Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Missouri Senate Democrats stall GOP push to change initiative petition process

By Rudi Keller

Missouri Senate Democrats are blocking a vote on setting a higher threshold for passing constitutional amendments, filibustering a bill they see as a pure Republican power grab.

For more than five hours Monday and again for almost six hours on Tuesday, Democrats held the floor to discuss their objections to a proposal to require constitutional amendments on the ballot to pass in five of the state’s eight congressional districts along with achieving a statewide majority.

(Photo- Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, introduces her bill on initiative petitions on Feb. 11, 2024- Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The filibuster ended when the Senate adjourned until next week so members could go to Kansas City for the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade. Republicans are also holding Lincoln Days, their major statewide get-together, this weekend in Kansas City.

Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo said making it harder for citizen-led initiatives to pass is the latest move intended to solidify GOP control of the state. In the past 25 years, he noted, Republicans have gone from having a minority in the General Assembly and no statewide offices to a supermajority of lawmakers and every statewide office.

“It’s really gotten legs in the Republican Party because the idea is to consolidate power,” Rizzo said.

Under the plan brought to the floor by state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican, every vote would count two ways on proposed constitutional amendments. The first way would be statewide, where passage would require a majority of all votes cast. The second way would be within the boundaries of the voter’s congressional district, where it would need a majority and agreement in that majority in four other districts.

The legislation, originally aimed just at initiative petitions, has been expanded to also cover constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers or a constitutional convention. If approved by lawmakers, it would go to a statewide vote where the threshold it imposes on future amendments would not be required.

Just getting the measure to the Senate floor has led to intense intra-party GOP warfare, with a group of six members called the Freedom Caucus demanding the Senate do nothing until it passes. In a social media post Tuesday, the caucus declared that unless the bill got to a vote, “no Senator should attend” the Chiefs’ victory parade.

No member of the Freedom Caucus was present to object when Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin made the motion to adjourn, and there were no votes against the motion.

Republicans for years have griped about the actions of voters to legalize medical and recreational marijuana, expand Medicaid coverage to adults and revise the way legislative districts are drawn. They claimed out-of-state interests paid for the signature and election campaigns that voters showed they opposed when they elected a GOP legislative supermajority.

This year, as backers of abortion rights gain momentum with an initiative to overturn Missouri’s almost total ban on abortions, Republicans have made a ballot measure increasing the threshold their top priority.

Coleman, during debate on Monday, denied that defeating the abortion rights proposal was motivating her legislation.

“I don’t fundamentally want to do this because they’re collecting signatures for abortion,” she said. “Make no mistake, I think that the out-of-state interest groups who are collecting signatures to try to end the protections for the unborn that voters have worked for literally decades to be able to elect representatives and senators who would pass those protections is important.”

Democrats, however, said that the motive for action now is clear.

“This is exactly why we’re here today and that’s exactly why this has become the number one priority of the majority party,” said state Sen. Doug Beck, a Democrat from Affton.

During debate last week on a bill to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving payments to serve Medicaid patients, Republicans voted down an attempt to add exceptions for rape and incest to the state’s abortion ban.

“Republicans doubled down on not showing any compassion to survivors of rape or incest,” said Sen. Tracy McCreery, a Democrat from Olivette. “That was the first thing of policy that we discussed on the Senate floor, just doubled down on their cruelty. And tonight we’re talking about taking away the one person one vote. Those are the two priorities I guess.”

An analysis of voting patterns by The Independent shows that using congressional districts for the concurrent majority requirement means as few as 23% of voters could defeat a measure that has otherwise overwhelming support. That is half the vote in four of the state’s eight congressional districts.

The proposal under debate includes several items Democrats have denounced as ballot candy they say are designed to trick voters into supporting a proposal that would otherwise stand no chance of success.

They include banning non-citizens from voting on constitutional amendments; prohibiting foreign governments, individuals and political parties from funding initiatives; and disallowing any attempt to propose constitutional amendments that would let public officials take gifts from lobbyists or increase the sales tax on food.

For several years, Coleman has sponsored legislation that would exempt food purchases from sales tax. She said her language is prophylactic in nature.

“That is an idea that maybe somebody might put forward and I want to make sure that they don’t,” she said during debate.

Beck, during debate Monday, said everything except changing the threshold for passage is already banned or extremely unlikely.

“You are loading this up with ballot candy because you know it won’t pass on its own,” Beck said.

Coleman agreed that the bill had sweeteners for voters.

“‘There absolutely is ballot candy in the substitute,” she said.

Anna Spoerre of The Independent’s staff contributed to this report.

No comments: