Published February 1st, 2023 at 2:38 PM
Legislation to make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution through the initiative petition process won initial approval in the Missouri House on Wednesday.
After more than two hours of debate, the legislation sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem Mike Henderson was approved 106-50. It will need to be approved one more time by the House before going to the Senate.
If it passes both chambers it would still need to be approved by voters on the statewide ballot.
Republicans have been unsuccessfully pushing changes to the initiative petition process for years, largely in response to successful ballot measures in recent years that repealed a right-to-work law, expanded Medicaid eligibility, raised the minimum wage and legalized marijuana.
“I believe that the Missouri Constitution is a living document, but not an ever expanding document,” said Henderson, R-Bonne Terre.
The bill approved Wednesday would raise the threshold needed for an initiative petition to require 60% of voters to approve of any proposed constitutional amendment.
Currently proposed amendments need only a simple majority for approval.
Henderson said too often, out-of-state groups spend millions to put issues on the ballot and into the constitution. He hopes by raising the bar for passage, that practice will be discouraged.
“I don’t think our constitution should be for sale,” he said.
Democrats panned the legislation as a power grab by Republicans who are tired of seeing voters go around them to impose their will.
They noted that if Henderson’s bill goes on the ballot, the first thing voters will read has nothing to do with the initiative petition process. Instead, the first bullet point will ask voters if Missouri should, “allow only citizens of the United States to qualify as legal voters.”
The constitution currently says “all citizens” are entitled to vote. Missouri law explicitly says that only United States citizens may register to vote.
Henderson said Wednesday that even without his legislation, non-citizens are already unable to vote in Missouri.
By leading with the citizenship issue, Republicans are trying to inject the immigration issue into the discussion to trick voters, said Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia.
“You’re talking about misleading voters,” he said.
Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said the citizen-voting language is dishonest “ballot candy” aimed at trying to get voter approval of an otherwise unpopular proposal.
“They list something first that is essentially meaningless,” Meredith said.
Democrats offered an amendment to reorder the language on the ballot so the citizen voting provision was no longer first. They then offered an amendment removing it completely.
The Republican majority rejected both ideas.
Voters wouldn’t have to resort to changing the constitution, Merideth said, if the legislature could be trusted not to repeal statutory changes enacted through the initiative petition process.
A high profile example of that phenomenon came in 2011, when the legislature repealed and rewrote puppy mill regulations approved by voters just a year earlier.
“When voters do statutory changes on the ballot,” Meredith said, “the legislature comes along to undo it.”
Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, said amending the constitution should be something that is only done with the support of a broad swath of the state. By raising the threshold, Lewis argued the voices of rural Missouri would be heard, not just voters in the urban centers.
Adding fuel to the push for change among Republicans is the likelihood abortion-rights supporters may turn to the initiative petition to roll back Missouri’s near total ban on the procedure.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that abortion is not a constitutional right. Missouri acted quickly to implement a ban on abortion except for medical emergencies.
Soon after, voters just across the state line in Kansas rejected an effort to follow Missouri’s lead, raising the hopes of abortion-rights proponents in Missouri that the issue could have resonance even in a deeply red state.
Also hanging over Wednesday’s debate was a threat by the Missouri Association of Realtors that it would oppose anything more than tinkering with the way the constitution is amended by voters.
The Realtors organization spent more than $10 million over two elections on successful initiatives, ensuring a vigorous — and well funded — opposition to the GOP’s plan.
Last year in both Arkansas and South Dakota, voters overwhelmingly rejected GOP-backed proposals that would have required ballot initiatives to pass with 60% support instead of a simple majority.
Jason Hancock is the editor of the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy, where this story first appeared.