Originally printed in the Kansas City Star on January 2, 2019
Missouri’s Republican lawmakers are planning another unnecessary assault on the state’s initiative petition process this year.
Republicans already have filed measures that would make it harder to put issues on the ballot. Among other things, the bills would impose a filing fee on petitions, raise the number of signatures needed to place constitutional amendments on the ballot and restrict paid petition drives.
Last week, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said petition reform would be the most important item on his policy agenda in 2019. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Farm Bureau have called for petition reform in the next legislative session.
Many of these efforts threaten the right of every Missourian to make law outside of Jefferson City. The state’s petition process may need a few tweaks, but it is fundamentally sound.
Legislators must be extraordinarily careful to protect petition rights as this debate unfolds.
It’s obvious that many Republicans are frustrated with voters, who did in 2018 what the GOP leadership would not: Raise the minimum wage, impose ethics reform, legalize medical marijuana and protect workers’ rights.
But lawmakers who blame the petition process for these decisions should take a good look in the mirror. If they would simply enact what the people want, petitions would be unnecessary.
Instead, legislators have repeatedly ignored the people. Why are they upset that the voters have exercised their right, guaranteed in the state constitution, to decide issues for themselves?
Any attempt to raise the number of petition signatures needed to put laws and amendments on the ballot should be quickly rejected. Any effort to raise the threshold for approving constitutional amendments beyond a simple majority of voters should be defeated as well.
The complaints that there are too many petitions being offered do have merit. In 2018, Ashcroft says the state had to review more than 370 petition proposals, far more than the number just a few years ago.
It takes time and money to review those proposals, even though the vast majority will never make it to the ballot.
There is no clear way to prevent those petitions from being filed based on content alone. But a reasonable filing fee, refundable to petitioners who eventually gather enough valid signatures, may make sense to deter people from filing dozens of proposals without any intention of actually seeking signatures.
On the other hand, an additional per-signature filing fee, now under discussion, makes no sense. Missourians don’t pay to vote, and they shouldn’t be required to pay — even indirectly — for exercising their right to sign a petition.
Missourians also should oppose the effort to restrict out-of-state interests from conducting petition drives or charging a fee. Those proposals are constitutionally dubious and would be difficult to enforce.
They also ignore the fact that every successful petition requires a statewide public vote. In the end, Missouri voters decide, not out-of-state interests. Voters are entirely capable of making up their own minds.
As the discussion continues in 2019, remember this: It’s already difficult to gather enough valid signatures for a vote. It takes more than 100,000 signatures to put a proposed law on the ballot and 160,000 for a constitutional change. The signatures must come from diverse geographic areas as well.
Fundamentally, Missouri does it right. It’s hard to put something on the ballot, but not impossible. That means the people provide a check and balance on their representatives, an important right that lawmakers should not abridge in 2019.