Legislators aim to tighten petition rules

By Austin Huguelet Springfield News-Leader's
Janice and Fred Bausman sign a petition with Dr. Doug McNeal and RN Susie Strozewski to expand Medicaid in Missouri on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019.

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House Republicans are taking another shot at making it harder to change the state constitution.

A resolution passed on a party-line vote Thursday would ask voters to require future amendments to be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters to pass.

The current standard is a simple majority — 50 percent plus one.

Sponsoring Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, told colleagues in floor debate that his plan to raise the standard will ensure that changes to the state’s organizing document have a broad base of support from the people.

“What we’re doing,” he said, “is making sure that issues put into our constitution are things that should be in our constitution.”

Democrats saw only sour grapes and quickly noted that constitutional amendments have been a thorn in Republicans’ side recently.

After years of having their ideas rejected in the legislature, progressive groups have increasingly turned to ballot initiatives to submit issues like ethics reform and Medicaid expansion directly to the people.

Those groups have filed those initiatives as constitutional amendments to protect them from the legislature: No matter how much Republican lawmakers don’t like the ideas, they can’t make changes without another vote of the people.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said Henderson’s resolution was effectively an attempt to silence all opposition.

“We are making it much, much harder for people to do what we won’t and pass proposals that are good for this state,” he said.

Henderson noted that 13 amendments have passed with a two-thirds majority since 2000, which have included items limiting campaign contributions and guaranteeing the right to pray on public property.

Several prominent items that won approval under the current rules would have failed, however: Ethics reform, Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana legislation and an item waiving property taxes for disabled former prisoners of war all passed with less than two-thirds majorities.

Merideth also decried Republicans’ attempt to disguise the change by tying it to a red meat issue.

An amendment from Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, would have the resolution also ask voters to approve language saying that the only people allowed to vote are properly registered citizens.

That could allow ballot language to be structured so that voters looking at the resolution would be asked if the state should “allow only citizens of the United States to qualify as legal voters.”

Merideth said the constitution already provides for such a requirement, so the change wouldn’t make any difference, but it might convince some voters that the amendment is worth supporting even if they don’t like Henderson’s idea.

“This is dirty politics,” he said. “It’s a dirty exercise of power by a legislature that people don’t trust.”

The resolution passed 111-46 Thursday. It now moves to the Senate for further consideration.

The legislation is House Joint Resolution 20.