LETTER: Only powerful interest groups benefit from petition initiatives

Monday, February 28, 2011 | 11:44 a.m. CST; updated 2:14 p.m. CST, Monday, February 28, 2011

It is unsurprising that Audrey Spalding, a policy analyst for the right-leaning Show-Me Institute, criticized a legislative proposal to require more signatures on initiative petitions in her opinion article published Feb. 24. After all, Show-Me board member and financial backer Rex Sinquefield doesn't want to have to spend a penny more than necessary to foist his arch-conservative schemes on Missourians through the initiative process.

In reality, the legislative proposal to require initiative petition signatures from all Missouri Congressional districts does not go far enough.

In the early 20th century, the initiative process originally was conceived by populists and progressives as a cure for special-interest influence in the political process. However, since the 1990s, big-money initiative campaigns have spread around the country, including Missouri, subverting democracy by destroying the system of checks and balances built into the U.S. and state constitutions.

Instead of giving ordinary citizens a voice in government, the initiative process in recent years has favored powerful interest groups that have learned that the initiative is a far more efficient way of achieving their ends than the cumbersome process of supporting candidates for public office and then lobbying them to pass the measures they seek.

Inevitably, when complex policy issues are placed on the ballot through an initiative petition, they are reduced to simple slogans that appeal to many voters who might not understand all the implications. Instead, there is an all-or-nothing choice between two extremes without the debate and compromise inherent in the legislative process.

No doubt some initiatives have merit but cannot be passed legislatively for one reason or other, so the initiative process is not likely to go away. A more robust reform than the proposal now pending would be a rule adopted in some other states that petitioners must be registered voters in the state. That would at least ensure that only Missouri voters — and not paid out-of-state petitioners — are involved in the process.

Personally, if it would pass constitutional muster, I would prefer to see a rule that initiative petition carriers cannot be paid for their work. That would eliminate the financing of initiative campaigns by big-money interests and help ensure that such campaigns are truly the initiative of the people.

Steve Scott lives in Columbia.

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Barbara Schmitz February 28, 2011 | 7:55 p.m.

I want to point out a couple of erroneous assumptions in this letter.

First, for many years Missouri DID require circulators of petitions to be registered voters... and that requirement was ditched a few years ago, replaced by the current system of registering petition circulators.

Second, there is a great deal of debate involved in the ballot process. In fact, the debate and review by voters is extensive, statewide, and goes on for months and months. Debate of citizens' initiatives occurs amongst nearly 5 million citizens and can last for a year or more. This is in stark contrast to legislative debate, which occurs among 197 elected individuals, can occur in a matter of moments in a committee of 10 lawmaker and with limited input from a handful of citizens (if any), and lots of input from moneyed interests represented by contrast lobbyists.

Give me a ballot measure any day as a more fair, public, and informed decision-making process.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 28, 2011 | 8:58 p.m.

My initial reaction to Barbara's comment was "no way!"

But, then I thought about it. One positive (a HUGE one) is it sure would slow down the number of laws/rules passed year. Mischief would be at an all time low. Another positive more politicians. The media would suffer with much less to do. All we'd need is a body of regulatory folks that would make sure we all follow our own laws.

Anyone in the minority might not like it, tho.

This merits serious consideration. And this is not a fatuous or sarcastic comment.

(I felt the need to add the last statement am sarcastic sometimes, as hard as that might be for some of you to believe.)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz March 1, 2011 | 3:00 a.m.

Hmm, "subverting democracy by destroying the system of checks and balances built into the U.S. and state constitutions." Pretty darn hard to subvert something built into Missouri's constitution, which has protected the citizens' right to initiative petition for over 100 years I believe.

Preventing Missouri citizens from hiring out-of-state petitioners serves only to keep those citizens from putting issues on the ballot that the legislators have failed to address. Additionally, my recollection is that the courts have overturned a couple laws outlawing out-of-state and/or paid petition circulators.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 1, 2011 | 6:53 a.m.

What this discussion boils down to is the issue of primacy. Seems to me that having the ability to petition is a good thing and should be retained, but that the legislature and governor (who must sign legislation to make it law) should have primacy where there's a disagreement. Whether we like the actions of our legislators and/or governor or not, they are our elected officials. We have the ability, at elections, to vote them out of office, something we cannot do with an organization like HSUS.

(Report Comment)

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