JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Republicans have had a rough time with citizen petitions lately.
First, labor unions used one to block the GOP’s prized "right-to-work" law. Then, left-leaning groups used petitions that allowed voters to legalize medical marijuana, raise the minimum wage and crack down on lobbyist gifts, all issues that stalled in the Republican-dominated legislature. If another group gets their wish, they’ll expand Medicaid next.
Now Republican lawmakers are pushing back, especially on citizen changes to the state constitution, which they can’t reverse without voter consent.
Among legislation floated this session are resolutions that would require petitions to get a higher percentage of votes to pass a constitutional amendment.
Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, filed one such resolution. It would ask voters to raise the bar on themselves and require a two-thirds majority to pass future constitutional amendments.
"The percentage to pass right now is 50 percent plus one," Sater said. "I think that is entirely too low. I think if it's such a good idea, it needs to be an overwhelming vote in favor of it."
If a two-thirds threshold had been in place in 2018, neither medical marijuana nor the ethics reform package known as Clean Missouri would have passed.
It’s not clear whether Republicans will put that exact standard to voters for consideration.
But leaders like House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, told the News-Leader it shouldn’t be as easy to change the constitution as it is now.
Haahr said he’d once sponsored a resolution modeled after Florida, which changed its threshold to 60 percent for an amendment, and said he still liked the idea.
"I think our constitution is very sacred," Haahr said. "It should take what I would consider a supermajority, if you want to call it that, to amend it."
Schatz didn’t offer a specific number of his own, but said that "at a minimum, we need to increase the threshold from a simple majority."
Both held up the U.S. Constitution as a good standard: In more than 200 years, it’s been amended 27 times, while Missouri’s constitution has changed more than 100 times in the past century.
Neither man tied his concerns directly to the progressive nature of recent changes.
But Schatz conceded he has concerns about how many issues are bypassing lawmakers and avoiding the debate and vetting required in the legislature.
He said the Clean Missouri amendment passed in 2018 was a perfect example of something that could have used more debate given how it dealt with multiple issues, including changes to redistricting. Schatz’s party is now pushing to ask voters to reverse those changes to redistricting, which could cost Republicans seats in the next decade.
Allied interests like the Missouri Farm Bureau and other agriculture organizations apparently share many of the Republicans’ concerns, testifying in favor of Sater’s plans last month.
But others, from the left-leaning Missouri National Education Association to the Rex Sinquefeld-backed consultancy First Rule, have grave misgivings.
Woody Cozad, a lobbyist for First Rule, warned the Senate committee that Sater’s two-thirds threshold would put Republicans on the wrong side of the populism that elected Donald Trump.
"The net result is to put an end to direct democracy in this state," he said.
Experts in the field also questioned many Republican concerns.
Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said he thinks Republicans pretty clearly are just mad that liberal groups "have enjoyed some success using the initiative process in recent years."
He also predicted that if any proposals are put before the voters, they would fail.
John Matsusaka, an expert on citizen initiatives at the University of Southern California who sees them as a way to channel populism into policy, also ridiculed the idea of trying to make Missouri’s constitution more like the federal constitution.
The way that’s set up has led to the Supreme Court taking charge, he said.
"You have to update your laws," he said. "So you either do it democratically, or you send it to judges."
He said Schatz’s concerns about petitions not getting enough debate could be legitimate, but he suggested an easy solution.
"They could just have their own hearings on anything that gets on the ballot," he said. "I think that would be a public service."
Democrats, for their part, think the whole thing is a crock.
"Missouri Legislators took an oath 'to make the will of the People the supreme law of the land,’" Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said in a statement. "Putting up barriers to the Initiative Petition process is an attempt to block the will of the people, and I stand with the people."
The legislation is Senate Bill 522 and Senate Joint Resolution 31.
Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at email@example.com.