Petition Anniversary

Today is the 105th anniversary of the day the Missouri House approved a Senate resolution giving Missouri voters a chance to decide (again) if they wanted the right of initiative and referendum.  Voters in 1908 agreed that they did, after badly defeating a similar proposal in 1904.

If it were not for that decision by the legislature to ask Missourians if they wanted reconsider their 1904 vote against direct democracy, some people today would need to find different hobbies.

In light of what is going on with our petition process today, the words of  Dr. William Preston Hill, a St .Louis activist who had lobbied the legislature on the issue, seem appropriate to recall:

“This system does not aim to abolish the representative form of government we now have, nor to substitute another in its place.  It leaves our representative system just as it is, but guards it from abuse and from becoming misrepresentative. It will perform the same function as a safety valve on an engine; silent and unnoticed when not needed, but most useful in time of danger.”

If Dr. Hill could come back (he died in 1931), and see what is happening with the petition process today, what do you suppose he would say about the rise of well-funded special interest organizations and individuals  who are dominating the scene and are submitting dozens of different versions of petitions on their pet issues.

It was not easy to get the right of initiative and referendum in Missouri, as we recount in today’s (March 15) Across Our Wide Missouri program.  In fact Missouri became the first state to REJECT those rights when people voted down the proposal in 1904.

The first eight citizen-instigated issues to go on the ballot in 1910, 1912, and 1914 failed. But a proposal for a constitutional convention passed in 1920.  Eleven of the next fourteen proposals were voted down.

Only 38% of the citizen proposals on the ballot 1910-2000 passed (26 out of 68).

In the past five election years, seven of ten citizen petition proposals have been aprpoved by voters, almost double the percentage of the first eighty years of petition issues.

But trends in recent years raise questions about Dr. Hill’s assurances in 1908.  In 2010, about 100 petitions were filed with the Secretary of State, many of them variations of one another.  Only 23 were approved for public circulation.  Of that 23, only three made it to the ballot and one of them had to go through the courts to win a position.  All three passed–prohibiting sales taxes on the sale or transfer of homes or other forms of real estate, one prohibiting citizens from all but two cities from ever being able to vote on an earnings tax and requiring votes from time to time in Kansas City and St. Louis on their earnings taxes, and the dog beeeders bill that the legislture rewrote last year.

This year, things are just crazy.

At last count the Secretary of State had received 143 proposed petitions.  143!   Of that total, just three groups have submitted SIXTY-ONE:

  • 22 petitions coming from one source are about income, earnings, and sales taxes.
  • 27 petitions from another source are about local tobacco taxes.
  • 12 petitions  from one group are about statewide tobacco taxes.

Here is an entertaining additional piece of information.  Twenty-seven additional tobacco tax-related petitions have been withdrawn.

That means 66 –count ‘em– 66 tobacco tax petitions have been filed with the Secretary of State, of which 39 are still alive in some form or another.

The staff of the Secretary of State’s elections office has to review the wording of every petition.  Other state offices, including the state auditor’s office, get involved in the reviews, in estimating the costs or financial benefits to the state if the proposition is approved, and writing a ballot title.  And that doesn’t count the time that is spent when one of these groups or individuals disagrees with the ballot title or the fiscal note and goes to court.

And it’s not over yet.  More can be submitted.

It’s no wonder some legislators are voicing concerns that the process is being abused by the few well-heeled individuals or groups.  The phrase “gaming the system” has been used by those who perceive an alarming trend of abuse developing among monied interest groups to submit dozens of versions of the same petition instead of deciding on what they stand for and putting it forth.  But, it appears to some who are alarmed by this trend, if you have an unlimited amount of money, what difference does it make if you cause a large number of state employees to waste a lot of their taxpayer-financed time?   Those who are concerned about this trend might be excused if they think Dr. Hall’s statement from 1908 hasn’t been turned on its head.

Several bills dealing with initiative and referendum have been introduced in this year’s session.  Only one has been sent out of committee for debate.  HJR 47 requires at least 5.25% of the legal voters in every congressional district to sign petitios before the issue can go on the ballot.  The proposed constitutional change is needed because the present lw requires eight percent of voters in each of two-thirds of the congressional districts to sign.  But Missouri is dropping from nine to eight districts, so the two-thirds requirement is no longer valid.  Since more districts have to be involved, the percentage of signatures is being reduced.

SB817 cuts the time the Secretary of State has to approve or reject a form of a petition from 30 days to only 15.  Detractors question the feasibility of that requirement as long as petitions are filed by the gross with the Secretary of State.  It also makes osme other chances in petition law.  The bill is still in a senate committee.

House Joint Resolution 40 establishes a special Fair Ballot Commission to determine if the proposed ballot langauge submitted by initiative and referendum is correct and proper.

And Senate Bill 1869, introduced jsut a few days ago, is waiting for a vote from a senate committee.

None of these proposals seems to address the “gaming” of the petition process.

That doesn’t mean nothing will happen.  As we enter the second half of the legislative session, lawmakers with bills that are stuck in committee or are so far down the debate schedule to make passage minimal will be looking for proposals they can amend with their ideas.

Dr.Hill in 1907 saw initiative and referendum guarding the representative form of government “from abuse.”

A lot of things can happen in the two months before the legislature adjourns.  We’ll be watching to see if somebody has a passable answer to the problems of 143 proposed pettions.

And counting.

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