UPDATE: Missouri judge rules discount of signatures unconstitutional, orders tax initiative

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 | 5:27 p.m. CDT; updated 8:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 31, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A judge on Tuesday ordered a real estate tax initiative to appear on Missouri's November ballot, concluding the measure's supporters submitted enough valid signatures from voters.

Earlier this month the Missouri secretary of state's office concluded that too few signatures were submitted for the initiative to appear. Cole County Circuit Judge Paul Wilson effectively overruled that and ordered election officials to place the measure on the ballot.

The initiative would amend the Missouri Constitution to bar real estate transfer taxes, which the state does not levy. Transfer taxes can be collected when homes, land and other real estate is sold. Critics of the tax contend people already pay property tax on their homes and land.

For proposed constitutional amendments to qualify for the ballot, supporters must submit signatures from at least 8 percent of the voters in the 2008 governor election from six of the state's nine congressional districts.

Officials initially concluded that the real estate measure was about 4,300 signatures short from the 3rd Congressional District near St. Louis and about 1,300 short from the 9th Congressional District in northeastern and central Missouri.

Wilson determined there were enough signatures from those congressional districts. He ruled that the secretary of state's office and the courts have different standards to follow while determining if initiatives have sufficient signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Election officials discounted signatures from registered voters who did not live in the county listed on the form they signed. They also did not count signatures submitted by petition gatherers who did not register with the secretary of state.

Wilson concluded that not counting those signatures would infringe on the constitutional rights of people who signed the petitions. The judge wrote that the state laws were designed to regulate the behavior of petition gatherers by threatening to punish voters and likened the regulations to a "movie villain who tries to torture the damsel so that the hero will do his bidding."

The ballot measure is backed by the Missouri Association of Realtors, who fear elected officials could be tempted to start levying the transfer tax on real estate sales. The group's attorney said Tuesday that thousands of valid signatures were initially disqualified.

"We stood up for the rights of these voters to be counted, and the court has supported the rights of voters to be counted," attorney Chuck Hatfield said.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state said the office would appeal the court ruling but was certifying the real estate measure for the November election.

"The initiative petition process is only fair if the legal requirements are clearly defined," spokeswoman Laura Egerdal said. "We will be appealing this decision so that voters, as well as local election authorities and all Missourians, have a clear understanding of what is required to place a question on the ballot."

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