The Missouri Supreme Court questioned Monday whether voters should still get a say on three pocketbook initiatives this November if it rules that the state auditor, Tom Schweich, didn’t have the authority to estimate the measures’ effect on state revenues.
At issue before the seven-member high court are initiatives that would ask votes whether to raise tobacco taxes, increase the state’s minimum wage and limit the interest rates that can be charged on payday loans. Supporters have submitted petition signatures to get all three measures on the general election ballot.
While election authorities are still counting and verifying those signatures, the Missouri Supreme Court is considering a constitutional challenge to a 1997 law directing the auditor to prepare financial estimates that appear on petition sheets and the ballot.
Judges in Cole County, which is the seat of Missouri government, issued conflicting rulings earlier this year on whether that law runs afoul of a section of the Missouri Constitution forbidding laws that impose duties on the auditor not related to supervising or auditing the collection and spending of public money. Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled the law violated the constitution because the financial estimates deal with future costs or savings, not the auditor’s core function of examining money already spent or received. But in a separate case, Circuit Judge Dan Green found no problem with the 1997 law.
On Monday, attorney Chuck Hatfield argued that the Supreme Court should side with Beetem.
“There’s absolutely no audit here” in the preparation of financial estimates for initiatives, said Hatfield, who represents clients challenging the payday loan and tobacco tax initiatives.
Yet attorneys for the state said the financial estimates are a legitimate function of the auditor. They cited a constitutional provision stating the auditor shall undertake “all other audits and investigations required by law.” The financial estimate essentially is an investigation related to the receipt or expenditure of public money, said Ronald Holliger, general counsel for Attorney General Chris Koster.
Supreme Court judges questioned attorneys on what to do if they decide that the auditor has no constitutional authority to prepare financial estimates for initiatives. Should the three initiatives be barred from the ballot? Or should they appear on the ballot without a financial summary?
Holliger recommended that the measures be placed on the ballot, minus the wording about government costs or revenues.
To rule otherwise “means that the initiative process has been destroyed for this year, and at least next year, and maybe even beyond that,” if the legislature can’t come up with a new way for developing financial estimates, he said.
Hatfield suggested another alternative. He said the Supreme Court should bar the auditor from preparing financial estimates and refer the cases back to Cole County Circuit Court for further hearings on whether the initiatives should go on the ballot. That could result in another judgment that could be appealed back to the Supreme Court.
The Missouri Supreme Court also heard arguments on the specific details of each ballot initiative during a hearing that lasted over three hours and featured 10 attorneys, some of whom were involved in multiple ballot initiatives.
Among other things, the court is considering whether to uphold Green’s ruling against the payday loan initiative, which invalidated both Schweich’s financial estimate and the summary statement prepared by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan. Trial judges had upheld the summary descriptions prepared for the minimum wage and tobacco tax initiatives, but opponents argued Monday that those summaries were insufficient and unfair.