Mo. newspapers demand legislators follow people’s ‘will’ on initiatives

Newspapers in Missouri and beyond the state’s borders are demanding that politicians obey the “will of the people.” They are upset over Missouri politicians trying to undo measures passed by voters in fall 2018 by wide margins.

A piece published in the Jefferson City News Tribune declared: “Each time the Missouri Legislature repeals something directly enacted by voters, it loses credibility, understanding, frustrating and angering voters.”

Over the past two decades, the state legislature has undone the will of the people – voiding their electoral wishes on such issues as concealed weapons limitations, ethics reform, casinos, puppy mill restrictions and more.

A spate of news stories and opinion pieces this January focused on the overwhelming voter passage of Amendment 1 in November, and whether it would survive a meddling state legislature. Known as Clean Missouri,  it passed when a 62 percent majority of voters decided they wanted to clean up the campaign cash and the gerrymandering shenanigans that have corrupted governance in Missouri.

The Missouri voters spoke loudly:

  • To end limitless gifts to legislators from paid lobbyists.
  • To end campaign payola changing hands – even on the statehouse floor.
  • To end the revolving door when retiring legislators transform themselves into highly-paid lobbyists.

Perhaps the most odious part of Amendment 1 in the eyes of the Missouri majority party concerns the nagging issue of gerrymandering state political districts to favor one party. Both the governor and the state legislature have taken offense.

Amendment 1 will now enable a state demographer to map out districts to make them more competitive and less partisan. This might end a situation in which primary elections become more important than general elections.

Primary races become all-important when districts have been drawn to be overwhelmingly red or blue. Then the question is not whether Democrats or Republicans will win a district, but what  candidate will represent the party as determined by the primary.

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, wants state lawmakers in 2019 to scratch the portion of Clean Missouri that is intended to end the gerrymandering practices. Missouri’s Senate President Pro Tem, Schatz said he thinks “it’s a major concern for this majority, in how that (Amendment 1) is going to impact the future (election process).”

         Governor Weighs In

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson told the Associated Press that he wants legislators to void portions of the amendment that reform the way district boundaries are drawn.

“Fundamentally, you think when the people vote you shouldn’t be changing that vote,” Parson told the Associated Press. “But the reality of it is that is somewhat what your job is sometimes, if you know something’s unconstitutional, if you know some of it’s not right.”

News media reaction to Gov. Parson’s expressed desire to void the wishes of state voters was swift.

From the St. Joseph News-Press: “A majority of Missourians, a sizable one, passed Constitutional Amendment 1 less than two months ago. Supporters called it ‘Clean Missouri’ because of its insistence on restricted gifts by lobbyists to lawmakers and increased adherence to open record laws. Nearly two-thirds of state voters thought this to be a good idea. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson was not among them. He told The Associated Press recently that he favors repealing this amendment that still has its new-car smell.”

From the Kansas City Star: “The Amendment 1 is a first step to focus on what the people want instead of letting powerful lobbyists, big money and extreme partisanship drive the agenda in Jefferson City … Now a few powerful lobbyists and politicians are plotting to undermine the will of the people. They say they might use lawsuits or deceitful legislative action to gut these desperately needed reforms …”

From the Quincy Herald-Whig: “In arguing for passage of Amendment 1, we said it would send a strong, clear message to Jefferson City that voters are taking back their state government … Now that voters have overwhelmingly agreed, they should let lawmakers know it would be a mistake to ignore their decision and arbitrarily attempt to cast the provisions of Amendment 1 aside before they have been put in place.”

     Open Records Targeted

Missouri politicians are not just intent on saving the practices that protect gerrymandering in the state. They also have taken aim at Clean Missouri’s open records provisions ensuring transparency in government.

Less than two weeks into its 2019 session, state legislators voted to thumb their noses at Missouri voters and to restrict access to their correspondence. Republicans insisted that each individual member can act as a custodian of his or her own records and “constituent case files” and can decide what should be confidential.

Amendment 1 provides that such materials as legislative emails be treated as open records. However, state legislators turned around and decided that constituent case files can be exempted from Sunshine Laws. They deemed these files to be “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member and a constituent, or between a member and any other party pertaining to a constituent’s grievance, a question of eligibility for any benefit as it relates to a particular constituent, or any issue regarding a constituent’s request for assistance.”

This lawmaker gobbledegook makes it essentially unnecessary for legislators to purchase new message-destroying apps, such as used by disgraced Gov. Eric Greitens on his smart phone. Legislators in January resorted to more conventional measures to make it possible to keep shady correspondence from seeing the light of day.

News media reaction to politicians’ actions to void the Sunshine provisions of Amendment 1 were once again swift and unequivocal.

From the Joplin Globe: “Amendment 1 was approved by a margin of nearly two to one, and it contained a number of clean government and ethics provisions, including one requiring legislators and legislative records to be subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. It did not give lawmakers authority to decide unilaterally what should and shouldn’t be released.”

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “Barely two months after Missouri voters said, loudly and clearly, that state legislators’ official records must be open to the public, the Missouri House on Tuesday effectively overturned that vote and declared that members can keep their records closed.”

