JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans on Wednesday pushed to make it harder to file initiative petitions after voters last year raised the minimum wage, changed the redistricting process and shot down a GOP-backed law forbidding contracts requiring workers to pay union dues.
Bills before the House elections committee included an effort to establish higher thresholds to pass citizen-referred constitutional amendments and one that would introduce a $500 refundable fee for filing referendums and initiative petitions.
According to a legislative analysis, the Secretary of State’s Office estimated that requiring a fee could lead to a 75 percent reduction in initiative petitions.
House Democrats immediately decried the measures.
“Sometimes direct democracy is the only way to achieve progress when an unresponsive legislature refuses to act on important issues,” House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade said in a statement. “An attack on the initiative process is an attack on democracy itself, and House Democrats will not allow the voices of Missouri voters to be silenced.”
Voters in August shot down a law banning mandatory union fees in Missouri. And in November, voters approved ballot proposals to gradually hike the state’s minimum wage, revamp redistricting and make lawmakers’ records public.
Since then, the Republican-led Legislature has advanced bills to close some of their own records. House lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill that would exempt private schools from the minimum wage requirement, and the House elections committee considered multiple proposals to revamp the initiative petition process itself.
Republican Gov. Mike Parson has also said it could be time to raise the bar for initiatives to appear on the Missouri ballot.
Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft testified to the elections committee Wednesday and later told reporters that he’s not trying to dissuade advocates from taking issues to the ballot. But he said it’s too easy now to amend the state Constitution, and he argued that there are benefits to the public discourse required in the legislative process.
“It’s not an attack on our way of life or our government,” Ashcroft said. “We are a republic, and I do think that the normal process should be to go through our Legislature.”
Republican-backed bills filed this year include a measure that would require a two-thirds majority to pass citizen-proposed Constitutional amendments but would only call for a majority to approve amendments that lawmakers refer to a public vote.
Other bills would impose fees for filing petitions.
One proposal discussed Wednesday would charge 40 cents for every signature gathered by groups that pay workers to gather signatures. Legislative researchers estimate fees could be up to $64,000 for constitutional initiative petitions and up to $40,000 for changes to state law.
The bill also would require a $500 fee for filing initiative and referendum petitions, which would be refunded if the proposal is later certified to go on the ballot.
Ashcroft said the goal is to discourage people from filing multiple versions of the same ballot proposal, a common strategy among advocacy groups to keep options open while getting the time-consuming process started. Ashcroft said it costs local governments time and money to submit cost estimates of policy proposals on their municipalities, even if petitioners have no intention of gathering signatures.
But Missouri Municipal League Deputy Director Richard Sheets said local elected officials receive so many requests for cost estimates that they’ve become “numb” and often don’t even respond.
“We’re not getting appropriate responses now, that’s the downside,” Sheets said. “It’s not the cost, but we’re not getting the correct information that we need.”