Constitutional convention debate likely would be heated

Sunday, September 15, 2002


By Marc Powers ~ Southeast Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- If Missourians were to call a constitutional convention, a number of provisions in the current document would be likely targeted for elimination or major alteration.

One of the fattest constitutional targets if a convention took place would be the Hancock Amendment, passed by voters in 1980.

"The Hancock Amendment has always been a debatable issue and I'm sure that's something that would be addressed," said House Speaker Jim Kreider, D-Nixa.

Named after its sponsor, Mel Hancock, the provision has been championed by some for imposing limits on the growth of state spending. Others have blasted it for hamstringing the state's ability to pay for needed services. A point of general agreement is that the measure was poorly written. The Missouri Supreme Court has been forced to interpret Hancock's confusing language numerous times in the last two decades and probably will revisit it in future cases.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said there would be an effort to repeal legislative term limits.

Overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992, term limits restrict lawmakers to eight years of service in each chamber of the General Assembly. Limits are having their first widespread impact this year with 85 of 197 incumbents being forced out of their current seats.

The limits are unpopular among most lawmakers, but efforts to eliminate or loosen the restriction have failed as legislators have been reluctant to override the will of voters. Convention delegates might be more inclined to take on the issue.

Change for courts

Kinder said he personally would like to see a modification to the Missouri nonpartisan court plan.

Under the 1940 plan, a nonpartisan commission headed by the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court chooses three nominees for vacancies on the high court and Court of Appeals. A similar commission picks nominees for circuit courts in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas. The governor must make his selections for the bench from lists.

Unlike posts for which the governor is free to pick whomever he chooses, the Senate gets no say on judicial appointments.

"I would like to see the Senate have a role in confirming those judges," Kinder said. "We are putting them on for what is effectively a life term. I wouldn't want any witch hunts, but I would like there to be Senate confirmation."

Another section some would like to see go is the dedicated one-eighth-cent sales tax for the Department of Conservation.

Whereas most dedicated taxes are authorized by statute and are easy for lawmakers to change, the conservation tax was placed in the constitution by voters in 1980 and is untouchable by direct legislative action. As a result, in tough budget times like the state is currently experiencing, the conservation department is immune from budget cuts, forcing departments that rely on general revenue, such as higher education, to bear the brunt of funding reductions.

Reigning in the independence of the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission, already a hot-button issue in the legislature, could also be considered.

The commission has traditionally operated free from oversight by lawmakers and the governor with the goal of insulating its decisions on highway funding from politics. Detractors claim the commission has abused that freedom to the point of arrogance, though others feel the system has worked as it should.

Even without a convention, Republicans plan to pursue a proposed amendment brought by state Rep. Lanie Black, R-Charleston, that would force the governor to choose commissioners from a list of nominees selected by legislative leaders. Others have suggested reducing the commission to an advisory role and putting the transportation department under the governor's control.

Kreider said a number of other contentious issues, such as abortion, would be likely topics at a convention.

"If there is a constitutional convention it would be lengthy," Kreider said.

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