Opposing rallies highlight fight on initiative petition bills

February 02, 2024



JEFFERSON CITY — Two rallies Tuesday in the state Capitol drew attention to a divide over the rights of Missourians to amend the Missouri Constitution through the initiative petition process.

The rallies also served to underscore the divide between those opposing and supporting abortion rights. One group is aiming to generate support for the Freedom Caucus, and the other is drumming up support to defeat legislation designed to make approving ballot initiatives more difficult.

“The initiative petition process has been used by a variety of different groups in this state,” said Kennedy Moore, manager of digital and youth organizing for Abortion Action Missouri. “It’s important that we make sure it’s still there.”

Both demonstrations in the rotunda reflected the conflicting stances on efforts to modify the initiative petition process. Changes would require more than a simple majority vote statewide to allow voters to approve amendments to the state’s constitution.

Senate Republican leadership failed to initially assign various pieces of initiative petition legislation to committees for hearings. This prompted Freedom Caucus members to hold up action on routine Senate floor business, such as approving gubernatorial appointments, in the first few weeks of this legislative session.

The back-to-back demonstrations that packed the Capitol in Jefferson City on Tuesday followed an overnight filibuster on the Senate floor. During the filibuster, conservative Republicans talked until Tuesday morning, despite a committee hearing and planned vote to push the initiative petition bills forward.

Ultimately, several of those bills were combined in committee Tuesday and sent forward for consideration by the Senate, advancing the legislation one step forward in less than a week.

Republican senators voiced support for two pieces of legislation Monday, saying that they’re prioritizing Senate Joint Resolutions 61 and 83. Both would increase the threshold to approve changes to the constitution via a ballot measure from a simple majority of voters statewide to a simple statewide majority combined with a majority of voters in 82 of 163 state House districts.

“Initiative petition reform is the number one priority,” said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, during the pro-Freedom Caucus rally Tuesday. “We need to protect our constitution. The only way to do that is through initiative petition reform.”

Moderate Republicans and members of the conservative Freedom Caucus continue to be at odds about prioritizing passing changes to the initiative petition process .

The ensuing clash between Freedom Caucus lawmakers and the more moderate Republican leadership led Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, to strip committee chairmanships last week from Senate Freedom Caucus members. That action angered some Republican voters who turned out for a rally on the second floor of the Capitol to support the Freedom Caucus.

“They speak for our religious freedoms, the right for our children to be born without being aborted, discarded like they don’t count,” said Don Brown, a voter who came to the rally for the Freedom Caucus . “They’re on the people’s side.”

Freedom Caucus Republicans have been trying to push initiative petition bills through for several years. Their concern this year is a combination of what they see as the lack of their leadership’s focus on the proposals, and the effort to place an initiative on the November ballot that would amend the state constitution to restore access to abortion.

The efforts to change the rules on approving initiatives have generated opposition from organizations like the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition and Abortion Action Missouri.

“We are here to oppose attacks on the citizen initiative process, and we will be attending the House Elections Committee hearing today on three of those bills,” said Denise Lieberman, director and general counsel at the Missouri Voter Protection Coalition.

“If we care about the integrity of our elections and we care about instilling confidence in voters, then voters should feel secure in knowing that if they go to the polls and a majority of them vote on something, that their will is going to be enacted,” Lieberman said.

While a House committee held hearings on three initiative reform resolutions Tuesday, Rep. Jonathan Patterson, R-Lees Summit, told reporters this week that House leadership does not plan on advancing its own bills. Instead, he said, the House will wait to see what bill arrives from the Senate.

House leaders were visibly upset when the Senate failed to address initiative reform last session. House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, directly tied the lack of initiative reform to anticipated efforts for a petition to restore abortion rights, which formally began this month.

“If the Senate fails to take action on (initiative petition) reform, I think the Senate should be held accountable for allowing abortion to return to Missouri,” he said last May, at the end of the 2023 session.