voter initiatives
6:15 am
Wed March 23, 2011

Legislators may get last word on voter initiatives

Missouri is one of 24 states where citizens who gather enough signatures can put a question on the ballot.

They’re called voter initiatives.

While voters have the ability to enact laws in Missouri, those laws can be changed or even overturned by legislators.

This year, two voter-approved laws, one on puppy mills, the other on the minimum wage, have been targeted at the state capitol.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports.

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Proposition B, or the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act, squeaked by in November with just under 52 percent voter approval.

The celebration among supporters was short-lived.

As soon as this year’s legislative session began several bills were filed by lawmakers to weaken or repeal with the new law.

On a recent morning some 50 supporters of Prop B stood under the state capitol rotunda holding signs with questions like “where is our democracy?”

“We’ve been trying to get the legislature for years and years and years to listen to us and it always fell on deaf ears so we went to the petition process,” Connie Davie said.

Davie, who lives in Creve Coeur, gathered 1,000 signatures to get Prop B on the ballot.

“When that passed I was elated. I thought ‘oh, boy, we’ve finally done it,’ and now we’re back to fighting again,” she said.

Senator Mike Parson’s office is on the third floor of the capitol, far from the rally opposing his bill (SB 113).

The Republican from Bolivar wants to lift limits on the number of breeding dogs per facility and remove the criminal penalty provision Prop B put in place.

His measure passed the Senate and is making its way through the House.

“It was probably one of the hardest pieces of legislation I ever worked on simply because people voted for this, but then the question becomes do you leave it as it is even if you know something’s wrong with it?” Parson asked.

The first-term senator contends he’s working to fix a law just like any other piece of legislation.

Political scientist David Robertson says lawmakers have the power to change or overturn laws, even those passed by voters.

“Legislatures make laws and they can do this if they want to,” Robertson said. “Majorities rule.”

The University of Missouri-St. Louis professor says propositions in the state have been reversed before.

A good example is the concealed weapons legislation lawmakers approved in 2003 just four years after voters said no to conceal and carry.

Yet the legislature has moved much faster on the puppy mill legislation, even though the law doesn’t actually go into effect until November.

“What is so striking about this and I think has upset a number of voters who voted for it and people who didn’t have such strong feelings about it, is that the legislature would reverse it so quickly,” Robertson said.

This spring lawmakers are also considering changes to Missouri's minimum wage law, a voter-approved proposition (also called Prop B) passed back in 2006 with 76 percent voter approval.

Lara Granich is the director of the Missouri Jobs with Justice Coalition.

“Every corner of the state voted to support this initiative,” she said. “In fact, this minimum wage initiative in 2006 passed by 16 points or more in every county of the state.”

Despite that broad-based support, legislation (HB 61) to cap the state’s minimum wage at the federal level and do away the inflation adjustment voters approved has already passed in the House.

Republican House Speaker Steven Tilley supports that legislation.

In fact, Tilley says he’d like to see it become tougher to get all voter initiatives on the ballot.

“Very rarely if ever do you file the bill in the General Assembly and never amend it or never change anything because as you work through the process you realize, ‘hey, there are some unintended consequences,’” Tilley said. “The initiative petition process doesn’t have that and then people want to say, ‘you can’t touch that because voters approved it.’ Well, if it’s wrong and there are unintended consequences we have an obligation to fix it.”

Two proposals (HJR 16 and SJR 13) introduced this session would require petition signatures in all congressional districts not just two-thirds as is required currently.

Back in the rotunda, not surprisingly Prop B supporter Connie Davie says making the voter initiative process tougher is just undemocratic.

“Voters speak, the Legislature should listen,” Davie said.

This session, at least when it comes to puppy mills and the minimum wage, it appears legislators may get the last word.

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Looking forward, the Missouri Secretary of State’s office has approved more than 30 initiative petitions for circulation ahead of the 2012 election.