Missouri lawmakers try to make it harder for others to make laws

Monday, March 3, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The people elected to make laws in Missouri are trying to make it more difficult for voters to make laws themselves.

The General Assembly's quest to restrict ballot initiatives could cause a clash between the people's constitutional rights and the legislature's constitutional powers.

In addition to general free speech rights, the Missouri Constitution specifically states that people have the right to enact laws and constitutional amendments through initiatives, independent of the legislature.

Yet the legislature also has the power to prescribe the details of how that is done.

So Thursday, the House passed legislation 107-41 that would impose several new requirements on the people who gather petition signatures. The bill would:

* Require petition circulators to be Missouri residents and U.S. citizens.

* Prohibit them from being paid based on the number of signatures they gather.

* Bar them from simultaneously collecting signatures for more than one initiative.

* Require them to register with the secretary of state's office before they start collecting signatures rather than before the deadline to turn them in, as is currently the case.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where a similar proposal already is pending on this week's debate calendar.

Sponsoring Rep. Michael Parson, R-Bolivar, freely acknowledges his intent: "I think initiative petitions need to be difficult to put on the ballot."

Parson is perturbed because the sponsors of most Missouri ballot issues use professional petition circulators -- people paid by the signature who carry clipboards for multiple initiatives and go from state to state like traveling salesmen.

Right now, for example, contractors with National Ballot Access are gathering signatures for three Missouri initiatives -- a pair restricting the use of eminent domain to take private property and another limiting affirmative action programs.

Some of its signature gatherers come from other states; many are working on all three initiatives; and they are paid $1 per signature, said Edee Baggett, president of National Ballot Access.

Although it currently has no circulators on the street, National Petition Management is hoping to again pick up a Missouri client following its successful 2006 effort on behalf of a stem-cell research initiative, president Lee Albright said.

The Missouri legislation would take effect Aug. 28 -- too late to affect this year's petition drives.

But in the future, "the restrictions place such a heavy burden on any entity wanting to place something on the ballot that it will be impossible, it will be cost prohibitive," Albright said.

Residency requirements for petition circulators generally seem to have survived court challenges elsewhere, including so far in neighboring Oklahoma.

Courts have taken different positions on pay-per-signature prohibitions. They have been struck down by federal judges in Idaho, Maine, Mississippi and Washington. But federal appeals courts have upheld such restrictions for North Dakota and Oregon.

The 2001 North Dakota case is perhaps most relevant, because the state is overseen by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which also has jurisdiction over Missouri.

In that ruling, a three-judge panel balanced the state's claim that the pay-per-signature ban was necessary to insure the integrity of the initiative process vs. the petition circulators' claim that it burdened their legal right to collect signatures. The appeals court said there was little evidence of any burden in North Dakota.

But a U.S. District judge in Ohio later struck down that state's prohibition on paying per signature, specifically noting the weak evidence put forward by plaintiffs in North Dakota and Oregon. To the contrary, the Ohio judge said plaintiffs there had shown it would drive up their costs if petition gatherers were paid on an hourly basis, ultimately making it more difficult to collect signatures and more of a burden to get measures on the ballot.

The Missouri proposal to prohibit people from simultaneously gathering signatures for multiple initiatives might be unique. Baggett and Albright both said they were unaware of any other state imposing such a requirement.

If already in place, that requirement would have driven up the costs for Missouri Citizens for Property Rights. That group's eminent domain proposals are being circulated as two separate petitions because the Missouri Constitution prohibits a single initiative from amending more than one article of the constitution.

"It's already difficult to find petition circulators, period," Baggett said. "Now you would have to find a double or triple pool of petition circulators."

But Parson contends it's not right for outsiders motivated by making a buck to be pressuring Missourians to make a constitutional change they might not fully understand.

"I think it should be something you believe in, and something you're willing to work hard on to change," he said

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