What do the Missouri Anti-Puppy Mill law, the Missouri minimum wage law, and the Springfield Indoor Clean Air ordinance all have in common? They were all approved by a majority of the voters through the initiative process and from day one after the voters approved the laws the legislative branch was busy trying to undo what a majority of the voters approved although in each case the result was different.
What is an initiative? The initiative allows citizens to initiate laws through a process where signatures are collected and if there is a sufficient number as required by law the law is submitted directly to the voters for their approval or disapproval. If approved by a majority of the voters the initiative becomes a law. The initiative is a direct form of democracy. The initiative and referendum movement grew out of the Progressive Movement in the 1890s. It was a reaction to the corruption of government that was not responsive to the needs of its citizens.
The initiative process was included in the Missouri Constitution in 1908. Unfortunately, there was no limitation on the power of the legislature to override voter-approved initiatives by a simple majority of the House and the Senate like there was in many other states. In other words the legislature can change a voter-approved law by a simple majority of the House and the Senate. This has caused a lot of consternation by proponents of the initiative and in recent years proponents have proposed amendments to Missouri Constitution to limit the power of the General Assembly from amending a voter approve initiative.
The recent repeal of the voter approved Anti-Puppy Mill law generated a lot of controversy. Animal rights activist tried for years to get the General Assembly to act without success. This was particularly frustrating because it was widely recognized that Missouri had one of the weakest animal rights laws in the United States and was known as the puppy mill capitol of the United States having 30% of all the puppy mills. With no response from the Missouri legislature animal rights activists – as a last resort – decided to initiate a law know as the Anti-Puppy Mill law to provide safe and humane conditions to protect animals. After spending thousands of dollars and hours collecting signatures, processing the initiative petition, running a campaign to educate the voters and getting a majority of the voters to approve the law the legislature responded by repealing most of the key provisions that had just been approved by about 1,000,000 voters and by enacting a much weaker law even before it became effective. According to animal rights activists the new rules adopted by the legislature weakened and virtually overruled what 52% of the voters just approved. No matter how you feel about whether or not Missouri needed a new animal rights law, it is not a pretty sight when one hundred members of the General Assembly can overrule what almost 1,000,000 voters just approved. No wonder the proponents of the Anti-Puppy Mill law are mad. While this may be the most prominent example of legislative disdain for voter approved laws there are other examples of the General Assembly busting voter approved laws like the legislative change in 2009 altering a 2008 voter approved casino tax for school funding. Other voter approved voter initiatives have suffered similar fates.
In 2006 the voters approved a state minimum wage law by 76% of the voters. Again from day one after the voters approved this law the General Assembly of Missouri was busy trying to repeal the law. In 2011 amendments to lower the state minimum wage law were approved in the Missouri House but died in the Senate. You can expect there will be continued efforts to lower the minimum wages for Missouri employees.
Why does this happen? It happens because it can. There is no limits in the Missouri Constitution, which restrict the state legislature from repealing or amending a voter approved initiative. Unlike many other states Missouri allows voter approved initiatives to be overruled by a simple majority vote of the House and the Senate.
In Springfield, the results were much different. The Springfield City Charter prohibits any change to a voter-approved ordinance for six months and thereafter only with the unanimous consent of the entire city council. Other City Charters like Joplin and Columbia have similar charter provisions. In Springfield after the expiration of six months opponents of the Indoor Clean Air ordinance requested the City Council amend the voter-approved ordinance. However, after it became clear that the opponents could not obtain the unanimous consent of all of the City Council they prepared an initiative petition to repeal the Indoor Clean Air ordinance and enact a new one to their suiting. Opponents to the voter approved Springfield Indoor Clean Air ordinance are now collecting signatures for an initiative petition to repeal the current voter approved Indoor Clean Air ordinance and replace it with a new law. This is how a democracy should work.
In reaction to the willingness of the legislature to overrule voter-approved initiatives there is now a broad-based movement to change the Missouri Constitution to require a 3/4th approval by the members in the House and the Senate to override a voter approved law. The effort to change the Missouri Constitution is headed up by a group known as “Your Vote Counts.” They are now in the process of circulating a petition which would amend the Missouri Constitution to require a 75% vote in order to override the voters, which would be considered in November of 2012. This proposal is supported by many different groups across the ideological spectrum because the change in the Constitution has everything to do with protecting the fundamentals of our democracy and little to do with a person’s ideology. The 1,000,000 voters who voted for the Anti-Puppy Mill law watched the legislature tear apart the Anti-Puppy Mill law and will remember this when they vote to require a 3/4th vote of the House and the Senate to change voter approved initiatives. Voters who approved the minimum wage law will also remember how close the legislature came to repealing this law. Stayed tuned.
Howard Wright@ 2012