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These are the ways Missouri lawmakers could limit the democratic process in 2024

 Missouri House members sit on the floor for discussion during the 2023 legislative session.
Missouri House Communications
Missouri House members sit on the floor for discussion during the 2023 legislative session.

In a state where fees topping four figures effectively put public records out of reach, lawmakers want to put their written discussions about legislation completely out of view.

Missouri lawmakers have looked to use the legislature for years to limit access to various democratic processes. They put limits on access to public records, rolled back changes approved by voters through constitutional amendments and looked to increase thresholds residents faced to make change through initiative petitions.

Several bills already introduced in the General Assembly suggest 2024 could continue that trend.

Republican leaders in the Missouri House and Senate are zeroing in onthe initiative petition process — just as abortion rights supporters search for paths to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to an abortion. One proposed resolution in the legislature would outright ban any change in the constitution protecting abortion rights.

The Beacon rounded up previews of the bills or resolutions related to open government and constitutional amendments to see what lawmakers are planning.

Blocking public access to certain state documents

Under Missouri law, all public meetings, public records and votes of governmental bodies are subject to the open records law. There are some exceptions, such as active litigation, the purchase of real estate by the state, employee information or test scores.

One bill would exempt legislative records, including internal communications among lawmakers and their staffs regarding “proposed legislation or the legislative process.”

It would close off records that contain individually identifiable information of constituents in both local and state settings.

Making constitutional amendments harder to pass

Some Republican lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly want to change the rules for putting questions to a statewide vote.

Missouri is done of only 16 states nationwide that let voters put questions on the ballot by collecting voter signatures. But spurred by interest in protecting abortion access after the fall of Roe v. Wade, states across the country have looked for ways to make that harder.

Because the initiative petition process is enshrined in the Missouri Constitution, voters will need to approve any changes to the process, even if lawmakers manage to pass a bill.

In 2023, lawmakers debated how high they could raise the threshold to pass an initiative petition. Some bills looked to require 60% voter support, while others settled at 57% or 55%. Currently, an initiative petition needs a simple majority to modify the constitution.

At least 10 bills raising the threshold for an initiative petition to pass were filed in the Senate. At least seven have been filed so far in the House. Many bills have identical wording or are similar to others.

In past years, lawmakers debated raising the statewide threshold above a simple majority by using a percentage of voter support. This year, they’re taking a different approach.

Some bills require a statewide majority plus a majority in all of the state’s eight congressional districts. Others require a statewide majority, plus a majority of Missouri’s 163 state House districts, or a statewide majority plus a majority of the 34 state Senate districts.

Constitutional amendment ballot candy?

All versions also stipulate that only Missouri residents may vote on constitutional amendments, something that is already Missouri law. In 2023, similar stipulations were decried as “ballot candy” by voting rights groups — meaning a popular idea (i.e. ensuring that only Missouri residents vote on the measure) coupled with something more controversial (in this case, raising the threshold for amendments to pass).

Some versions of the bill are more complex. Nearly all of the Senate’s proposals also prohibit voters from using the initiative process on certain subjects. For example, one version prohibits initiative petitions related to:

  • Permitting public officials to receive gifts from lobbyists.
  • Raising sales taxes on food. 
  • Raising, expanding or imposing fees on real estate, real estate transactions or real personal property. 
  • Reducing the amount of money dedicated to any law enforcement agency, the National Guard or first responders. 
  • Reducing state revenues for public education. 

Banning foreign involvement in constitutional amendments

Those versions also include a stipulation about support from foreign governments for constitutional amendments. Getting an amendment passed is notoriously expensive, one of the biggest roadblocks to how special-interest groups and voters utilize it.

They would:

  • Ban foreign governments or a foreign political party from sponsoring an initiative petition. 
  • Ban a foreign government from funding an initiative campaign. 
  • Ban a foreign government from paying for ads related to an initiative petition. 
  • Ban the solicitation of donations from foreign governments related to initiative petitions. 

Althoughfederal law prohibits election spending from foreign governments or political parties, it does not limit foreign governments from weighing in on voter-led initiative petitions in the states.

At leastnine states introduced similar measures in 2023.

Bans on legislative intervention after passing constitutional amendments

A handful of resolutions would prevent the General Assembly from modifying provisions set out in constitutional amendments. These provisions, if approved by the General Assembly, would also require voter approval. Currently, lawmakers cannot modify changes to the Constitution without taking those modifications back to voters.

A few versions of the resolutions redefine if and when the General Assembly can independently modify previously passed amendments. One version prohibits the legislature from modifying amendments unless six years have passed, or changes are approved by three-fourths of the members of the state House and Senate, or the changes are approved by voters.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of theKC Media Collective.

Copyright 2024 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Meg Cunningham