Missouri ballot could have record number of initiatives

Monday, May 8, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri voters could have a record number of citizen initiatives to decide this fall if the hundreds of thousands of petition signatures submitted Sunday are upheld as valid.

Separate groups seeking to raise Missouri's minimum wage and its tobacco taxes each turned in far more than the minimum number of signatures needed to qualify measures for the Nov. 7 ballot.

Another group said it also had exceeded the signature threshold for two different constitutional amendments -- one restricting the use of eminent domain, the other imposing spending limits on state government.

Sunday was the deadline to submit petition signatures for potential ballot measures. Two other groups turned in petitions earlier this week for measures that would create a constitutional protection for stem cell research and restore last year's cuts to the Medicaid health care program for the poor and disabled.

If all ultimately make the ballot, the total of six citizen initiatives would be the most in Missouri history.

Many petitions

About two dozen people from the group Missourians in Charge, which gathered signatures until late Sunday morning, rushed into the secretary of state's office with their petition boxes just minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Organizer Patrick Tuohey, of Kansas City, said they submitted around 200,000 signatures each for the eminent domain and spending cap amendments. Like most other groups, they relied partly on paid signature gatherers.

He said they got a response from signers "that was amazing and, quite frankly, humbling," Tuohey said.

But not everyone was enthusiastic. Among those watching the last-moment petition filing was Jefferson City attorney Chuck Hatfield, who is suing to try to prevent the spending limit from appearing on the ballot. Hatfield represents Gary Kempker, a former director of the state Public Safety and Corrections departments.

The amendment would place an annual limit on state spending based on population growth and inflation, with any extra revenue going to a new emergency fund, a new reserve fund or refunded to taxpayers.

The lawsuit filed last month still awaits a hearing in Cole County Circuit Court. Among other things, the suit contends the proposed amendment violates an existing constitutional prohibition on appropriating money through initiatives, because it directs current revenues into new funds.

Tuohey expressed no concern about the lawsuit.

"This is what happens -- people who have an interest in the status quo, when they perhaps aren't confident they can succeed at the ballot box, seek their way at the jury box," he said.

The number of signatures of registered voters required to qualify for the ballot is greater for constitutional amendments than for changes in state law, and varies depending upon where the signatures were gathered.

Supporters of constitutional amendments must get a number equal to 8 percent of the votes cast in the 2004 gubernatorial election in each of six of the nine state congressional districts. That threshold is 5 percent for statutory changes. Election officials have until Aug. 8 to certify whether the measures made the cut.

Tobacco tax, wages

The group proposing to raise Missouri's minimum wage, for example, would need 93,345 valid signatures to qualify. It submitted about 210,000 signatures -- easily doubling the threshold -- by relying on 716 volunteers and at least a couple hundred paid signature gatherers.

"We're very confident that we're going to qualify for the ballot, and we're going to begin operating to get this thing passed in November," said Jim Kottmeyer, a consultant for Give Missourians a Raise.

Missouri currently follows the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. The proposal would raise that to $6.50 by Jan. 1, then increase it each year thereafter to keep pace with the cost of living.

A constitutional amendment by the Committee for a Healthy Future would more than quintuple Missouri's 17 cent cigarette tax to a proposed 97 cents a pack, and it would increase taxes on other tobacco products by 20 percent.

The proposal is projected to raise between $351 million and $499 million a year. The largest shares would go to health care for low-to-middle-class Missourians and to increase Medicaid payments to physicians. Significant amounts also would go to anti-tobacco programs and to trauma centers, emergency rooms and health clinics that treat the uninsured or those on Medicaid.

Supporters of the tobacco tax increase had gathered about 125,000 signatures that had to be discarded after they merged with a rival group and came up with a revised ballot measure earlier this year. After starting from scratch, they still managed to turn in about 238,000 signatures -- far more than the 149,026 they need.

"In every corner of the state, it is clear that voters want to improve the well-being of all Missourians by keeping our kids from smoking and by improving access to health care," said Cindy Erickson, a spokeswoman for the campaign committee and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of Missouri

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Secretary of State: http://www.sos.mo.gov

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