From the Washington Missourian: “Voters in Missouri in the November election gave strong support for Amendment 1, commonly known as Clean Missouri. It limits gifts to lawmakers, subjects members of the House and Senate to the open-records law … Lawmakers should honor and respect the will of voters and keep their hands off Amendment 1.”

From the Kansas City Star: “Just after getting back to town for a new legislative session, the House passed a rule — subject to the approval of no one — that says lawmakers can opt out of compliance at will and keep their records closed if they want to … It’s almost as if the vote taken 60 days ago no longer applies.”

         Right-To-Work Redux

It’s not just Amendment 1 passed in the Nov. 6, 2018 election that is in the Missouri Legislature’s cross hairs. It also is looking for ways to shoot down the vote of the people in the primary election of Aug.  7, 2018, when Prop A, the so-called right-to-work law, was soundly defeated.

Prop A failed by a whopping 35 percent and the vote killed a 2017 state law that allowed employees at private businesses to avoid paying union dues for their representation. Similar laws passed by legislatures in other states have crippled or destroyed union shops.

In a story this past December, four months after Prop A was defeated by state voters, KSDK television in St. Louis revealed that Gov. Parson began researching ways to reverse the anticipated loss of Prop A – even before voters went to the polls.

KSDK’s I-Team reporters uncovered emails and redacted documents – outlining plans to derail the citizens’ vote – through public records requests. One memo focused on how a push to reinstall right-to-work could bypass voters statewide and be put into effect in a patchwork of city ordinances.

Model city ordinances with right-to-work language came under study in Gov. Parson’s office. The models have been developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization sponsored by the anti-union Koch brothers.

Some emails obtained by the KSDK I-Team show Parson’s staffers putting together charts of Missouri counties  with cities likely to vote for right-to-work ordinances. Parson’s team noted 14 Republican stronghold counties that would be “good candidates” for right-to-work at the county level, based in part, on their support of President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

According to the records gathered by KSDK, the likely counties for right-to-work in Missouri are: Atchison, Barry, Barton, Camden, Cape Girardeau, Dunklin, Howell, Japser, McDonald, Newton, Pemiscot, Putnam, Stone and Taney.

More heavily populated counties such as Boone, Jackson, Kansas City, Platte, St. Louis County and St. Louis City did not make the list and were classified as weak candidates to support right-to-work.     

       Mo. Bill Targets August Vote

Another novel way to crush the will of the people and to nullify the 2018 vote on Prop A has been formulated by state Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa. Taylor’s bill for the 2019 session is tagged as “The Freedom To Work Act.”

Adoption of Taylor’s legislation for freedom in the workplace can take place by putting it on county ballots by a vote of county commissioners or by voter petition. If 50 percent of the counties in the state, plus one additional county, adopt the provisions of the bill, the provisions will then become effective in every county in the state.   

Missouri has 114 counties and St. Louis City. If 59 counties voted for right-to-work, then it would become law statewide. If the 59 counties in Missouri with the smallest populations voted for right-to-work, it is conceivable that 300,000 voters could count for more than the voters in just one county, pro-labor St. Louis County.

Right to work could become state law, and the vote on Prop A could be voided, with about 300,000 votes. To prevent that from happening, pro-labor groups would have to organize and promote their position in all 114 Missouri counties and the city of  St. Louis.

The intended outcome of Rep. Taylor’s plan mirrors the 2016 election in which Donald Trump won a majority of counties in the United States, but not the popular vote of Americans, which went for his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Trump supporters are fond of noting that even if Clinton bested Trump by 2.8 million in the popular vote, Trump won 3,084 counties in the United States compared to 57 counties for Clinton. Never mind that those 57 jurisdictions won by Clinton are the most populated, urban counties.

    Missouri Auditor Objects   

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the only statewide official to raise concern over the attempts to nullify the “will of the people” in Missouri is Auditor Nicole Galloway. Several newspapers across Missouri ran Galloway’s op-ed in which she blasted politicians trying to  nullify the will of the people as reflected in statewide votes in 2018.

Galloway declared: “So here’s the question for politicians who want to curtail the will of the people: Why were the voters smart when they elected you, but not so smart when they spoke out on the policies they wanted to see in their government? My message to those politicians is clear: Don’t mess with the voice of Missourians.”

Joan Bray, who served in both the Missouri House and Senate in the 1990’s, now lectures to groups about the threat to overturn Amendment 1. She also has spoken up against a legislative push to end the initiative process that allows voters to pass laws.

“The legislature has undone votes of the people in the past, without a lot of resistance,” said Bray. “This time is different. People are upset. They are not going to let it go this time. My sense is that the legislature may be getting the message, too.

“There are a number of groups, from environmental activists to African-American groups, that are taking aim at the politicians who are trying to undo the will of the voters,” Bray said.

Don Corrigan is the editor-in-chief and co-publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, South County Times and West End Word newspapers in St. Louis. He also is a professor of journalism in the Department of Communications at Webster University in St. Louis where he teaches courses in media law and mass communication.

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