Senate Democrats seized control of the Missouri Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to block a Republican proposal making it harder to change the state constitution.
The measure that would impose a 60% threshold as the minimum majority for amendments has already passed the House and, if approved in the Senate, would go before voters in 2024. Republicans pushing the measure argue that groups from outside the state have funded campaigns that enact measures their legislative majority has rejected, including Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization.
Democrats argue that the initiative process has worked well since it was enacted in 1908 and no changes are needed.
After nearly four hours of debate, Republicans sat the bill aside for the night.
Even among Republicans who support making it more difficult to pass initiatives, there is no agreement on exactly how to do that.
The measure handled by Sen. Sandy Crawford keeps the 60% majority requirement that passed the House. But before the Democratic filibuster began, Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, offered an amendment that would keep the requirement for a simple majority statewide while adding a requirement that amendments also win in more than half of the state’s eight congressional districts.
“A concurrent majority might be a much better approach and it would mirror somewhat what we have at the federal level,” Koenig said.
Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, led the filibuster for the Democrats. He proposed amendments stripping out “ballot candy” language restating current law that Missouri doesn’t allow non-citizens to vote and making the measure itself subject to the 60% majority it would impose.
He attacked one of the arguments most commonly made by Republicans – measures are going into the constitution that would be a better fit in statutes. Backers of initiatives like Medicaid expansion and marijuana legalization used the more difficult path to the constitution because they don’t trust lawmakers, Beck said.
A statutory change proposed by initiative can be changed by the General Assembly and the governor, but a constitutional change can only be altered by a second statewide vote.
“The people feel that they have no choice,” Beck said. “This body is going to change whatever they do.”
Missourians have three avenues open to them for amending the constitution. Lawmakers can pass a measure, like the one debated in the Senate, that goes directly to the ballot. And every 20 years, voters are offered the opportunity to call a constitutional convention that can do a complete revision or propose amendments.
In November, 67.8% of voters rejected the idea of a constitutional convention. The next time it will be on the ballot is 2042.
The third path is the initiative process. To make the ballot, proponents must gather signatures equal to 8% of the total vote for governor in the most recent election in six of the state’s eight congressional districts.
A statutory change proposed by initiative has a lower threshold to make the ballot, needing signatures equal to 5% of the vote for governor in at least six congressional districts.
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Over the past 30 years, voter-approved initiatives to limit campaign contributions and regulate dog breeders have been altered or repealed by lawmakers. Others, including the 2006 initiative to establish a state minimum wage higher than the federal minimum, have been targets of unsuccessful efforts to amend them.
As they held the floor, Democrats spent some of their time pointing out parts of the constitution that would not have become law if the barrier was 60%. Sen. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, said her tally showed 60 amendments that passed since the last major constitutional revision in 1945 would have failed.
One example, she said, is the Hancock Amendment, proposed by initiative, that controls state and local taxes. Another is the 1976 measure repealing the requirement for segregated schools.
That measure received 57.5% of the vote and failed in 56 counties.
Altering the threshold would mean many things Missourians enjoy would not be happening, she said.
“It takes away the voice of the people,” McCreery said, “and it takes away the ability of the people to have a say in what their state looks like.”