Initiative petitions
9:13 pm
Sun January 12, 2014

Crowd Of Initiative Petitions Will Soon Compete To Get On Ballot

As soon as the snow melts, Missourians may find themselves confronting a horde of people stopping them outside stores, on the streets or at their front doors.

The object: to get their signatures on petitions that would put a variety of issues – such as early voting, income taxes and teacher tenure – on the August or November ballot.

So far, almost 40 such initiative petitions, covering at least 24 different topics, have been cleared by Secretary of State Jason Kander for circulation. That’s a huge number for a non-presidential election year. In 2010, the last such non-presidential year, 23 initiatives were approved for circulation.

Credit (via Flickr/hlkljgk)

All the petitioners have until 5 p.m. May 4 to collect and turn in the required tens of thousands of  signatures from registered voters. Many are proposed constitutional amendments, which require signatures from at least 157,788 registered Missouri voters from six of the state’s eight congressional districts.  The exact number needed depends on the districts where they are collected.

Initiative petitions approved by voters  have played major roles in the creation of many Missouri laws.  For example:

  • The state's restriction on how much state and local governments can collect in revenue without a public vote -- known as the Hancock Amendment -- is the product of an initiative petition drive in 1980.
  •   Missouri's  legislative term limits are a product of an initiative petition campaign in 1992.
  • The state constitution's protections for certain types of embryonic stem cell research are the result of an initiative-petition effort in 2006.

But most of this year’s initiatives, like most of their predecessors, won’t go anywhere. In 2010, for example, only three initiative-petition proposals made it onto the ballot. The other ballot issues were placed by the General Assembly.

In fact, many of the sponsors who filed petition proposals this time around have no plans to hit the streets in search of signatures.

Herman Kriegshauser, a St. Louis County resident who frequently files such petitions, is among them. He says his hope is that somebody else “latches on’’ to his petition to curb the state’s income tax credits.

Ditto for Ron Calzone, head of Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, who has no plans to circulate any of his initiative petitions calling for restrictions on the use of eminent domain.  He initially had higher hopes.

Calzone says he’s been unable to raise the minimum amount of money – roughly $1 million or so – to pay for signature gatherers. “It’s still an expensive, risky process,’’ Calzone said.

But some petitions are expected to hit the streets shortly. Those considered most likely to be circulated would:

  • Authorize early voting for any reason;
  • Eliminate teacher tenure and make other changes to the state’s public-school system when it comes to hiring and retaining teachers;
  • Reduce or revamp the state’s income taxes;
  • Restore campaign-donation limits in Missouri, which has had no contribution limits since 2008;
  • Do away with Missouri’s judicial-selection system, and require judges for the state’s appellate and Supreme Court to run as partisan candidates for the posts. The state Supreme Court also would be expanded to nine judges from the current seven.
  • Create a permanent student position among the state’s Board of Curators. which oversees the University of Missouri system.
  • Set up a special 1-cent sales tax statewide to fund transportation projects, including the reconstruction of Interstate 70.
  • Eliminate the state’s constitutional ban against using public money for religious purposes, such as school vouchers that could be used at parochial schools.

There also are competing initiative proposals aimed at the payday loan industry or banks. One initiative would bar restrictions on the interest rate that could be charged on loans; another initiative proposal would impose limits on the interest rate that could be charged.

Koster aids early-voting petition

The early-voting initiative petition, which just got approved for circulation a few weeks ago, has begun to attract attention because of rumors of  its support from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat running for governor in 2016.

Chris Koster
Credit (Official Portrait, Missouri Attorney General's office)

Koster’s former chief of staff, Matt Dameron, filed the initiative and said in an interview that he launched the process himself because of his desire to improve Missouri’s voting process. Missouri is among only 15 states with no form of early voting other than absentee voting – which, in Missouri, requires the voter to meet certain criteria before being allowed to cast an early ballot.

"The goal is to make voting more convenient and accessible for Missourians,'' said Dameron, now a Kansas City lawyer in private practice.

Dameron played down Koster’s involvement, emphasizing that the proposal is not getting any help from either major political party.  But  Koster was less reticent.

In a statement, Koster’s campaign arm said, "Attorney General Koster has provided advice to supporters of the early vote initiative petition in his political capacity. General Koster strongly supports allowing registered voters greater opportunities to participate in the voting process."

A campaign committee has been set up to collect donations to pay for the signature collections, Dameron said. When asked about the chances that a signature drive will get underway, he added, “I would put us in the ‘absolutely very serious’ category.’’

