It seems harmless enough on the surface; you are walking along when an individual approaches you with a clipboard and asks you to sign a petition to save helpless animals or the elderly. Who wouldn’t want to help a cause like that? Moreover, who wouldn’t want the ability to petition their government when it is failing to act? However, in recent years the initiative petition process has been bogged down, primarily by the infiltration of outside influences. What once was a useful tool for grassroots efforts has become a means for national groups with unlimited funds to game the system in Missouri.
Since 2004, the number of initiative petitions filed has skyrocketed from a mere sixteen to over 140 in 2012. Of these petitions filed in 2012, 61 were submitted by a mere three groups covering only three topics. Recently, this has been the norm; it has become common practice for groups to submit multiple versions of the same measure, hoping one will stick. This practice is simply unacceptable. Not only is it an abuse of the system, but it also creates unnecessary work that costs the state valuable time and money.
That is why this year Senator Mike Parson and I proposed legislation in the Missouri House (HB 1869) and Senate (SB 817) to bring more transparency to the initiative petition process and hopefully bring an end to the abuse of a useful tool for citizens to be direct participants in their state government. The Ballot Initiative Transparency Act (BITA) changes many aspects in the mechanics of the initiative petition process that will shed more light on who is pushing the petition and where they receive their money.
First, we have to slow the increase in sheer volume of initiative petitions that are being submitted. The BITA requires that before a proposed ballot initiative can be submitted to the Secretary of State it must first receive one thousand sponsoring signatures. This requirement makes it to where a group must be serious about their proposal, not just simply file numerous petitions hoping one will make it to the ballot. At the same time this number of signatures allows grassroots efforts to still participate. If a proposed petition is unable to receive one thousand sponsoring signatures it is highly unlikely it would be successful on the ballot anyways.
Secondly, Missourians should be able to quickly and easily access what groups are sponsoring ballot initiative proposals and where their money is coming from. That is why the BITA includes provisions that require a copy of the Statement of Committee Organization to be filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission when a proposed petition is submitted. Also, the Secretary of State would be required to post all proposed initiative petitions on their website within two days of filing. These two measures ensure that Missourians have a way to know what proposals are out there and just who exactly is behind them.
Not only, will the BITA provide more transparency in the early stages of the initiative petition process, but it also ensures that this transparency continues until election day. The proposed legislation requires that a public comment period be held after the sponsoring signatures are verified by the Secretary of State’s office. While also requiring that within thirty days of certification that a sufficient number of signatures have been collected to place the measure on the ballot that a public hearing by the Joint Committee on Legislative Research for the purpose of taking public testimony.
While we address transparency in the technical process we must also not neglect the issue of fraud. The BITA includes provisions that require signature gatherers to disclose whether they are paid or volunteer. Moreover, anyone convicted of a prior offense of forgery is prohibited from being a signature gatherer. Also, anyone who knowingly signs a name other than their own with the intent to alter the outcome will be guilty of a class one election offense.
Not only are these common sense changes needed but they have received support from a wide range of organizations. Supporting organizations include: The Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, Laclede Gas Company, Missouri Association of Counties, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Missouri Farm Bureau, Missouri Municipal League, Missouri Restaurant Association and the Missouri School Boards Association.
Transparency is vital to any governmental process. The citizens of this great state deserve to know what is happening and who is doing it. That is why the state legislature is required to follow sunshine laws that allow all Missourians to know exactly what their state government is doing. The same should be true for the initiative petition process. Hopefully, HB 1869, which now moves to the Senate for debate, will bring about this much needed transparency.
For more information about the legislation mentioned above or about any others that have been introduced please visit the House of Representatives website, www. house.mo.gov. As always, it is an honor to serve you in the Missouri House of Representatives.