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Opinion: Citizen initiative process keeps political powers in check

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One of the checks Missouri voters have on the power of state politicians is in jeopardy.

Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, is taking aim at the initiative petition process, which allows Missourians to band together to put laws and constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot. This is incredibly important, because some policy changes that would greatly benefit Missouri can be so politically unviable that politicians won’t propose them. Petitions circulating this year include limiting eminent domain and imposing term limits on top state officials.

The process is already extremely difficult. To change state law, groups must get tens of thousands of the legal voters in two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts to sign a petition. Missouri has more than 4 million registered voters, so any group trying to get an initiative on the ballot must collect more than 100,000 signatures.

And it’s expensive. Paul Jacob, president of Citizens in Charge, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and advancing the ability of U.S. citizens to petition state government directly, estimates that the minimum cost for signature collection in Missouri is more than $2 per signature, and it can be significantly higher. This means that a group of people trying to change government for the better would likely need at least $300,000 even to attempt to bring a state law change before Missouri voters for their consideration.

In fact, most groups that have attempted to change state law with the current initiative petition process have failed. In recent years, Missouri Citizens for Property Rights, a group attempting to strengthen safeguards against the abuse of eminent domain, managed to gather more than 160,000 signatures from registered Missouri voters but still fell short of the already hefty requirements imposed.

Justus’ proposal will make it at least 50 percent harder (and that much more expensive) for Missourians to bring an issue to statewide voters. She proposes requiring that groups collect signatures from registered voters in all congressional districts. That would mean groups would have to collect, at minimum, signatures from an additional 45,000 registered Missouri voters. That’s at least another $100,000 in expenses. Why would Justus want to restrict this process further, so that only the most wealthy individuals and groups can participate?

According to the St. Louis Business Journal, Justus hopes that the proposed law will make it more difficult and costly for people and organizations to “buy laws and constitutional amendments.” She is certainly right – her proposal will make it more difficult. But her logic is flawed. Justus’ proposal will make it more difficult for any group to impact state government directly, not only those she suspects of trying to “buy” laws.

One of the greatest strengths of American government is that there are a number of checks and balances at the federal, state and local levels that limit the ability of any one branch of government to abuse its power. The initiative petition process is one of those checks on power, and restricting it further will serve only to erode Missourians’ ability to limit legislators by initiating good – but politically difficult – policy change.

Audrey Spalding is a policy analyst for St. Louis-based Show-Me Institute, an independent think tank promoting free-market solutions for Missouri public policy. She can be reached at audrey.spalding@showmeinstitute.org.[[In-content Ad]]

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