The effort to eliminate teacher tenure is also a serious one, said lawyer Marc Ellinger, who is overseeing that initiative-petition drive.  Wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield -- who opposes tenure and calls for changes in public schools -- recently contributed $750,000 to Teachgreat.org, the political action committee set up to run the campaign.

Rex Sinquefield
Credit (UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Sinquefield also has been a key contributor to Grow Missouri, the committee behind several initiative-petition proposals to reduce the state’s income taxes.

Sinquefield and Koster exemplify the "big names'' who often can make the difference for a successful initiative petition drive.

In 2010, Sinquefield spent about $11 million in his successful effort to put on the ballot an initiative -- now law -- that bars any other Missouri cities from adopting earnings taxes, as St. Louis and Kansas City did decades ago.  Sinquefield sought to duplicate his success with a planned 2012 initiative to phase out the state's income tax and replace it with a higher sales tax. But he opted to delay that push because of perceived public resistance, based in part on internal polls that his campaign conducted.

Over the past year, Sinquefield has been the prime funder of Grow Missouri, a campaign committee that was part of the unsuccessful effort by conservatives seeking to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of a tax cut bill.  He gave more than $1.3 million to the group this summer.

For the 2014 election, Grow Missouri treasurer Aaron Willard has filed several initiatives to revamp the state's income tax structure and, among other things, allow an increase in the state's sales taxes to make up for any lost revenue.  Another Grow Missouri initiative would cap the state's tax credits at a combined total of $200 million a year -- about a third of what the credits have cost the state annually in general revenue.

Sinquefield donated $495,000 in December to Grow Missouri, a signal that it's gearing up to begin a signature-collection drive. "We're going to be collecting in January,'' Willard said.

If legislators appear to be taking up some of the issues covered by the initiatives, "we may take the foot off the pedal,"  Willard  added. "Our intention is that we're going to be engaged in the legislative process."

Meanwhile, Brad Ketcher, a prominent Webster Groves lawyer with ties to top Democrats, is overseeing an initiative to institute a number of ethics standards on politicians, including the restoration of some form of campaign-donation limits.

Ketcher also filed the initiative to place a student on the Board of Curators.

“In the next few weeks, a decision will be made’’ whether to circulate either proposal, Ketcher said.  He put the odds as “fair to good’’ on the ethics proposal, particularly if it appears that General Assembly is cool to ethics changes sought by Gov. Jay Nixon and Secretary of State Kander.

Ketcher emphasized that, in any case, time also is of the essence.  Gathering signatures becomes more expensive, he explained,  when there is less time to collect them. More field workers must be hired in order to get the job done quickly.

Lawsuits can derail initiatives, even if backers win in court

Another threat comes from lawsuits.  So far, several of the initiative proposals are embroiled in court fights as opponents challenge the ballot language or the “fiscal note’’ – the estimated costs to state and local governments if the particular initiative is approved by voters.

On Thursday, for example, both sides squared off in court over the Missouri Roundtable for Life’s initiative petition effort to restore campaign donation limits in the state.  Sinquefield is among those bankrolling the opposition, with Ellinger among the opposition’s lawyers. Their fight centers on a dispute over the accuracy of the "fiscal note'' provided by state Auditor Tom Schweich.

Such court fights can be financially draining and delay signature collection. In fact, some activists contend that the real aim of many lawsuits over initiatives – whether or not they are successful -- is to make it impossible for the petition backers to have enough time to collect all the necessary signatures and meet the submission deadline.

Calzone said that the threat of lawsuits was a key reason he and other petitioners have filed several slightly different versions of the same initiative.  The general aim, he said, is to have at least one uncontested version to circulate while another version may be tied up in court.

Calzone noted that his group has been trying to get an anti-eminent domain proposal on the ballot since 2006.  In in 2010 and 2012, he said, “we were held up in court for months and months.”

Although his side won the legal fights both years, Calzone said, the cost in time and money kept his proposals off the ballot.  He suspects that some of this year’s embattled initiatives will suffer a similar fate.

Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City lawyer with close ties to many Democrats, is representing Missourians For Fair Taxation, which has filed suit against Grow Missouri's initiatives to reduce the income tax and curb tax credits.  Hatfield said the suits are challenging the ballot descriptions, and added that delaying the signature-collection has nothing to do with his group's lawsuits.

Rather, the aim is to provide Missouri voters with accurate descriptions of what the initiatives' real effects would be, if they are passed and become law.

"Any time you're talking about amending the constitution of the state of Missouri," Hatfield said, "there ought to be a rigorous analysis."