JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments Monday questioning whether the state auditor has the authority to analyze the fiscal impact of ballot initiatives.
The proceedings brought up the possibility that voters may not be able to approve certain initiatives in November. At risk are three proposals that ask voters if they want to raise the state's minimum wage, increase a tax on cigarettes and limit interest rates charged for payday loans.
Attorney Chuck Hatfield said the seven judges should look at the plain language of the Constitution, meaning the auditor should not have the authority to write fiscal notes on ballot initiatives. Hatfield is representing challengers to the tobacco tax and payday loan initiatives.
Missouri's Constitution states that the legislature shall not give the auditor any task "which is not related to the supervising and auditing of the receipt and expenditure of public funds." It also states, however, that the auditor will conduct any fiscal review or investigation as required by law.
Ronald Holliger, general counsel for the state attorney general, said the fiscal estimates were a duty of the auditor and constituted legitimate investigations of how the state spends or receives public money.
Earlier this year, judges in the Cole County Circuit Court issued competing rulings about whether or not the auditor had this authority, a provision that was put in place by a 1997 law. While Circuit Judge Daniel Green issued a ruling upholding the law, another circuit judge, Jon Beetem, said the law was unconstitutional since the auditor is supposed to analyze past savings and costs, not future ones.
During Monday's arguments, the judges asked both sides what course of action they should take if they ruled that the auditor does not have the authority to produce financial analysis.
Hatfield said the state Supreme Court should prohibit the auditor from writing the fiscal summaries and send the cases back to the Cole County Circuit Court. At the circuit court level, more hearings could be held and judges could then determine if the initiatives should be on the placed on the general election ballot.
Holliger said the court should allow the initiatives to be placed on the ballot, but without the financial notes. Otherwise, he said, "the initiative process has been destroyed for this year."
The challenges to the ballot initiatives are also based on opponents' arguments that summary statements issued by the Missouri secretary of state's office, as well as the auditor's fiscal notes, are insufficient and misleading.
So far, trial court judges have upheld the summary statements for both the cigarette tax and minimum wage proposals. Green ruled against the payday loan initiative, nullifying the summaries from the auditor and secretary of state.
The secretary of state's office is currently reviewing the signatures submitted with the initiatives to see if they meet the amount necessary to be placed on the ballot.
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