Battle brewing again in Senate over initiative changes

April 09, 2024



JEFFERSON CITY — Senate Democrats on Wednesday renewed threats to filibuster efforts to make initiative petitions harder to pass after the House pushed ahead with language termed as ballot candy.

Twenty-one hours of Democrat-led filibuster lasting well into the night in February might not be enough to do away with the ballot candy after a House committee on Tuesday restored them in an 11-5 vote on an amendment, paving the way for a floor debate in the lower chamber and getting one step closer to a repeat of that night.

Making the point stronger, the House on Wednesday approved its own resolution that also includes the language derided by Democrats. Any changes to the initiative process passed by the legislature would have to be approved by voters later this year.

The ballot candy refers to two controversial provisions that were stripped from the bill sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, prior to its passage in the Senate.

The provisions state that anyone who isn’t a Missouri resident and a U.S. citizen is barred from voting on constitutional amendments and that constitutional amendments funded or sponsored by governments of foreign countries or foreign political parties are unlawful.

Both of those prohibitions already exist under federal law.

The thinking is that voters will be distracted by the reasonable sounding language and not read further into the dramatic changes the amendment would make.

Now that the provisions are back in place, Coleman’s bill resembles the original version debated on the Senate floor, a move that didn’t surprise Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.

“Republicans are desperate,” Arthur said. “The ballot candy serves only to deceive voters and they know that this is an unpopular issue.”

She added, “Missouri Senate Democrats can’t support anything or allow any kind of undemocratic legislation like this to pass … We will definitely fight that language.”

Coleman told the Missourian she was “pleased” with the House changes to her bill.

“It’s closer to what I filed, and everybody wants the language that they filed,” she said.

Last month, Coleman drew the ire of Senate Democrats after floating the idea of using the previous question — a procedural rule that shuts down debate and forces a vote — as a mechanism to advance her bill in the event Democrats filibuster again.

Arthur said invoking the previous question would be “catastrophic” for the Senate.

“I hope that cooler heads can prevail and that we can avoid going that nuclear option,” she said.

But Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, isn’t afraid to invoke the nuclear option.

“If Democrats are saying that they are going to filibuster this bill then we as Republicans have to look at what alternatives we have to break that filibuster,” Hoskins said. “Obviously, one of those options is a move for the previous question. It’s in our rule book for a reason just like the filibuster is in our rule book for a reason.”

Hoskins added that the previous question should be used as a last resort and that it should not be the main tool for passing legislation.

Arthur is joined by Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, who last month said restoring the ballot candy would “warrant taking a good hard look at another filibuster.”

On the House floor, Republicans said their resolution would make initiatives reliant on more voters from rural parts of Missouri, while still requiring them to win a majority of overall votes across the state.

Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, argued that the current initiative process allows urban counties to make constitutional changes without input from rural communities.

“We don’t just want 50% of the people to change our constitution, but also a broader representation of the overall population of the state in all areas,” Lewis said.

Democrats criticized the resolution for being anti-democratic and taking the power to legislate out of the voters’ hands. Several representatives made mention of the pending ballot initiative aiming to relegalize abortion in Missouri. They see the resolution as an attempt to keep this initiative from winning.

The inclusion of ballot candy language led Rep. Michael Burton, D-Lakeshire, to call the resolution the “worst version” of the attempts so far to alter the initiative process.

“(Republicans) know that the only way they’re going to get this passed is if they put that ballot candy on the front of it,” Burton said. “I hope that the folks of Missouri are paying attention and that they don’t actually vote for something that’s going to take power away from themselves.”

Another provision in the House resolution would require petition gatherers to collect signatures from 8% of voters in each of the eight congressional districts. Currently, petitions only need this 8% of signatures from voters in just five of the eight congressional districts.

When the vote was called for the resolution, one Republican joined 48 Democrats in opposing it.

Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, was that lone vote, but when asked about his decision, declined to elaborate to the Missourian.