16 ballot petitions ready for circulation in Missouri

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Voters beware: Over the next seven months, people with clipboards will be asking for your signature.

It may be for a simple idea, such as limiting statewide officials to two terms in office.

Or it may be complex, with major consequences, such as eliminating the taxing power of cities and school districts, taking away the power of local governments to condemn private property for redevelopment or scrapping a method of choosing judges that for 64 years has been a model for the nation.

Those ideas, and more, have been proposed as ballot measures for the November 2010 election. As of Friday, a record 71 proposed initiatives have been submitted to the Missouri secretary of state for review, with 24 approved for circulation, said Laura Egerdal, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Eight approved proposals have been withdrawn, leaving 16 petitions ready for circulation.

The ideas started arriving right after the 2008 election, which set the previous record for initiative ideas with 55 proposals. Of that number, 25 were approved for circulation, and only three survived the signature-gathering process to reach the ballot. All three were approved by voters.

Petition circulators have until May 2 to deliver their signatures to Carnahan. For a proposed change in state law, a petition must have signatures from registered voters equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in six of the state's nine congressional districts, or 91,818 to 99,600 signatures. For a proposed change in the Missouri Constitution, the threshold for success is signatures equal to 8 percent of the votes cast for governor in six of nine districts, or 146,907 to 159,359 signatures.

Some initiatives are ideas being pushed by people who feel they have something important to accomplish. Others, however, are pushed by well-organized and well-funded interest groups and people whose names are well-known in political circles.

Angela Basham, an accountant from tiny Leasburg, Mo., fits the description of someone with an idea pushing her to action. She wants to eliminate property taxes for Missouri residents, take away the power of cities and counties to impose sales taxes and require a statewide vote on all local fee increases and state income tax increases.

If approved by voters, Basham's proposal would remove $8.5 billion annually from government revenue, most of it from local governments and school districts, according to an estimate from State Auditor Susan Montee.

Basham said she has become increasingly frustrated by the tax bite on her accounting firm's customers. So far, she said she has 50,000 signatures -- all by a volunteer effort -- and said she will start walking around the state beginning Thursday to publicize her campaign.

"I didn't think it would get to this extent," Basham said. "I really believe they think I am this little old lady in the middle of nowhere and I am not going to do it."

Tax credit for donations

Another proposal that would have a big effect on public treasuries comes from a retired funeral home director. Herman Kriegshauser of Chesterfield wants to give a 50 percent state tax credit for charitable donations. If approved by voters, the tax credit would divert $5 billion from the state treasury, according to Montee's estimate.

The Missouri Legislature has passed tax credits for a variety of ideas but is too dominated by lobbyists who seek those credits for special interests. he said. "The legislature passes tax credits for housing and other groups, but you have to go kiss them to get approval," Kriegshauser said.

Neither Kriegshauser nor Basham have the money or inclination to hire paid signature gatherers, a common method of obtaining the necessary numbers. But the campaigns sponsored by better-connected groups do plan to raise money and hire workers.

Ed Martin, once chief of staff to Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, is leading two initiative campaigns. Martin wants to impose term limits on the lieutenant governor, state auditor, secretary of state and attorney general.

He also wants to restrict stem-cell research by banning the use of state funds to conduct experiments using embryonic stem cells resulting from in-vitro fertilization or techniques developed for animal cloning.

The proposal would not repeal the controversial measure passed in 2006 that made embryonic stem-cell research legal in Missouri, Martin said. Instead, he said, the intent is to prevent state tax dollars from being used for something that a large percentage of Missourians don't like. "We are not refighting the battle over what should and should not be allowed," he said.

Another former Blunt staff member, James Harris, is behind the proposal to alter the selection of appellate judges. Known as the nonpartisan court plan, the current selection process was put in place in 1945 and uses a panel of lawyers elected by lawyers along with nonlawyers selected by the governor to nominate three people to openings on the Missouri Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

A petition to give the governor power to select judges with Missouri Senate confirmation was approved for circulation. But Harris said he now prefers the latest version, which would require partisan election campaigns for appellate courts.

Trial lawyers dominate the selection of judges now, Harris said. Trial lawyers also are a major source of money for Democratic candidates.

The Missouri Bar opposes changes to the court plan, citing expensive, bitter elections in other states. But Harris said partisan elections are fairer to the public than the current process. The screening of candidates takes place behind closed doors and only the names of nominees are released after it is over.

"There are huge problems with the current process where citizens and voters are left in the back seat and judges are selected behind closed doors," Harris said.



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