In 1994, Missourians used their initiative petition right to impose on lawmakers — by a margin of 74 percent to 26 percent — campaign contribution limits.
And for a little more than a decade the state maintained those limits. They were ultimately undone by Missouri politicians, and the result was a foreseeable flood of mega donations swamping Jefferson City, warping the political process.
Despite the obvious need for contribution limits, and despite it being the overwhelming will of the people of Missouri, lawmakers year after year refused to revisit the issue. Campaign contribution limits, as well as lobbying restrictions and other ethics reforms, are just a preoccupation of the media, lawmakers would tell us, and not something the people of Missouri really wanted.
But in 2016 limits were once again proposed, this time via a petition calling for a constitutional amendment, and the result was equally lopsided — supported by a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent. Last fall, voters tightened some of those screws even further with another petition amending the state constitution.
In other words, Missourians unambiguously supported campaign contribution limits and lobbying reforms, and they needed a tool to impose their will on recalcitrant lawmakers. The initiative petition was that tool.
We bring this up to remind lawmakers of the importance of the initiative petition — something there is a lot of talk about reforming this year. Gov. Mike Parson says reforms are needed; the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry also has identified reforms as a priority. We support efforts to streamline the process and cut costs, but let's go slow — real slow.
Qualifying a proposed statute for the ballot is already a high bar — supporters must gather signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election in two-thirds of the state's eight congressional districts. For proposed constitutional amendments, that threshold is 8 percent.
Hundreds of petitions get launched each year — 371 were filed for the 2018 ballot. Many are withdrawn or rejected because they don't meet the requirements, and ultimately only a handful survive to make it to the polls. Already, though, more than two dozen petitions have been filed since the November 2018 election.
The fact that the secretary of state also has to summarize in 100 words legal documents that run into dozens and dozens of pages also makes lawsuits inevitable. We also have no doubt that some of these petitions are frivolous, and the result can be a time consuming and expensive task. We can surely come up with a more efficient and effective process.
We worry, however, that some reforms could make it harder — unintentionally or otherwise — for what is supposed to be a grassroots tool for Missourians to petition their government for change. We also fear that in reforming the process, lawmakers will work to give themselves some sort of final say, or final check, and perhaps even the ability to repeal the very thing voters want.
We urge lawmakers and elected leaders to tread carefully.
Our right to petition our government for change — to bypass the General Assembly and the signature of the governor — is a basic and fundamental right of Missourians, and it must be guaranteed.