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ANALYSIS: Missouri lawmakers seek to undo voter initiatives

Sunday, February 27, 2011 | 5:40 p.m. CST; updated 8:19 p.m. CST, Sunday, February 27, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri voters elect 197 people to make the state's laws. But sometimes, voters make a law directly themselves. And when that happens, it doesn't sit too well with some of their elected lawmakers.

That clash is being borne out this year in the Missouri Capitol, where some lawmakers are attempting to repeal key parts of high-profile laws enacted by voters in recent statewide elections.

The House is expected to debate legislation this week that would prohibit Missouri's minimum wage from exceeding the federal minimum wage — essentially negating a 2006 voter-approved initiative that allowed Missouri's minimum wage rise above the federal level based on annual inflationary adjustments.

Committees in the House and Senate also have advanced legislation that would repeal parts of an initiative approved last November by statewide voters that toughened laws for dog breeders. If lawmakers act soon, they could revoke parts of the dog law before it even takes effect this November.

Some lawmakers contend the initiatives weren't thought out well enough or weren't fully and appropriately described to voters. They also contend the voter-approved measures could drive up business costs, potentially leading to closures or layoffs.

"We have to make sure our state is competitive," House Speaker Steven Tilley said while explaining his support for capping the state's minimum wage. "When you have a (cost of living adjustment) on there, it could lead to a point where our state minimum wage is higher than the federal minimum wage, which I think puts us at a competitive disadvantage for jobs."

Yet the minimum wage measure — with its annual inflation adjustment — was approved by 76 percent of voters.

The new restrictions on dog breeders passed by a slimmer margin, getting a little less than 52 percent of the statewide vote thanks to a strong showing in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas that offset opposition throughout much of the rest of the state.

Recent history suggests lawmakers have few qualms about overturning voter-approved laws.

In 2009, the Missouri General Assembly undid a school-funding method included in a casino-tax initiative that voters passed in November 2008. Legislators said they need to fix the new law so that all public schools could benefit from the new casino tax revenues.

In 2003, the legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto and enacted legislation allowing people to obtain permits to carry concealed guns. The action reversed the outcome of a 1999 statewide election in which a concealed weapons measure had been defeated by 52 percent of the vote, due largely to opposition in urban areas.

Bucking the trend toward reversing voter-approved initiatives, freshman state Rep. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis, has proposed a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for legislators to tinker with voter-approved measures. His proposal would require a two-thirds majority for the Legislature to repeal a measure in the first two years after it was passed by voters, or a four-sevenths majority in the third and fourth years after voter approval.

Sifton's proposal has not yet received a legislative committee hearing.

But it doesn't appear to have much chance of passing the legislature.

Asked if it should be harder for lawmakers to repeal voter-approved laws, Tilley responded: "No. But I would say let's make it more difficult to put stuff on the ballot."

True to that goal, a House committee heard testimony last week on a proposed constitutional amendment that would require initiative supporters to gather petition signatures from each of the state's congressional districts, instead of the current lesser threshold of two-thirds of the districts. Another proposed constitutional amendment filed in the House would roughly double the number of initiative petition signatures needed from each congressional district.

Political activist Ron Calzone, who has led initiative drives on private property rights and other topics, told lawmakers this past week that expanding signature requirements to cover all congressional districts makes sense — but only if the total number needed remains the same.

If more signatures are required, "I think for most grassroots efforts that I'm familiar with, it would knock them out of the running," Calzone said. "For the big, moneyed interests, it wouldn't even faze them. They'd just spend another two or three hundred thousand dollars."

Calzone compared the right to bring citizen initiatives granted by the Missouri Constitution to that of the right to bear arms in the U.S. Constitution. Both help people protect themselves from the government, he said.

Unlike the state constitution, the U.S. Constitution contains no initiative provision for people to place proposed laws on a nationwide ballot.

Tilley stopped short of calling for a repeal of Missouri's initiative process.

But "I think that's why you have a legislative process — so you can have public hearings, so you can work out the pros and the cons and the unintended consequences of passing the bill," Tilley said. "I think it gets a little unnerving when it's so easy to put stuff on the ballot.


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Comments

Ryan macker February 27, 2011 | 7:18 p.m.

Well then I suppose Speaker Tilly doesn't mind the effort of the California General Assembly to overturn Prop 8. Which it has. And for which Republicans have condemned it because doing so goes against the will of the people.

But from now on, Tilly should be fine with it.

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