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Missouri Senate Democrats stall attempt to make it harder to amend constitution

Senators Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, speaks during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Senators Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, speaks during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.

Members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus have said passing a resolution that would make it harder to amend the state’s constitution is their top priority. Senate Democrats spent Monday and Tuesday filibustering the resolution.

Missouri Senate Republicans’ efforts to pass a resolution that would make it harder to amend the state’s constitution hit a wall Monday and Tuesday due to opposition from Democrats.

Democrats held the floor both days to filibuster the advancement of the resolution, which for some Republicans is their top priority for this session.

The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, would require any proposed constitutional amendment brought through the initiative petition process to get over 50% approval from voters statewide and win approval from a majority of Missouri’s eight congressional districts.

Currently, proposed constitutional amendments pass after winning a simple majority of voters.

“It's about wanting to make sure that our founding document is kept and preserved and made more difficult to change,” Coleman said.

She said the state has incentivized the public to pursue constitutional changes over changes to statute because “it is as easy to change the constitution as it is to change a statute, rule or regulation that the government proposes that people do not support.”

While both statutory and constitutional changes require a simple majority to pass once on the ballot, it is harder to get a proposed constitutional change on the ballot in the first place.

Statutory changes require the signatures of 5% of legal voters in six of Missouri’s congressional districts to make the ballot. Constitutional amendments require the signatures of 8% of voters in the same number of districts.

During the filibuster Monday, Sen. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette, cited her experience in countering Coleman’s claim that it’s easy to amend the state’s constitution.

“You spend so much time going door to door, getting signatures, talking to people, and then if you're lucky enough to meet that threshold with hundreds of thousands of signatures,” McCreery said. “Then the real work begins, in my opinion, which is, you've got to talk to the voters to get them to support the issue that is coming before the ballot.”

In addition to raising the voter threshold for constitutional amendments, the resolution also makes other changes to the process.

One of those changes would bar any possible future constitutional amendments that would raise sales taxes on food.

“I've been working on eliminating sales tax on grocery items for many years, and this continues that,” Coleman said.

Sen. Doug Beck, D-Affton, said the rest of the resolution not related to raising the voter threshold is a distraction aimed at misleading voters.

“They put the most important part at the very end, but they put all the other things in front, the candy, the stuff that they see first and they know that's why because it's gonna do well that way,” Beck said.

Coleman acknowledged during a conversation with Beck that there is what’s known as ballot candy within the resolution.

Making it harder to amend the state constitution has been a priority for Republicans for several sessions. Last year, the House passed a resolution on the topic in early February. The legislation did not make it through the Senate.

At the end of session last year, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, said if abortion were to become legal through a ballot initiative petition, it would be the Senate’s fault.

This year, the House is waiting on the Senate to act first on changing the initiative petition process. Proponents want to place it on the August ballot ahead of a possible abortion vote in November.

The topic has been the center of continued tensions between Senate Republican Leadership and the Missouri Freedom Caucus.

The caucus held up the approval of a series of gubernatorial appointments for nearly two weeks over what they felt was inaction on changing the initiative petition process.

Ultimately the caucus relented after a Senate committee passed the resolution sponsored by Coleman.

Democrats ultimately spent about five hours filibustering the legislation on Monday and roughly six hours Tuesday.

“Under this proposal, I think something like one in five voters can vote down an amendment. So clearly, some voters have more power than others,” Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said. “And anything that skews power to one group or another I think is really unacceptable.”

Due to the Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade on Wednesday, lawmakers are not expected to meet in either chamber for debate on Wednesday or Thursday, and they regularly don’t meet on Fridays, meaning the legislation likely won’t be considered again until next week.

If the resolution were to pass both chambers this session, it would still need the approval of voters to go into effect.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg