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Government, Politics & Issues

Initiative petitions travel long, winding road to ballot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2011 - Mary Still and Chuck Hatfield worked together for more than a decade as top policy and political aides to fellow Democrat Jay Nixon, now Missouri's governor.

But Still, now a state legislator, and Hatfield, now a prominent lawyer, are on opposite sides in what potentially could be one of Missouri's hottest initiative-petition battles over the coming months.

Still, D-Columbia, is among the leaders of an initiative petition effort to rein in Missouri's payday loan industry by persuading voters in 2012 to restrict the allowed interest rate to 36 percent. Payday loan interest rates now are often more than 400 percent.

Hatfield, who remains a well-known Democrat, is part of the bipartisan legal team on behalf of various lenders who oppose the initiative. They have gone to court challenging the ballot wording for the initiative. His co-counsel includes Republican Todd Graves, the former U.S. attorney for western Missouri.

Both sides -- pro and con -- also are in court battling over the official estimated financial impact should the initiative's restrictions on interest get approved by voters.

In any case, Still says that her side may begin collecting signatures shortly -- even while the court fights continue -- because time is running out.

That's true for all 45 proposed ballot initiatives for the 2012 election that the secretary of state's office has approved so far for circulation.

Advocates for any of the proposals must collect tens of thousands of signatures from registered Missouri voters and turn them in by May 6 to have any hope of getting the initiatives on the November ballot.

The success rate isn't great. In 2010, 47 initiative-petition proposals were approved for circulation. Only three ended up qualifying for the ballot.

But all three were approved in November 2010 by Missouri voters, along with two issue proposals placed on the ballot by the General Assembly.

The upshot: If backers can go through the time and expense to collect enough valid signatures to get their proposal on the ballot, they've got a good shot at victory at the polls.

Still contends that the opposition's legal fight reflects that fact. Payday loan firms opposed to restrictions, she said, "know if it gets on the ballot, it's over."

Professor George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University, says that despite Missouri's reputation as an initiative-friendly state, "the process of getting on the ballot thins the herd pretty severely."

The number of initiatives approved so far for circulation also is misleading, because many groups file multiple versions of the same proposal and then decide later which one will be actually circulated for signatures.

So far for 2012, the 45 initiative petitions approved for circulation involve only 18 different topics. As a result, there likely will be no more than 18 signature-gathering efforts.

And the sponsors of many of those initiative proposals may not follow through with signature-gathering operations. The Missouri Democratic Party, for example, announced with great fanfare in March that it had filed proposals to:

  • reduce the size of the Missouri House;
  • restore campaign-finance limits;
  • allow for no-fault early voting.

But a party spokeswoman acknowledged that no decision has been made on whether the party will actually launch efforts to collect the signatures to get the proposals on the 2012 ballot.
The prime objective of the Missouri Democratic Party in 2012, said spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki, is to re-elect Gov. Jay Nixon and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

Advancing the initiative petition drives, she said, may be up to other supportive groups.

In Initiative Petition Drives, Money Counts

Connor said that he's most concerned that Missouri's initiative-petition process favors those with the money to pay for the necessary signature-gathering and voter persuasion -- i.e. TV and radio ads.

Connor cited wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield, who bankrolled a successful initiative last year against local earnings taxes and has two issues pending for 2012: replacing the state income tax with a sales tax; and returning control of the St. Louis police department to St. Louis.

Sinquefield's aligned political group, Let Voters Decide, already is running TV and radio ads in southwest Missouri in an attempt to persuade voters to do away with the income tax and replace it with a higher state sales tax. The targeted ads coincide with the launching of the group's signature-collection campaign.

"It's been a long time since these petition drives were actually citizen-driven,'' Connor said.

Because their proposal to eliminate the income tax is a constitutional amendment, Sinquefield and Let Voters Decide will need signatures from roughly 147,000 to almost 160,000 registered voters, in total, from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts based on a formula tied to each district's 2008 turnout for governor. The number of signatures depends on which six districts are selected.

A ballot measure seeking a change in state law -- known as a "proposition" -- requires significantly fewer signatures, roughly just over 90,000, in total. Again, those signatures must be collected under a formula involving at least six of the state's nine congressional districts.

In recent years, the state General Assembly has rejected proposals by some legislators to impose more restrictions or costs on initiative-petition drives.

Sinquefield also is behind several similar initiative-petition proposals that would return control of the St. Louis police department to St. Louis, ending state supervision that goes back to the Civil War.

