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Missouri Republicans fight 'will of the people' as they push limits on direct democracy

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 4/7/2021 Jonathan Shorman and Jeanne Kuang, The Kansas City Star
a group of people sitting at a desk: Cody Smith, right, a Carthage Republican, chairs a House Budget Committee meeting on March 22, 2021, with staff member Chris Dunn, center, and vice chair Dirk Deaton, a Noel Republican. © TIM BOMMEL/TNS Cody Smith, right, a Carthage Republican, chairs a House Budget Committee meeting on March 22, 2021, with staff member Chris Dunn, center, and vice chair Dirk Deaton, a Noel Republican.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo, — When Missouri voters approved Medicaid expansion in August, the results weren't all that close.

The constitutional amendment requiring the state to expand eligibility to upward of 275,000 residents passed 53.3% to 46.7%. The margin of victory stood at more than 83,000 votes.

Less than a year later, the Republican-dominated House is balking. GOP legislators voted last week to exclude the funding necessary to carry out the expansion, leaving its fate unclear.

One lawmaker, Republican Justin Hill of Lake St. Louis, went as far as to say he was "proud to stand against the will of the people who were lied to." Others were quick to say that Missouri is a republic, not a democracy.

"I think they were told half of the story," Rep. Cody Smith, a Carthage Republican, said of voters.

Missouri Republican lawmakers, faced with an electorate willing to approve measures championed by liberals, are growing increasingly antagonistic toward direct democracy. In recent weeks, they have moved to both undermine voter decisions and advance proposals that would make it harder for voters to make changes in the future.

In addition to fighting Medicaid funding, Republicans are exploring ways to derail a minimum wage increase approved by voters in 2018. And the House has passed a measure that would require two-thirds of voters to approve future constitutional amendments instead of a simple majority.

The measure also raises the bar to get initiative petitions on the ballot. Tens of thousands of additional signatures could be required from more areas of the state, changes that would effectively give rural voters more influence in the initiative process.

Republican lawmakers say it's too easy to pass ballot measures, especially ones that change the constitution and would require another constitutional amendment to undo. Several said voters don't have the time to seriously consider the "complex policy decisions" that legislators are tasked with debating in Jefferson City.

"I hate the term when we say we're a democracy, we are a constitutional representative republic. People voted us in in November, too," Rep. John Simmons, a Washington Republican sponsoring one measure to restrict the filing of initiative-petitions, said.

Democrats have slammed the proposals as Republican reactions to ballot measures that the GOP opposed.

"They know that this is a way that citizens can say, 'Stop doing what you're doing and do this instead,'" said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat. "They don't want to have to listen to them."

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The Republican moves come after Democrats and even some bipartisan coalitions have found success in recent years using the ballot box to bypass the overwhelmingly conservative General Assembly after encountering resistance among lawmakers. They also come as Republicans nationally, including in Missouri and Kansas, are championing restrictions on voting access in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

Before passing Medicaid expansion in August, Missouri voters in 2018 defeated a measure prohibiting workers from being required to join unions and approved raising the minimum wage to $12 over several years. Voters also approved medical marijuana and the government reform plan Clean Missouri, though voters in 2020 approved a separate measure sent to the ballot by GOP lawmakers rolling back its redistricting provisions.

Missouri is among a handful of states, along with Florida and Arizona, where lawmakers are trying to minimize or undo voter-approved policies, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a Washington-based group that provides support for liberal ballot measures.

"The voters in those states have begun using the ballot measure more often, passing really bold policy change and the legislators are responding not only with legislative alteration and implementation measures but also introducing a slew of bills to reduce access to the ballot measure process itself," said Corrine Rivera Fowler, the group's director of policy and legal advocacy.

Rivera Fowler said the center has tracked an increase nationally over the past four years in attempts to modify or diminish voter-approved measures.

"When voters have worked so hard to run a campaign, qualify an initiative and get it passed, the will of the people of that state should be respected by their elected officials," she said.

Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City-based attorney involved in past initiative petitions, said the legislature's reaction isn't new. "The General Assembly and the elected representatives do not like it" when laws are passed bypassing them, he said.

But the intensity of the current blowback appears unrivaled in recent memory.

