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Effort to limit initiatives on Missouri ballots advances in House, stalls again in Senate

Effort to limit initiatives on Missouri ballots advances in House, stalls again in Senate

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Election Day

Mary Terrell and Carl Terrell, of Olivette, vote at the Logos School in Olivette, on election day, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. Photo by Hillary Levin, hlevin@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • Although its path forward may be blocked in the Senate, a proposal to begin charging fees to file ballot initiatives advanced Wednesday in the Missouri House.

After an election cycle that saw nearly 400 petitions filed to change state law, supporters say the fee might limit the number of frivolous initiatives that must be processed by the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.

The proposed change would add a $350 filing fee for petitions. That fee would be refunded if the petition received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. It also would add a $25 per-page fee for each page of text covering more than 10 pages.

Ashcroft, who supports the change, says some groups file dozens of petitions but then don’t collect signatures on most of them. The legislation received preliminary approval Wednesday.

Opponents said the fee would hurt citizen-led efforts to change the law.

“We’re talking about direct citizen involvement. This is going to penalize the citizens of Missouri,” said Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.

Missouri’s Constitution allows residents to submit petitions seeking to add new laws or constitutional provisions, or change current ones, with a statewide vote required to approve the proposals.

During the most recent election cycles, voters approved initiatives that raised the minimum wage, legalized medical marijuana, nullified a controversial anti-union law backed by Republicans and changed state ethics and redistricting rules.

In 2020, voters could be asked to weigh in on the merger of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Along with the proposed fee, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would alter the signature gathering process and boost the percentage needed to win approval to 60 percent from a majority.

Those ideas have faltered in the Senate.

On Wednesday, Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, again attempted to convince his colleagues to support legislation heightening the threshold for voter approval of constitutional changes and require petitioners to collect signatures from 6 percent of voters in all eight congressional districts rather than 8 percent from six of the congressional districts.

“To me, this is not a conservative or liberal issue,” Sater said. “This is an issue of making sure changing the constitution requires a little bit more consensus, and a consensus would be going to every congressional district.”

During two hours of debate, Democrats proposed two amendments.

In an effort to encourage Missourians to file initiative petitions that change state laws rather than the constitution, Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, proposed an amendment that would block the general assembly from making any statutory alterations for six years after the passage of an initiative petition. After that time, three-fourths of each chamber would have to approve any changes.

“We have been partly responsible for why the citizens feel it’s necessary to put their issue into the constitution because they’re concerned that whatever they do in the statute is going to be undone here,” Holsman said. “That has seen the proliferation of issues that may or may not deserve constitutional threshold … .”

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, proposed an amendment preventing the state from moving the vote on initiative petitions.

Walsh said that after the vote on right to work was moved from the general election to the August election, she received many calls from people all over the state.

Amid widespread disagreement, neither amendment advanced and Sater tabled his bill.

During the House debate, Ellington lashed out at Republicans.

“Attacking the initiative petition process is ridiculous,” he said.

The legislation is House Committee Bill 10.

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