COLUMN: Public vigilance needed for working initiatives

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Missouri voters will consider at least five ballot measures in 2010 — one in August and four in November. Additionally, it is probable that the legislature will propose a constitutional amendment dealing with elections this last week of the legislative session.

So far, the two top attention-getters are the August referendum opposed to the recently passed national health care reform and the initiative petition repealing Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan.

Pending the secretary of state’s verification of  petition signatures, November voters will consider requiring St. Louis and Kansas City citizens to reconsider their earnings tax, a limitation on dog breeding mills and the prohibition of a real estate transfer tax that is apparently not in effect in Missouri.

Earlier this year, 23 initiative petitions had been approved by the secretary of state for circulation, but 19 failed to get the approximately 95,000 signatures in six of Missouri’s nine Congressional districts to qualify a change in a state statute. A ballot measure to change a statute requires 5 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election, while a petition to change the constitution requires signatures an exceeding 8 percent.

Gathering sufficient signatures is a laborious task for which there is now a small cottage industry of paid petition gatherers that can be rather aggressive, and sometimes misleading, in their haste to see that an issue makes the ballot.

Missouri is one of 27 states that have either the initiative or referendum, both of which were adopted in 1910. The original intent of these ballot measure mechanisms was to provide an emergency chute to the political process in case elected officials were behaving in an undemocratic way. The present system of selecting appellate judges (the “Missouri Plan”) was adopted by initiative petition in 1940,; the Hancock Amendment limiting state revenue was adopted in 1980, and legislative term limits were adopted in 1992. Initiative petitions have attracted a great deal of political interest since 1978 when California’s Proposition 13 led their use as a tax limitation tool.

While it often seems ballot measures are increasing in frequency, that’s only collective short term memory loss. The 100 year-average is close to four ballot measures each year, with much more heavy use in the 1930s and again in the 1980s. Recently, voters have tended to approve ballot measures but historically only about 60 percent of referenda and 40 percent of initiatives received voters’ favor.

In the past decade, at least five measures were on the ballot each election. In 2008, voters approved two constitutional amendments and three propositions in November 2008 and approved four constitutional amendments and one proposition in 2006, with only a proposed tobacco tax being defeated. Voters were not as approving in 2000 when four out of five measures were defeated.

Political science research finds that initiatives and referenda increase voter participation, increase legislators’ responsiveness to constituents and slow down special interest expenditures. On the other hand, there is concern that voters can be easily misled and that issue campaigns expenditures are woefully one-sided. What often appears a grassroots campaign is really a well-run Astroturf operation.  

A weakness of ballot measures is that they are inflexible once the language is chosen. In legislative consideration, amendments can be offered up until the final vote. In 1992, it was not hard to hear comments that citizens preferred 12 years over eight years for legislative term limits, but were for almost any term limit.  

This past legislative session there was House debate about making petition-gathering more difficult and prohibiting some rather narrow issues from being open to initiative change. Let’s hope legislators take a longer-term view of citizen control of government.

In principle, it might make sense for a constitutional amendment to require super majority approval compared to majority approval for a statutory change — but this change should be made on principle, not political expediency.

A favorite pastime of campaign consultants is arguing the strategic advantage of placing an issue on the August versus November ballot. For example, the gay marriage issue was placed on the August ballot in 2004 so as not to interfere with President George Bush’s re-election in November. For some reason, the less controversial transportation issue was saved for that November.

Of the five ballot measures this year, the August “Healthcare Freedom Act" referenda seems to be purely symbolic due to the uncertainty of its real health care policy impact. Additionally, the Republicans legislature's decision to place it on the August, rather than November, ballot more likely separates any controversy from affecting the Missouri Court Plan repeal or the U.S. Senate race.

Like many aspects of the political process, it is not difficult to find fault with both the design and implementation of specific aspects of the political process. While initiatives and referenda, on balance, are desirable, without public vigilance they provide particular groups another avenue to promote their narrow interests.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU. This article is presented courtesy of The Missouri Record, which carries Webber’s column each Tuesday.

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