On Tuesday, November 2, 52% of Missouri voters chose to support Proposition B, the so-called Puppy Mill law. Among its several provisions was one to limit the number of dogs a breeder may own to 50 and another dictating the air temperature in which pets were housed. Some argued in this journal that these provisions were problematic (Stanley Cox did so here and Jason Barnes here). Others argued that some of the specifics of Prop B simply put it in conflict with the state constitution. Later, the legislature voted to amend the language of the law created by Prop B and Governor Nixon signed off.
In response, the sponsors of the original Prop B along with a coalition of groups (listed below) drafted a constitutional amendment, the Your Vote Counts Act, to require that any changes to a voter-approved initiative require a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate. They reason that anything passed by a vote of the people should be more difficult to overturn or amend.
This seems to be a recurring problem in Missouri. According to Washington University professor Gregory Magarian, "Missouri appears to be a national leader in overturning voter initiatives." The legislature has acted against the publicly stated will of the people on matters dealing with handguns (2003), minimum wage (2006), clean energy (2008) and school funding (2009) in addition to the 2010 puppy mill vote. Sponsors of the measure are right to ask, if the people's will can so easily be overridden, what point is there to a petition process in the first place?
Missouri is not alone in considering some remedy for an overly reactive state legislature. Eleven states which allow voters to draft legislation through petition or referendum offer added protections from amendment or repeal. Some require a period of time to elapse before the legislature may amend it or--as in what is suggested for Missouri--require a supermajority vote.
The effort in Missouri is not promoted solely by The Humane Society either. It is supported by right-leaning groups such as Citizens in Charge, Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers Union, US Term Limits and Americans for Limited Government. Among those on the left, the effort is supported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri.
The Missouri Record has published at least five columns urging that the petition process be strengthened:
Most of the above deal with the problems of getting a petition to the ballot--past incompetent or corrupt state officeholders. But none of those reforms would make a bit of difference if the legislature was free to change voter-approved language for which they did not care.
Certainly, as in the case with the Prop B, the legislature will need to act if a law enacted by petition is blatantly unconstitutional. The Your Vote Counts Act does not stop the legislature from doing this--it merely increases the threshold needed to overturn the direct express wishes of the people. If enacted, future efforts will require more persuasion and more bipartisanship. Who could be against that?