When we last checked on the Missouri Constitution before the November election, it was roughly six to eight times bigger than the federal one – especially after three amendments were added to it in August.
Flash forward to today and the Show Me State’s constitution is even bigger. Missourians added two amendments in November -- one limiting the governor’s budgetary powers and the other making it easier to prosecute people for sex crimes.
Amid this year’s flurry of amendments, some observers, including St. Louis University Law School Dean Michael Wolff, questioned whether it’s too easy to amend the constitution. At least two Republican state lawmakers appear ready to make it more difficult.
State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, prefiled a resolution increasing the threshold to pass a constitutional amendment from a simple majority to 60 percent. (Haahr also introduced a measure increasing the threshold for statutory changes through the ballot as well.)
State Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to increase the number of signatures groups need to place an amendment on the ballot through an initiative petition. He would require petitions to have 15 percent of the legal voters in two-thirds of the state's congressional districts. Currently, groups need to gather signatures of at least 8 percent of legal voters in the districts.
In interviews, both Haahr and Fitzpatrick said the current process makes the constitution too large and unwieldy.
“None of this is aimed at any particular constitutional amendment or any particular philosophical issue,” Haahr said. “It’s essentially just a defense of the sacredness of the constitution and wanting us to make sure that any changes represent the overwhelming will of the Missouri voters. It’s not something that just changes from year to year."
Fitzpatrick said constitutional amendments that get on the ballot through an initiative petition aren't well vetted. While he emphasized that the legislative process isn’t perfect, constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the General Assembly go through committees and are debated on the floors of each legislative chamber. (Worth noting: The Supreme Court is currently reviewing a legislative-propelled amendment on gun rights.)
“We’re one of only 18 states that even allow initiated constitutional amendments,” Fitzpatrick said. “So more than half the states don’t even allow the constitution to be amended via this method. I’m not taking that ability away. I’m just making it more difficult. I don’t think (amending the constituion) is something that should be taken lightly. It’s not something that can be corrected quickly if there is a problem."
Haahr, an attorney, said he’s heard complaint from attorneys both locally and statewide that the constitution is too big.
“It’s not so much that it’s super specific. It’s more the size of it is unwieldy," Haahr said. "The changes would have been better put into statutory code than into constitutional law. If you’ve got a document that is your supreme document and it’s supposed to be over everything, why are we looking to change it almost on a yearly basis and with only 50 percent plus one of the voters approving that change?”
One person who’s not a fan of the two amendments is Sean Soendker Nicholson, the executive director of the progressive advocacy group Progress Missouri.
Nicholson – whose organization has worked on ballot initiatives before – is sympathetic to the idea that the constitution gets amended too often. But he also sees the value in keeping the option open, especially to pass initiatives that wouldn’t get through the heavily Republican Missouri General Assembly.
“I certainly believe that we should be really judicious in what we put into the constitution,” Nicholson said. “It is hard to change and we should be serious about what we’re doing in all laws, especially the constitution. So I’m fully on board with that. I think it’s really ironic that no hurdles have been proposed by Haahr or Fitzpatrick to raise the bar for the legislature sending things to the ballot.”
Indeed, eight of the nine amendments that Missourians voted on this year were placed on the ballot by the legislature. Nicholson described some of those measures as “turnout measures and things that seem far more political than serious be sent to the ballot to change the constitution.”
When asked if the legislature was largely responsible for the glut of recent constitutional changes, Haahr replied: “I don’t want to say it’s the legislature’s fault necessarily for wanting to amend the constitution any more than it’s the voters’ fault for wanting to amend the constitution.”
“When you have an issue that you believe is fundamental and important, you want to enshrine in it the most protective document possible,” Haahr said. “The issues may be issues that should go into the constitution. But if you’re getting 50 percent plus one votes, you could have in the very next election enough to override that last constitutional amendment. That is not really what our constitution is supposed to be set up as.”
Fitzpatrick said the legislature placed some amendments on the ballot for practical reasons. For instance, any changes to road funding or the governor’s budget power couldn’t be done through statute. That’s in contrast, he said, to an unsuccessful amendment to curb teacher tenure, which was placed on the ballot through an initiative petition.
“There was no legitimate purpose for that to be in the constitution,” said Fitzpatrick, referring to the teacher tenure amendment known as Amendment 3. “Unless I’m missing something, everything that was in Amendment 3 could have been via statute. Whereas, the other constitutional amendments – or at least the ones I mentioned – they wouldn’t have worked in statute. You can’t do it that way.”
A bit of irony
It’s very early in the legislative process, and it’s certainly possible that Haahr and Fitzpatrick’s measures won’t go anywhere. But it isn’t lost on Haahr that if his measure raising the threshold to pass an amendment makes it to the ballot, it would need only a simple majority to go into effect.
“If this [resolution] passes the House and if it passes the Senate and goes to the voters, the campaign to pass this will require 50 percent plus one," Haahr said. "Voters get the opportunity to see the ease or unease of amending the current constitution and whether or not to raise that bar.”
Nicholson also saw the irony in such an arrangement -- but in a different way.
“It’s really hard to amend the constitution even under current rules. It’s time consuming, it’s expensive and you have to mount a campaign,” Nicholson said. “So there’s a certain irony in a 50.1 percent to create this and then it would require a big campaign and 60 percent down the line if we ever wanted to make changes.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.