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Forces join for voter initiatives

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The Missouri State Capitol

May 2007 -- The Missouri State Capitol is seen on the banks of the Missouri River in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Dan Gill)

JEFFERSON CITY • The Humane Society of the United States and the National Taxpayers Union are not two groups you'd expect to fight for the same political cause. One is an animal rights organization, the other a free market advocacy group.

But both have joined forces as part of an unusual coalition — along with groups advocating for issues such as tax reform and term limits — that wants to make it harder for Missouri legislators to override voters.

Their goal is to place a proposed amendment to the state constitution on the ballot next year. It would mandate that lawmakers amass a three-fourths majority in both chambers to alter voter-approved ballot initiatives.

"A narrow legislative majority should not override the vote of millions of Missourians," said state Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, the spokesman for the coalition, which is dubbed "Your Vote Counts."

The mix of groups came together because of the range of issues that have earned support from voters over the years only to be subsequently altered by legislators. For example, voters:

• Imposed strict campaign finance limits in 1994.

• Rejected the creation of a concealed-carry permit for firearms in 1999.

• Passed a renewable energy standard in 2008.

• Approved tougher regulations on dog breeders in 2010.

Each was eventually changed or overturned by the Legislature.

The dog-breeder law, in particular, jump-started the movement. Voters in November had approved a series of stricter measures on dog breeding, but the Legislature later passed a compromise bill that changed some provisions of the measure. Critics of the voter-approved law said changes were needed because most licensed commercial breeders would have gone out of business.

"This effort is not just about puppy mills, but that's the most recent example," Sifton said. "There are a lot of voters who are pretty angry because they feel like they passed tough dog breeding regulations and the Legislature essentially gutted them."

The vast majority of funding for the effort has come so far from the Humane Society of the United States, the main backer of the 2010 puppy mill ballot measure. It has contributed more than $110,000 directly or through in-kind donations to "Your Vote Counts."

The secretary of state's office has approved the ballot language for the proposed constitutional amendment, and a signature drive has begun. The coalition has begun holding events around the state to train volunteers on how to properly gather enough signatures to get the issue on the November 2012 ballot.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the issue that inspired the ballot initiative isn't what's important to his group, a Virginia-based advocacy organization that promotes limited government and has more than 7,000 members in Missouri.

"Regardless of the individual issue that triggered action, the overall principle of protecting citizen-initiated statutes is very important, from a taxpayer's perspective," Sepp said.

The group has not provided money, but Sepp said it has pledged to help recruit volunteers, help organize events and to "explain to conservative taxpayers why it's important to support this initiative."

Other groups that have signed on include Americans for Tax Reform, Stop Child Predators, Americans for Limited Government, U.S. Term Limits and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Some lawmakers, however, argue that ballot initiatives can contain flaws or unintended consequences. Voters may not fully understand all details of an initiative, and public attitudes can change over time.

If the Legislature's ability to amend a ballot initiative is too highly restricted, they contend, it may not be possible to correct problems that arise or adjust to changing times.

House Speaker Pro Tem Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, said that while lawmakers must respect the will of their constituents, "we have to have the flexibility to address any unintended consequences of initiatives."

"With a three-fourths majority, it would be very difficult for us to do that," he said.

Schoeller also pointed out that a ballot initiative can be pushed through by voters in the state's populous urban areas, St. Louis and Kansas City.

"Rural parts of the state would be in danger of losing their voice in the process," he said. "Those folks face different issues than people in urban areas, and we have a responsibility to make sure they're not forgotten."

There are also concerns about who is behind many initiatives. Critics say the process is increasingly being used by special interests and activists with deep pockets, such as retired investment banker Rex Sinquefield of St. Louis. Sinquefield alone is behind 14 petition dries this year aimed at landing initiatives on a ballot, including several alternatives for overhauling the state's tax structure and various versions of a plan to give St. Louis control of its Police Department.

A spokesman for Sinquefield did not respond to requests for comment.

SECURING VOTES

Missouri and Illinois are among 24 states that allow voter initiatives. They are also among only 14 states that allow a Legislature to amend or repeal an initiative any time after its adoption by a simple majority vote. Other states have made overruling an initiative much harder by requiring a time period to elapse before lawmakers can vote on an initiative or by mandating a supermajority.

While the proposed constitutional amendment in Missouri would mandate a three-fourths majority to change or repeal a ballot initiative, a simple majority in both chambers would be able to put proposed changes back on the ballot and let voters decide on those changes.

Sifton said most legislation easily passes with overwhelming majorities, leaving only the most controversial measures in danger of falling short of the three-fourths threshold.

"The three-fourths hurdle requires bipartisanship," he said. "It requires cooperation between different parts of the state — rural, urban, suburban. I think that's important when we're talking about overruling the will of the people."

For Democrats, Sifton said, a ballot initiative for now is really the only way to spur movement on their issues. Democrats have been in the legislative minority for most of the last decade, he said, and they aren't likely to climb back to the majority for some time.

Sifton this spring sponsored a bill that would have mandated a supermajority if lawmakers wanted to tinker with voter-approved laws. The bill never got any traction.

"Because we're so outnumbered, it is very challenging to advance any kind of progressive agenda in Jefferson City," he said. "Most of the progress we've made has been through the initiative process, and those achievements have been threatened or overturned by the Legislature."

Making it much harder to overturn a ballot initiative is a double-edged sword, since it also opens the door for initiatives pushed by conservative interest groups, said P.J. Wilson, director of the clean-energy advocacy group Renew Missouri.

"But right now, all we have is a single-edge sword," Wilson said. "The worst-case scenario is already happening. The Legislature just tosses aside voter-approved laws when they don't like them. So what choice do we have?"

Renew Missouri wrote the renewable energy ballot initiative that voters passed in 2008. Wilson said he supports the "Your Vote Counts" initiative but his group has not yet signed on as a member. That could change as the campaign moves forward, he said.

"I think it's a great idea," Wilson said. "And I'm very glad they are doing what they are doing."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said he has not studied the proposed amendment closely enough to take a formal position. But he said legislative oversight is critical since lawmakers are more likely to bring all sides of a debate to the table.

Ballot initiatives "are going to be written by one side of an issue, and they don't typically worry about what the other side thinks," Dempsey said. "That's completely their right to do that. But even on the most controversial issues, legislators try to strike some sort of compromise."

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