Local Columnists

June 23, 2014

Dave Helling: Do Missourians face too many questions at the ballot box?

Missourians get the chance to decide policy and law at the voting booth, and they will do so again on Aug. 5, when they will face a list of five proposed amendments to the state’s constitution. It may not be the best way to run a state — or a republic.

On Aug. 5, hundreds of thousands of Missourians will head to the polls for the state’s primary election. They’re likely to find few choices of interest. There’s no U.S. Senate race this year, the U.S. House races have been quiet and races for the state legislature seem equally calm.

At the same time, voters will confront, at the bottom of their ballots, a bewildering list of five proposed amendments to the state’s constitution.

A right to farm and a right to arms. The largest tax hike in state history. Extending privacy protections to electronic communications. Starting a lottery to cover veterans programs.

It seems unlikely voters will be well-acquainted with the arguments for and against all of these proposals. Perhaps that fact will prompt a healthy discussion about the wisdom of government by referendum in the state.

In general, Missourians are fiercely protective of their right to consider changes to the state’s laws and its constitution. They have exercised that right lots of times — on gambling, animal welfare, taxes, weapons and a host of other issues.

Yet constant public votes on public policy can be problematic. Increasingly, politicians in both parties use the referendum power not to settle sticky issues of law or policy but for their own purposes: to goose turnout or to affect an unrelated race.

In 2012, for example, Missouri Republicans pushed a “right to pray” constitutional amendment that they hoped would boost turnout in the November presidential election.

Instead, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon — also gaming the system — put the matter on the August ballot, where a heavier-than-expected religious turnout may have helped U.S. Rep. Todd Akin in the GOP Senate primary.

Republicans may remember how that turned out.

But the concern is bigger than mere scheduling. Government by referendum can let elected officials escape responsibility.

That’s particularly true in Missouri, since all tax increases must go on the ballot. The central complaint about the state’s recently enacted tax cut isn’t the reduction in revenue, which may be relatively modest. Instead, if revenues do fall short, it would take a statewide vote to raise taxes, a cumbersome and difficult endeavor.

Tea partiers are fond of pointing out that America is a republic, not a democracy. But let’s understand what that means. In this country, people don’t make the laws. They elect the people who make the laws.

In Missouri, on important issues, that seems less and less the case. Remember that as you work through the ballot on Aug. 5.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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