Missourians could vote on 4 ballot items — if the courts don’t nix them | St. Louis Public Radio

Missourians could vote on 4 ballot items — if the courts don’t nix them

Aug 9, 2016

Missourians could weigh in this fall on four ballot initiatives that Secretary of State Jason Kander certified on Tuesday. But the tally of items could potentially constrict, depending on what courts decide in the coming weeks.

Kander announced that four of the proposals had enough signatures to appear the November ballot:

  • A constitutional amendment that raises cigarette taxes by up to $1.27 per pack to fund early childhood education. This is colloquially known as the “Raise Your Hand for Kids" measure.
  • A statutory change that increases tobacco taxes by 23 cents a pack to fund transportation improvements.
  • A constitutional amendment imposing donor contribution limits for some political campaigns.
  • A constitutional amendment barring the Missouri General Assembly from instituting new sales taxes on certain services.

Meanwhile, the use of marijuana for medical treatment will remain illegal in Missouri for the time being.  Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medicinal marijuana use failed to get enough valid signatures to get it on November’s ballot.  The measure would have also levied a 4-cent tax on marijuana purchases that would have been used to fund health care needs for military veterans in Missouri.

A spokesman for the group said they will go to court to fight the invalidating of some signatures and to get the measure on the ballot.

Tobacco tax fight

The dual bids to raise tobacco taxes could become the marquee issue for Missouri voters.

Proponents of the “Raise Your Hands for Kids” initiative gathered in St. Louis on Tuesday, contending that the initiative will provide a vital funding stream for early childhood education.

Read: Rep. Curtis on supporting a proposed tobacco tax

One of the backers of the initiative is the Rev. Starsky Wilson, one of the co-chairmen of the Ferguson Commission. He noted that bolstering early childhood education was a big recommendation within the Ferguson Commission report.

“There is a generation’s difference between people who live in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and those who live in predominantly white neighborhoods in the St. Louis metropolitan region,” Wilson said. “To close that generational gap, we also know and the research is clear, that investment in early childhood education extends the life circumstances and make more positive life outcomes for each and every one of our children.”

But the amendment faces legal and political challenges. Several lawsuits are still pending about whether the measure should even be on the ballot this year. Others have criticized the measure for being largely funded by tobacco company R.J. Reynolds. And the initiative also drew opposition from Republican gubernatorial nominee Eric Greitens and Democratic hopeful Chris Koster.

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Some opponents of that initiative have gotten behind the other tobacco tax initiative, which would gradually boost the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 23 cents. The revenues raised would be used to fund transportation projects. However, the measure would automatically be repealed if any new proposed cigarette tax appears on a local or statewide ballot. 

“We’ve been confident from the beginning that our proposal would be on the ballot and allow voters to make our roads and bridges safer and better, without a gas tax increase or toll roads, which benefits all Missourians,” said Ronald J. Leone, Executive Director of Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association.

A spokeswoman for Kander said if both initiatives pass, it would be up to the courts to decide which one would go into effect.

Contribution limit measure faces legal challenge

Also making the cut in November, at least for now, is a constitutional amendment that would institute contribution limits for state-based campaigns. 

Depending on legal challenges, Missouri voters could vote on as many as four different statewide initiatives on November's ballot.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Businessman and anti-abortion rights advocate Fred Sauer bankrolled the measure, contending that Missouri’s unlimited campaign contribution system is out of control. In the last few weeks of the GOP primary for governor, three candidates received seven-figure contributions in the span of a few days.

"This is a seminal moment in Missouri political history. Missouri voters will now have the opportunity to fight back against the elitist special interests who seek to influence political candidates and parties with their huge campaign contributions," said Sauer, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2012.  "[The initiative] will allow Missouri voters to have the opportunity to fight back against the elitist special interests by embracing common sense limits on campaign contributions that will decrease the power of the elites and bring back control of the candidates and political parties to the people.  After our proposition passes, your vote will count again.”

Sauer’s amendment would only affect candidates running for state offices. It would not cap donations to people running for municipal or county posts. (Click here to read more about whether that could present problems if the initiative passes).

Since Missouri voters approved campaign contribution limits by a huge margin in the 1990s, Sauer’s initiative has a good chance of passing. But there’s no guarantee it will actually get a statewide vote.

That’s because several trade groups filed a lawsuit last week to keep the measure off of the November ballot. Attorney Chuck Hatfield said the amendment was crafted in a way so “that certain corporations can contribute to political action committees and other ones can’t.” He also cited several other problems with the way the initiative was drafted.

Interestingly, Hatfield was the attorney in a major 2007 legal case that ultimately re-imposed campaign contribution limits in Missouri. But he added, “there are lots of good policy ideas out there that you’ve got to follow the right process.”

“And I think the Sauer people are not following the process, by that I mean paying attention to the constitutional restrictions,” Hatfield said. “I don’t think it’s fair to say some corporations can contribute to PACs and others can’t. I know it was a drafting error. I assume that’s what they were saying. But I just don’t think that’s right, and I think that causes more sets of problems. You can draft a good campaign finance initiative, and I hope somebody does soon.”

Todd Jones, an attorney who helped write the contribution initiative, said his group plans to intervene in Hatfield’s lawsuit. He called the argumentations within the suit “frivolous” and promised to “vigorously” fight it in court.

Koster changes gears

Sauer’s amendment received the backing of Koster, marking a policy shift for the attorney general who as a state senator in 2006 and 2008 voted to repeal contribution limits. 

Attorney General Chris Koster changed his stance on whether Missouri should have campaign donation limits. He cited huge donations flowing into Missouri elections that were difficult to trace.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Koster argued for years that an unlimited system would make political money easier to track. But Koster (who has received some five- and six-figure contributions from labor unions this cycle) said the deluge of huge donations from hard-to-trace sources were something of a game changer.

“The inflation that has occurred around these types of political campaigns I think has shocked even the most cynical observers,” Koster said in a phone interview. “No one really could have imagined that we would go from $25,000 contributions to $1 million and $2 million contributions. And there’s no sense really that we’re at the end of the line either. We could be four years from now and seeing $5 million contributions, certainly given the path that we’re on, which is conceivable.”

Koster stressed that he doesn’t think the Sauer amendment is “a perfect vehicle,” alluding to the aforementioned legal issues.  But Koster said he agreed with his successor in the Missouri Senate, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, who called the unlimited system a failed experiment.

“It’s clear that regular people in the state feel increasingly disconnected from their political system,” Koster said. “And it seems to me that this can’t go on or shouldn’t go on at least.

Some GOP-leaning groups criticized Koster after he came out for Sauer’s amendment, questioning why he decided to take this stance three months before the general election campaign. When asked about that criticism, Koster noted that the amendment wouldn’t change the laws for this current election cycle.  

He also said he was waiting for Sauer’s petition to be certified to speak out, adding “it seemed like a logical place to talk about the issue.”

“Frankly, I wish it would have happened earlier. If it had happened earlier I would have talked about it earlier,” Koster said. “And what I am talking about is joining Gov. Nixon’s side of the issue and trying to bring some rationality back to the process after this set of elections is done. Because where we are now is we’ve reached a point where there are essentially oligarchs trading million dollar chips back and forth across the table for reasons, quite honestly, that those of us inside the political system really can’t even understand.”