UPDATE: Missouri lawmakers seek petition regulations

Thursday, February 5, 2009 | 5:58 p.m. CST; updated 6:08 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 5, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Just a few months after the November election, some Missouri lawmakers are pushing to significantly change the way initiative petitions work.

The proposals would change how a petition's ballot summary is approved, make some petitions harder to pass and prohibit petition circulators from being paid on a per-signature basis.

Lawmakers said petition abuse in recent elections, including November's general election, prompted them to file their legislation.

State Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, wants to change the way ballot summaries are written for voters. Currently, the secretary of state summarizes the issue and the attorney general approves the ballot summary.

Goodman wants to create a bipartisan commission to approve the summary. The commission would include four lawyers and four other citizens appointed by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.

Goodman said he filed the bill in response to recent initiative summaries that he said were unclear. Particularly troubling to Goodman was last November's Proposition B, which created a council to oversee home health care workers and also allowed them to unionize.

"To be generous, I'll say it was quite unclear," Goodman said. "Many of the consequences were unanticipated by the voters."

The initiative passed with 75 percent of the vote. Critics said a provision allowing the workers to collectively bargain as union members was not made clear enough.

Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has consistently defended her ballot summaries as fair, even as they have been challenged in court by supporters of various initiatives.

"The current process in place produces accurate and impartial ballot language," Carnahan spokesman Ryan Hobart said Thursday. The bill "would add an unnecessary layer to that process."

Hobart also noted that Proposition B's ballot summary was challenged in court, but upheld by a Cole County circuit judge.

Under the bill, the secretary of state would still write the summary. If the panel does not approve it, the commission would write an alternate version. Goodman said an eight-member panel would draft a better ballot summary than someone with even the best intentions.

As written, the bill would affect only the extended ballot summary posted at polling places. But Goodman said he plans to amend the legislation to include what actually appears on the ballot.

State Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence, filed a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that would make it harder to place on the ballot, and pass, other proposed constitutional amendments. One proposal would increase the number of signatures needed to put an amendment on the ballot from 8 percent to 10 percent of the votes cast in six of Missouri's nine congressional districts in the previous general election. A different proposal would set a 60 percent threshold to pass an amendment, instead of requiring a simple majority.

Since 1945, the Missouri Constitution has been changed 110 times, compared with the 27 times the U.S. Constitution has been amended. About half the state changes garnered more than 60 percent of the vote.

Kuessner said large swaths of the public are angered when a constitutional change passes by a slim margin. Voters protected embryonic stem cell research in 2006 and allowed riverboat casinos in 1994. Both changes would have failed under Kuessner's 60 percent threshold. A state revenue cap known as the Hancock Amendment, created in 1980, also wouldn't have passed.

"Do I think the public ought to have an opportunity and a mechanism to change the Constitution? Yes," Kuessner said. "I just think it should be a little more than a simple majority."

Besides public policy concerns, Kuessner said the deluge of initiatives is running up election costs.

Other legislators hope to target those paid for each signature they collect to put an issue on the ballot.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, would ban that practice as well as prohibit signature gatherers who have committed forgery. A similar bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

Rather than limiting the number of ballot initiatives, Bray said she filed the bill to reduce the potential for fraud.

"Let's just not have the incentive to get desperate and get signatures that aren't straight and right," she said.

Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, filed a similar bill in the House and said ending per-signature payments would restore integrity to the petition process.

"You're basically just paying for a signature," he said. "You lose the real meaning of the petition."

Both bills also would require petition circulators to be Missouri residents, but Bray said that provision would probably be removed because it is potentially unconstitutional.

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John Schultz February 8, 2009 | 2:38 a.m.

Speaking as one who has collected signatures for initiative petitions, HB228 and SB115 have some definite flaws in my opinion. The first is the unconstitutional requirement (as ruled by three different district courts I believe) on out-of-state circulators. Second, the measure I was collecting signatures for required two amendments to the state constitution, but I would only have been permitted to carry one of those petitions under the proposed legislation. What was I supposed to have done then, point to a compatriot down the street and ask the person who signed my measure to hunt down this other person and sign his petition?

If preventing fraud is the true issue, some different bill language could likely due a better job here. There's not much that can be done to prevent an uninformed voter.

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