The House's all-out refusal to approve the funding needed to successfully implement Medicaid expansion, now part of the Missouri Constitution, has triggered the most acrimonious fight of the session. The program and all of its 900,000 participants could be put in a precarious position if the chamber doesn't ultimately back down.

Expansion proponents are hopeful the Senate will add the funding and that the House will eventually go along, but that isn't guaranteed. Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who will sign or veto the budget, opposes expansion but has said he wants to uphold the will of the voters.

Because only the legislature, and not voters, can direct the government to spend, Republican lawmakers have argued during the budget debate that the policy decision to expand Medicaid still lies with them.

Republicans contend voters weren't informed about the true financial costs of the program. Democrats have cried foul, pointing out healthy revenues and an influx of federal money if the program is expanded.

The ballot measure indicated the state's share of the program expansion could be $200 million in its first year; in Parson's budget, he asked for $130 million while the federal government would contribute $1.6 billion.

"I find it wildly disrespectful to the voters to tell them that they were confused or that they didn't understand it, or they're not smart enough to get it," Quade said. "That's just disgusting."

For their part, Republicans have called Democrats hypocrites for pushing back on measures to require a photo ID to vote, after voters approved a measure in 2016 allowing the state to adopt those requirements.

At the same time, Smith, the Carthage Republican who chairs the powerful House budget committee, has sponsored a bill to counter a voter-approved minimum wage hike that has Missouri's wage floor slated to rise to $12 an hour in 2023. That change to state statute received 62.3% of the vote in 2018.

Smith initially introduced a bill this year to eliminate the raises altogether, but has since proposed to slow down the increases by three years. He said the bill was prompted by complaints that nursing homes and in-home care providers cannot raise prices in response to rising wages, because their patients are paid for by Medicaid.

In an interview, Smith said he honored the statewide vote that passed Medicaid expansion by allowing Parson's funding request to be debated by the legislature before it was ultimately rejected.

"In that way, yes, I wanted to factor [the vote] into the appropriations process, which we did," he said. "Do I think we should shoehorn it into the state budget? The answer is no. People send us to Jefferson City to deliberate on these complex policy decisions and that's our job."

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In the background of the Medicaid and minimum wage fight is a larger push by Republicans to tighten access to the initiative petition process and set a higher threshold for voter-approved changes. A Senate committee held hearings last week on measures that have already passed the House.

Missouri's use of initiative petition dates back more than 100 years, but its popularity has risen in recent years. While the number of initiative petitions that end up on the ballot has remained relatively steady over the past decade, the number of petitions filed has risen dramatically, growing from 105 in 2010 to 371 in 2018, according to PolitiFact.

One measure considered by a Senate committee last week would require a $500 fee to file petitions with the Secretary of State's office. The fee would be refunded if the petition is approved for circulation.

Proponents say the measure would rein in an excessive number of petitions, many of which are slight variations on the same topic. Opponents argue the fee could be a barrier for average residents.

Another proposal would require initiative petitions aimed at amending the constitution to have signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in all eight of the state's congressional districts. The current process requires signatures from 8 percent of registered voters from any six districts.

The proposal, itself a constitutional amendment, would also require a two-thirds majority support from voters for any future amendments. Ironically, if the General Assembly passes the proposal, voters will be able to ratify it with only a simple majority.

Cassandra Gould, director of Missouri Faith Voices, called the two-thirds requirement "punitive" and said the current signature requirements are sufficient.

"We have seen the impact, win or lose, that just the tool to access democracy has on people and their faith in the democratic process," Gould said.

The sponsor of that measure, Rep. Mike Henderson, a Bonne Terre Republican, pointed to the voter-approved rollback of Clean Missouri just two years after its initial passage.

"We think, if you're going to pass this, there should be a clear enough voice ... coming from the people to make sure that's what they really want," he said.

The proposals come as liberals expect even more ballot initiative campaigns on issues the legislature has rejected, such as marijuana legalization. Opponents of the proposals say they're worried stricter ballot initiative rules would make the process accessible only to well-connected, well-funded political organizations.

"I would certainly encourage us to not silence the citizens in this way," Nimrod Chapel Jr., president of the Missouri NAACP and a treasurer of Clean Missouri, told lawmakers. "Allow us to continue to use our voice."

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