Environmentalists Defend Initiatives: State Legislators At Odds With ‘Will Of The People’

By Don Corrigan

Environmentalists are among those opposed to actions by the Missouri legislature to cripple the initiative process in the state. They say the initiative process is often the only way to get environmental protections enacted in Missouri.

In the past, environmental groups have used the process on issues such as renewable energy and the financing of nuclear power facilities. In Missouri, these groups have included the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club.

The initiative process has been dubbed as a “will of the people” mechanism. That’s because measures are approved by a statewide majority of voters, rather than passed by lawmakers in the statehouse where they can be beholden to special interests..

In this year’s session in Jefferson City, lawmakers have seemed determined to codify their disdain for the grassroots democracy of initiatives placed on the ballot by petition.

Legislators have introduced a slew of proposals to effectively nullify state voters’ use of the initiative petition process. They are intent on erecting hurdles that make it virtually impossible for residents to put proposals on the state ballot.

In January, despite overwhelming opposition – 96 percent of committee testimony opposed one such nullification bill – the Missouri House proceeded anyway to rush out approval of a bill to undermine the initiative petition process.

The Missouri House Committee on Elections and Elected Officials heard five bills on Jan. 24, and voted four of the attacks on the petition process out for consideration. The action was taken even as testimony opposing the bills ran five-to-one against the supportive comments.

In February, unhappy constituents lined up in a capitol hearing, one after another, to describe the state initiative petition process as “direct, pure democracy” that should not be thrown in the trash bin of Missouri statehouse history.

Media Voice Concerns

Missouri’s media outlets also have come out swinging against the legislature’s insistence on quashing the ballot initiative process. They note that voters have used the initiative process for Medicaid expansion, medical marijuana, a minimum wage hike, collective bargaining protections and use of renewable energy.

“The argument for tightening the initiative petition process is based on the mistaken assumption that it is too easy now to get a measure passed. It isn’t,” declared the Joplin Globe on Jan. 22. “Most measures that are attempted don’t succeed.

“Medicaid expansion is a good example of why we need this,” the Globe continued. “It was evident for a long time that Missourians favored this, yet it got nowhere in Jefferson City, so voters took the matter into their hands, putting the amendment on the ballot, and then approving it 53% to 47%, bypassing lawmakers altogether.”

Both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star have published strongly worded opinion pieces against the legislature’s moves to sabotage citizen ballot initiatives. Many papers around the state, including the Columbia Missourian and Columbia Tribune, ran op-eds opposing the attacks on the voters’ will.

The on-line Kansas City Beacon stressed how many important issues only saw the light of day precisely because citizens got out and worked to get signed petitions necessary to get measures on the ballot. The Beacon noted that in recent years, lawmakers have altered or jettisoned laws and constitutional changes approved by voters.

In 2010, Missourians approved a ballot measure to enact tighter restrictions on puppy mills. In the spring session following that vote, the animal protections were repealed or watered down by the state legislature.

A similar reversal came in 2020 after Missourians passed Clean Missouri, a far-reaching ethics ballot measure, which was opposed by state politicians. It was later repealed after the legislature took steps to insure a reversal.

The Kansas City Beacon noted that Missouri does not need to make it even harder for the citizens to express their will at the ballot box. Rather, Missouri needs to pass a bill to guard the people’s will after it is articulated and affirmed by state voters. The reversals need to stop.

In its Dec. 13, 2022 piece, the Beacon cited a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Adams of St. Louis to guard against reversal of the people’s will. Under Adams’ bill, no measure approved by voters could be amended, watered down or repealed by state legislators.

Environmental Issues On Ballot

“Legislatures are charged with passing laws, and in this they are supposed to represent the voters,” said Henry Robertson, a St. Louis environmental lawyer. “But when this isn’t the case the voters have the right to assert their will by bypassing the legislature.”

Robertson said the initiative process is consistent with the principle that the will of the people is the supreme law. Robertson speculated that any number of issues could arise concerning protection of water, air and land and addressing climate change.

“A current example of this is the legislature’s denial of local control on subjects like public health ordinances to protect against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or dictating what local governments can or can’t put in their building codes, even when we have no statewide codes,” Robertson explained.

“The legislature is attacking energy efficiency standards, provisions for EV charging stations, and bans on natural gas hookups in new construction,” added Robertson. “I’m not saying there are currently any initiatives planned; passing one is much more difficult and expensive than the legislature likes to make out.”

The availability of the process is vitally important, according to environmentalists like Robertson. He cited the example of the 1976 initiative that banned electric utilities from charging customers for construction work in progress (CWIP).

This was in the context of Ameren’s Callaway nuclear plant. The utility had to reduce from two reactors to one, due to the successful initiative to stop the gouging of utility ratepayers on questionable projects.

In recent years, bills have been repeatedly introduced in the statehouse to repeal this initiative law, according to Robertson. He said CWIP could return to involve ratepayers in cost overruns and even paying for projects that were never finished by utilities.

“The Renewable Energy Standard (RES) passed in 2008 with 66% of the vote,” said Robertson, turning to another environmental issue. “The utilities did not openly oppose it. The legislature had just passed a voluntary standard, but that would have been worthless. So, we made it mandatory.”

The RES passed by state voters has moved utilities to develop greener energy sources as concern grows about carbon pollution and climate change. Renewable energy can and should be a bipartisan issue that does not get stymied by the legislature, according to Robertson.

“The tendency for the legislature to repeal or gut initiative-passed laws is the reason initiatives usually take the form of constitutional amendments which they can’t repeal,” stressed Robertson. “They complain that initiatives are junking up the state constitution, but their hostility has caused this situation.”

Environmentalists Have Allies

Among groups opposed to state lawmakers’ plans to crush the initiative process are Missouri Healthcare for All, Missouri Realtors Association, Missouri Faith Voices, Missouri National Education Association, Metropolitan Congregations United, Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, Paraquad, Missouri Alliance for Retired Americans and more.

The League of Women Voters (LWV) of Missouri has taken the lead in the fight to protect the will of the people as embodied in the initiative process. Opinion pieces by Marilyn McLeod, president of Missouri LWV, have appeared in publications across the state.

“The Initiative Petition is already a difficult and complicated process. Missourians resort to it only when they feel their voice isn’t being heard at the capitol,” McLeod stated in the Feb. 9 issue of the St. Louis Labor Tribune.

Angie Dunlap, president of the LWV of Metro St. Louis said gutting the initiative petition process squashes the voters’ ability to use direct democracy. Dunlap said that when legislators fail to address the problems of citizens, the ballot initiative is the means for restoring democracy.

“When lawmakers now create more hurdles for initiatives to make the ballot – requiring more petition signatures, more districts, and more money – when they require a higher majority for the initiatives to become law … these efforts are contrary to the idea that voters have the most important role in our democracy,” Dunlap said.

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