Guest Commentary

Clean Missouri — Amendment 1 — will help clean up Show-Me politics

Michael A. Wolff, former judge and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri
Michael A. Wolff, former judge and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri

Our Missouri Constitution allows voter-driven ballot proposals for a good reason: Politicians in Jefferson City — and their special-interest and lobbyist friends — have no interest in cleaning up their cozy insider system of gifts, favors and designing their own legislative districts.

The people will have to order the cleanup, and our constitution gives them that power. Constitutional Amendment 1, approved for the ballot by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, would give voters a real chance to get our state government back on track.

A bipartisan coalition of individuals and organizations is supporting this ballot measure, which is known as the Clean Missouri initiative. They submitted the signatures of 231,460 registered Missouri voters, more than enough to get Amendment 1 on the ballot.

Recently I examined Amendment 1. It is well crafted and complies with the constitution’s standards. It will be effective — a great first step in cleaning up Missouri politics and leveling the playing field so that the interests of average citizens can prevail over the moneyed interests.

Voters have heard a lot — too much — about “corruption” and misbehavior in Missouri politics. Constitutional Amendment 1 will give voters the opportunity to fight back. But as often happens, the folks who are on the wrong side of the public interest file lawsuits to defeat initiative petitions in court because they don’t think they can defeat them at the polls. That’s what they’ve done here. The Missouri Court of Appeals will hear arguments Thursday.

The state constitution says that a ballot proposal must contain only a single subject. The lobbyists and special interests lawsuit say that “ethics” and the system of drawing of legislative districts are separate subjects. Sad to say, ethics to them may indeed be separate from the way they do business. But ethics is the subject. Those who see ethics as separate from the rest of the legislative process — including campaign money, redistricting, lobbyists’ gifts and transparency — probably have spent too much time in the Capitol.

As our Republican attorney general recently told the trial court on behalf of our secretary of state, Amendment 1 “does not contain multiple subjects, (and) it does not amend multiple articles.” Furthermore, he wrote: “The measure, if enacted by the voters, would promote transparency and accountability in the General Assembly.”

I agree. I hope and expect the court of appeals will apply the legal principles that the attorney general relies on and let the people vote.

Amid the legal wrangling, let’s not lose sight of what’s really at stake: The winners in the current system are big money donors and powerful lobbyists who run the show. Way too many of our legislators know that there’s almost no chance they will lose their job, no matter what they do or don’t do, because of how our district maps are drawn. The losers are the people.

Last year, lobbyists reported giving more than $1 million in gifts to legislators and their staffs. (Our legislature has fewer than 200 members.) Sham hearings are held in private rooms at the local country club. Basic records that the General Assembly expects every other public official to provide to their citizens are kept secret. More than 90 percent of legislative races are uncompetitive.

This is no way to run a democracy.

Amendment 1 is the people’s chance. It will lower campaign contribution limits for state legislative candidates, ensure fair districts, eliminate fancy gifts from lobbyists, end the practice of legislators becoming lobbyists shortly after leaving office, and make state government much more transparent.

I’m hopeful that Amendment 1 will survive the legal challenge, and on Nov. 6 the people will win.

Michael A. Wolff, a former judge and chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, is professor emeritus and former dean of Saint Louis University Law School.