The Missouri Supreme Court has rejected a challenge to the authority of the state auditor to write financial summaries for ballot initiatives.
Opponents of three initiatives - a cap on interest rates for payday loans, an increase in the minimum wage, and an increase in the state tobacco tax - alleged that the section of Missouri's election law requiring the financial summaries violated the state constitution by imposing duties on the auditor that were "not related to the supervising and auditing of the receipt and expenditure of public funds." Circuit judges issued conflicting opinions on the issue.
In an per curiam decision handed down today, the court rejected the constitutionality argument, writing:
There is a relationship between the auditor’s preparation of the fiscal notes and fiscal note summaries and the “supervising … of the receipt and expenditure of public funds.” Initiative proposals may have a clear impact on the expenditure and receipt of public funds, especially when they seek tax increases resulting in a direct impact on state revenues. As such, it is appropriate for the auditor to advise Missouri citizens about the expected fiscal impact of a proposed initiative measure as part of his power “related to … supervising the receipt and expenditure of public funds.”
The High Court judges also upheld the ballot summaries prepared by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D). Her office has not yet certified the three ballot questions addressed in today's ruling.
“We have always worked hard to give voters a fair and accurate description of the issues they're asked to vote on," Carnahan said in a written statement. "The Missouri Supreme Court's decision affirms that.”
Attorney Chuck Hatfield of Jefferson City argued before the High Court, defending the now voided ruling by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem that had stripped the State Auditor of the authority to prepare fiscal notes. Although not satisfied with the ruling, Hatfield says it does add clarity to the ballot initiative process.
“The Auditor himself actually said that he felt he needed some guidance from the courts," Hatfield said. "Now we have that, and I think as the initiative process goes forward in the future, we have some clarity on what roles the state officials should play.”
State Auditor Tom Schweich (R) says the Supreme Court's decision ensures that voters will continue to get a clear picture of the cost of a proposed ballot initiative.
“Had it been ruled unconstitutional, there wouldn’t have been that guidance for the voters," Schweich said. "It really would have just been subject to advertising campaigns by well-funded special interest groups.”
Schweich's office also released the following statement:
"We appreciate the court's thoughtful ruling that recognizes the constitutionality of our role in preparing fiscal notes and fiscal note summaries for initiative petitions. This time-tested duty has given voters valuable information from both sides of an issue, so they can make informed decisions at the polls. We look forward to the next cycle of petitions without the dilatory and frivolous lawsuits from well-financed special interest groups."
Also today, the Supreme Court ruled that St. Louis County is liable for damages to trash haulers that used to collect trash in unincorporated areas.
The ruling settles a nearly four-year-old case over the county's efforts to set up trash districts in an effort to limit the number of trucks going down streets. The haulers had argued that the county violated a state law that required a two-year waiting period before the changes could be made, and therefore owed the old haulers money.
The high court agreed, but ordered the case back to the county in order to determine how much money to old haulers will receive.