Government & Politics

Activists aim to put slate of progressive initiatives on Missouri voters' ballots

Cassandra Gould, a reverend at the Quinn Chapel AME Church in Jefferson City and executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, spoke  at a news conference in May for Clean Missouri, a slate of ethics reform proposals that activists want to put on the ballot this fall.
Cassandra Gould, a reverend at the Quinn Chapel AME Church in Jefferson City and executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, spoke at a news conference in May for Clean Missouri, a slate of ethics reform proposals that activists want to put on the ballot this fall.

To a group of faith leaders and government accountability activists, ethics reform is too important to wait for Missouri legislators to get on board.

They're taking their fight for reforms they think will improve Missouri lawmakers directly to voters. On Thursday, they turned in nearly 347,000 signatures gathered by more than 1,600 volunteers to get Clean Missouri's reforms on the 2018 ballot.

"We are frankly tired of talking to our state reps about things that they actually don't listen to, so we believe that it really needed to be the voters collectively speaking in one voice, united to say it is time to get money out of politics," said Cassandra Gould, a reverend at the Quinn Chapel AME Church in Jefferson City and executive director of Missouri Faith Voices.

Activists launched the Clean Missouri campaign shortly after the 2016 general election and hope to pass a slate of reforms, including lowering campaign donation limits, eliminating almost all lobbyist gifts, requiring legislators and Statehouse staffers to wait two years before becoming lobbyists and opening legislative records to the public. Their most hot-button request is an overhaul of the way Missouri draws its legislative districts.

Clean Missouri was one of several high-profile progressive ballot measure petitions turned in this week, along with a proposed minimum wage hike and legalization of medical marijuana. Petitions for 2018 ballot measures are due by 5 p.m. Sunday. After that, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's office will check the signatures and place the proposals on voters' fall ballots.

Clean Missouri

Supporters of Clean Missouri argue that money speaks too loudly in Missouri politics and that their reforms would limit that influence, ensure accountability from public officials and increase transparency.

"When we get big money out of state politics, we force candidates to earn our votes, debate the issues and represent us, their constituents," said Khadijah Wilson, of St. Louis, a leader in the Organization for Black Struggle. "Too often the only people running for political offices are the rich or the well-connected or the people who cave to special interests once they are elected."

Some of their proposals are popular among legislators, too. A ban on lobbyist gifts is working its way through the General Assembly. The Missouri Senate already passed the bill, proposed by Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City. It needs a vote from the House and Gov. Eric Greitens' signature to become law.

Holsman voiced support for the Clean Missouri proposal. His proposed ban on gifts would be more restrictive and overrule that part of Clean Missouri's plan if they both pass, he said.

Redistricting, Holsman said, also would help Missouri House and Senate races become more competitive. He said the way Missouri currently draws its district lines creates districts that lean heavily one way or another. Those legislators are more prone to produce "extreme" legislation to please their bases, he said.

"When you have a 70 percent Republican district or 70 percent Democrat district, you don't worry about the other 30 percent of that district, so you're less responsive to that 30 percent," Holsman said. "Your voting record reflects that."

Across the aisle, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, also backed Clean Missouri in a Senate floor speech this week and voiced support for the two-year ban on lobbying for departing legislators and staffers. Critics of those who leave politics to lobby their former colleagues call it a "revolving door."

"When you see these kind of things — people in Missouri are fed up with this, and they're going to pass this Clean Missouri, I am going to bet big money," Schaaf said.

Others express concern about the redistricting proposal. Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County, called Clean Missouri a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and said the redistricting proposal would shift the General Assembly to the left, calling it "gerrymandering on steroids."

"What's most insulting to the voters of the state of Missouri is that they're trying to do this by disguising it as a ban on lobbying gifts, and I think that's deceitful," Onder said. "And it's just plain wrong."

Onder took issues with Clean Missouri's backing by liberal billionaire George Soros, whose lobbying arm, the Open Society Policy Center, has donated big to the campaign. Since its launch in 2016, Clean Missouri has raised more than $2 million, according to its Missouri Ethics Commission filings.

Clean Missouri's redistricting proposal would turn over the process of drawing House and Senate districts to a nonpartisan expert. The proposed districts would be reviewed by a citizen commission to ensure competitiveness, and an independent demographer would help create the maps. Missouri will have to redraw its districts after the 2020 census.

Minimum wage

A coalition between Raise Up Missouri and the newly launched Missouri Business for a Fair Minimum Wage is arguing a boost to the state's minimum wage would help not just workers, but businesses.

"For years, the cost of basic necessities have continued to go up — the cost of housing, the cost of food, the cost of clothing, the cost of transportation — but wages have not kept up," said Carl Walz, the campaign manager for Raise Up Missouri.

The group turned in 120,000 signatures on Wednesday for a ballot measure that would boost Missouri's minimum wage from $7.85 per hour to $12 per hour gradually until 2023. The event marked the official launch for Missouri Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.

Proponents of a higher minimum wage argue it helps workers, reduces dependency on government resources and injects capital into the economy.

Critics argue minimum wage increases hit businesses' bottom lines and result in layoffs and cuts to employees' hours.

Medical marijuana

A group called New Approach Missouri turned in 372,483 signatures Friday to put medical marijuana before voters this fall.

The proposal would allow physicians to provide medical marijuana treatment to Missouri patients who suffer from cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries and other "serious or debilitating medical conditions," according to a press release.

A tax paid on the treatment and the fees associated with getting a licensed to grow or dispense it would fund veterans' health services, according to the release.

The Missouri House also passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana on a 112-44 vote Tuesday. The measure still needs approval by the Senate to go to Gov. Eric Greitens' desk.

Right to work

So far the only measure certified to appear on the ballot is a referendum on Missouri's new right-to-work law. A coalition of Missouri labor unions put right-to-work on the ballot last year.

Opponents of right to work argue it weakens unions and lowers wages. Supporters argue it gives workers more choice and makes Missouri more business friendly.

Both sides have been raising money in the competitive decision, but Missouri Republicans may opt to move the vote from the November general election to the August primary ballot.