislation to make it harder for voters to amend the state’s constitution is moving forward inside the Missouri Capitol.

The resolution up for debate would increase the threshold needed to approve a referendum. The initiative petition process involves voters legalizing recreational and medical marijuana.

Those in favor told the House Elections and Elected Officials Committee that this legislation would increase the threshold needed to approve a referendum. The other side said it takes away the voice of the people.

“Why are we trying to stop citizens from proposing changes when they see the legislature not doing what they perceive to be their duty?” Rep. Joe Adams, D-University City, said.

After a lengthy overnight debate in the Missouri Senate, it’s now the House’s turn. Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, presented Senate Joint Resolution 74 Tuesday, explaining how this is a priority for Republicans.

“We have a problem with the way people are changing our founding documents and I’m committed to making sure that that ends,” Coleman said.

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Democrats said the push for this legislation is only to thwart an effort by a group circulating a petition to ask voters later this year if abortion rights should be enshrined in the state’s constitution.

“There has been a current and wind behind your back to push this,” Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said. “I think abortion is a big part of that.”

Currently, it takes a simple majority—more votes for than against—to approve a referendum. Coleman’s legislation would require a simple majority statewide and also a majority in five of the eight U.S. Congressional Districts.

“I think it’s ridiculous this idea that constitutions should be a living, breathing document,” Coleman said. “I think that’s absurd. They should be interpreted by the four corners of the document, and they should be outlined to the system, not individual ideas.”

Those testifying during Tuesday’s committee said they want the Democratic process to be fair.

“Fighting is hard, it’s already hard enough,” Kansas City resident Terrence Wise, said. “I don’t have organizer money but I have the ability to come together with folks in my community and do things like gather signatures to make change not only in my workplace but in my community.”

Others told committee members this would give more voters a voice.

“I think voters in different locations in this state that have different concerns and different priorities and different values all need to be heard,” Missouri Right to Life lobbyist Patty Skain said.

Coleman, who is running for Congress, said this idea to make it harder for voters to amend the constitution has been something the Super Majority has worked on for years. Missouri’s initiative petition process, allowing voters to place constitutional amendments on the ballot by gathering signatures, has been around for more than a century.

Since voters would have the final say if this legislation is approved by the General Assembly, Coleman is asking the House to add back in what some call “ballot candy.”

Before a compromise was reached in the Senate, the question on the ballot asked if only U.S. citizens should be allowed to vote on constitutional amendments and if voters should forbid foreign countries from funding constitutional amendments.

The latest version asks, “Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to pass constitutional amendments proposed by initiative or convention by statewide majority vote and a majority vote in a majority of congressional districts?”

Under current law, campaigns are required to gather 8% of legal voters in six of the eight congressional districts to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The committee did not take action on the legislation on Tuesday but could in the coming weeks.

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