The St. Louis Police Officers Association, which has 1,200 members, opposes the proposals and has filed suit in an attempt to keep any of them off the ballot. An association spokesman said the chief concern is how pensions, seniority and other benefits would be threated under the Sinquefield proposals. The initiatives state that pensions would not be affected for current or retired officers.

Initiatives Spawn Unusual Alliances

In 2010, animal-rights activists opted for the change-state-law route with their initiative-petition effort, known as Proposition B, that sought more regulations on Missouri's dog breeders.

The proposition narrowly passed statewide that November only to see legislators -- prompted by rural opponents -- make significant changes during the last legislative session.

As a result, a coalition called "Your Vote Counts'' has launched an initiative petition drive to make it much harder for the General Assembly to change laws put in place by initiative petitions.

The proposed constitutional amendment would require that any subsequent changes in a law approved by initiative petition must be approved by a super-majority of three-quarters of the members in the state House and Senate. The only exception would be if the original initiative had a provision allowing for subsequent legislative changes.

State Rep. Scott Sifton, D-Affton and a spokesman for Your Vote Counts, said the coalition has been collecting signatures since July. But what has caught many activists' attention is the diverse alliance of national groups who have signed on with the coalition.

Those endorsing the ballot measure restricting legislative changes include:

  • The Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which were active on behalf of the 2010 Proposition B;
  • Three conservative anti-tax groups: Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Limited Government.
  • U.S. Term Limits, the national group that played a major role in Missouri's 1992 initiative petition effort that put in place Missouri's legislative term limits -- and has been strongly opposed since then to efforts to change or repeal the limits.

Some conservatives see the super-majority requirement as a way to protect their initiatives as well, especially those dealing with touchy issues like term limits or tax changes.
But some progressives who had backed the Your Vote Counts effort now privately say that they're less inclined to go public because they don't want to be publicly aligned with so many conservative groups.

Sifton acknowledges that the Your Votes Counts effort was sparked by the General Assembly's success in changing initiative-petition-generated laws, such as Proposition B and the initial concealed-carry initiative (also known as Proposition B in 1999).

But he emphasized that many activists believe it's important to assemble "some ideological diversity'' to attract more voter signatures and support.

The aim has been to avoid getting the super-majority initiative cast "as a rehash of the Proposition B vote,'' he said. Such a perception could lead to another rural-urban split in the final vote.

Payday Fight: Money Talks

In the payday loan fight, lawyer Hatfield was the only opponent of the initiative who was willing to go on the record about complaints about the proposal to restrict loan interest to 36 percent.

The Beacon's calls to payday loan firms, and to the umbrella coalition called Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity, were not returned.

Hatfield said the initiative's restrictions would also affect a variety of lenders, including credit unions, which charge higher interest for short-term loans. "It's going to put a lot of people out of business,'' he said.

Another factor playing into the battle: the nation's payday-loan firms have been among Missouri's most generous, and bipartisan, donors.

Progress Missouri, a progressive advocacy organization supporting the ballot initiative, has assembled figures from the Missouri Ethics Commission's records.

Since 2002, those records show that the payday loan giant QC Holdings has doled out more than $363,000 as the industry's top donor in the state.

QC dwarfs all over rivals; the No. 2 top donor among payday lenders is Advance America, which made contributions of at least $101,000 during that same period.

The Top 10 recipients snce 2002, according to the commission's records, are:

  • House Republican Campaign Committee - $139,900
  • Missouri Senate Campaign Committee - $56,300
  • Mo Democratic State Committee - $43,000
  • Mo Republican Party - $37,590
  • Friends of (Steve) Tilley, a Republican - $35,150
  • Mo House Democratic Campaign Committee - $24,500
  • Mo Senate Democratic Campaign Committee - $24,300
  • Economic Growth Council - $22,500
  • Missourians For (Chris) Koster, a Democrat - $19,353
  • (Kevin) Engler For Missouri, a Republican - $19,250

Mary Still, the state legislator leading the charge for the pro-initiative group, Missourians for Responsible Lending, contends that the opponents have lined up most of the state's major consultants -- from both parties -- to either help kill the initiative or "sit it out."

Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, none of the consultants she named would confirm on the record whether they had been approached by payday lenders or if they had agreed to work for the opposition. Many did not return phone calls, even though several often have talked to the Beacon on other matters.

As for Hatfield, Still says they remain good friends even if they are on opposite sides in the initiative-petition fight.

But Still added pointedly, "I've told Chuck that everything he earns from this should go into the church collection plate."

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