WHAT OTHERS SAY: Floodgates open for Missouri ballot initiatives in 2012

Thursday, December 29, 2011 | 4:10 p.m. CST; updated 4:21 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 29, 2011

Missouri government watchers will remember 2011 as a dog of a legislative session for many reasons.

Not least among them was the legislature’s brazen willingness to run roughshod over a public vote calling for more humane conditions in the state’s many puppy-breeding businesses.

Lawmakers couldn’t get around to seriously discussing economic development in the regular session, but they wasted no time dismantling the “puppy mill cruelty act,” which a majority of voters had approved in November 2010.

Gov. Jay Nixon stepped in and brokered an 11th-hour compromise. But the willingness of politicians to trample over a public vote remains a disturbing legacy of this year.

The trials of the puppy mill initiative have not diminished Missouri’s ardor for government through initiative petition, however. The secretary of state has approved 32 petitions dealing with 13 issues for circulation. If backers collect enough signatures, they could appear on the statewide ballot in November of 2012.

At their best, initiative petitions represent a way for citizens to circumvent a legislature that refuses to stand up to special interests and fix problems in the state.

Years of legislative inaction prompted the puppy breeding initiative. Citizens now are seeking serious regulation of the payday lending industry because lawmakers have refused to do so.

Same with a petition calling for a higher cigarette tax. Those are especially worthy initiatives.

At its worse, the state’s petition process is misused as a tool by those who seek to use Missouri as a laboratory for unproven and potentially dangerous ideas and theories.

That is certainly the case with St. Louis multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield, who is financing an effort to jettison the state’s income tax and replace it with a higher sales tax on a greater range of goods and services.

Such a proposal would relieve wealthy Missourians, like Sinquefield, from having to pay taxes on their incomes. But it would shift the burden onto middle- and low-income citizens, who would not gain enough in income tax savings to recoup the amount they would have to pay in extra sales taxes.

Plus, even with higher sales taxes, loss of income tax revenues would lead to severe cuts in already strained state services.

It’s simply a terrible idea. Fortunately, polling shows that the more people learn about it, the less they like it.

A broad coalition of education, civic and business groups and unions is trying to head off an expensive statewide vote. Sinquefield would do the state a favor by backing off.

Such a move might not put an end to the notion of scrapping or greatly reducing Missouri’s income tax, though. At least three measures promoting the idea have been filed in the legislature.

But having lawmakers debate an issue and put their votes on record is far preferable than watching them hide behind a wealthy financier.

The statewide election Nov. 6 will be the culmination of what could well be a stormy year in Missouri politics. The legislature needs to get its act together after the debacle of the failed special session this summer.

But harmony is more elusive in election years, and the governor’s office, other elected statewide positions, some Senate seats and all House seats are up for a vote in 2012.

Missouri allows too much money to flow into campaigns, and it’s hard to get beyond the noise and manipulation.

But citizens should give close scrutiny to the issues that make the statewide ballot.

And voters should demand that candidates respect their decisions once they have spoken.

Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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