Clean Missouri ethics reform to remain on general election ballot

Paul Thompson
Northeast News

The Clean Missouri ethics reform ballot initiative earned a courtroom victory last week when a three-judge panel of the Western District of Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that the measure should remain on the November 6 election ballot.

The decision followed weeks of speculation about the legislation, along with a short-lived Cole County judge’s ruling that the initiative needed to be removed from the ballot. The Kansas City Star’s Allison Kite reported on September 14 that Judge Daniel Green ruled that the “proposed amendment violated a provision in the Missouri Constitution that limits the scope of initiative petitions.” At issue, according to Green, was that the initiative petition would alter more than one article of the Missouri constitution, while tackling more than one subject.

Clean Missouri organizers, however, disagree.

“This is well within the bounds of single-subject guidelines,” said Clean Missouri campaign director Sean Soendker Nicholson. “The single subject is the State Legislature.”

The judges from the Western District of Missouri Court of Appeals – Judge Thomas H. Newton, Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert, and presiding Judge Alok Ahuja – found that Secretary of State John Ashcroft was correct to certify the initiative petition for the November 2018 general election ballot.

“The Secretary of State correctly declared that the Initiative Petition was sufficient, and correctly directed that the Petition appear on the November 2018 general election ballot,” wrote Ahuja. “The judgment of the circuit court is reversed.”

The initiative petition, dubbed Amendment One, garnered roughly 340,000 signatures from Missouri voters throughout the state.

Amendment One aims to dull the effectiveness of donor and lobbying spending in Missouri politics through five major reforms: 1) banning all gifts worth more than five dollars; 2) instituting a two-year moratorium on lobbying for politicians following their final legislative session; 3) lowering campaign contribution limits to $2,500 for Senate candidates and $2,000 for House candidates, while also closing contribution loopholes; 4) requiring legislative records to be held to the same Sunshine Law transparency rules as other public entities; and 5) directing the state to hire a nonpartisan expert to draw fair legislative district maps after the next census.

The three-judge panel had issued a stay on September 18, allowing the initiative to remain on the ballot. A follow-up special hearing on Thursday, September 20 – the day before military ballots were set to be shipped out – provided both sides with the opportunity to make their case before the appeals court.

A decision was made by September 21, as presiding Judge Ahuja was well aware of the timely nature of the case. He acknowledged both the military ballot deadline on September 21 and a September 25 deadline for sending out absentee ballots.

Clean Missouri left the special hearing optimistic that the voter-backed initiative would remain on the ballot.

“I think the judge was doing his due diligence, but the law is very clear. One subject and one article of the constitution: the legislature and Article 3,” said Benjamin Singer, communications director for Amendment One. “Based on past precedent, that seems to be controlling.”

Nicholson added that the will of the people should be considered. According to him, many Missourians are fed up with the status quo.

“People are disgusted with a world where politicians take $1 million in lobbyist gifts; people are disgusted with a redistricting system where it means 90% of elections are not competitive,” Nicholson said.

The ballot initiative has become a hot-button political issue, with Democrats largely in favor of the legislation’s passage and Republicans generally standing in opposition.

Some legislators spoke to the Northeast News about the ongoing debate surrounding Amendment One and Clean Missouri.

“I think it will (pass), and I think it should,” said District 19 State Representative Ingrid Burnett. “We had a large number of people who signed that petition, because it was important to them and because we have a legislature that refuses to police itself.”

Representative DaRon McGee of South Kansas City described how the legislative districts are currently developed. First, the Governor appoints six people – three Democrats and three Republicans – to draw the district maps. If they can’t agree, the courts get involved and draw the maps instead. McGee indicated that the makeup of the Governor-appointed board essentially ensures that consensus is not met. Because the court-drawn maps need to be approved by a Republican-controlled legislature and a Republican Governor, McGee contends that the maps are not equitable.

McGee has gone on the record in support of the legislation, primarily because it includes language regarding to re-drawing of legislative district maps.

“That forces people to be attuned to the people that we represent, rather than the party,” McGee said. “I think that it makes things more equitable and fair in the way that we draw districts. Right now, I think it’s completely partisan.”

On September 20, attorney Todd Graves argued in court against Amendment One, suggesting that lots of superfluous and likely popular provisions have been tied to together to gloss over the more controversial redistricting proposal.

Ahuja followed up by querying if redistricting changes would be permissible, in Graves’ opinion, if it appeared alone on the ballot, without the other provisions.
“If it was done alone, it would,” Graves replied.

Afterwards, Graves decried the initiative as a Trojan horse of sorts: popular ethics reform measures wrapped around new redistricting rules that will fundamentally alter the balance of power in Missouri. He added that there’s also a legal issue with altering campaign contribution limits that were only recently reduced by voters.

“There’s a political point and there’s a legal point,” Graves said. “The political point is that it’s a cynical attempt to draw votes to your proposal. The legal point is, the contribution limits are in one article of the constitution that was just passed by voters two years ago. They put this in another article and didn’t even mention that or amend that.”

Ultimately, the three-judge panel agreed with Clean Missouri, allowing the initiative to remain on the ballot.

On Monday, September 24, the Missouri Supreme Court officially declined to reconsider the decision of the appeals court. As such, Amendment One will remain on the November ballot.

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