Missouri GOP gov seeks to overturn will of the people, admits that doesn't look great

"Fundamentally, you think when the people vote you shouldn't be changing that vote," Gov. Mike Parson said, but added that sometimes it must be done.
Image: Mike Parson
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks to The Associated Press during an interview in his Capitol office in Jefferson City, Missouri on Dec. 18, 2018.David A. Lieb / AP

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By Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — When then-Missouri state Sen. Mike Parson didn't agree with a voter-approved law imposing tough regulations on dog breeders, he led a legislative effort to repeal the measure and replace it with a tamer version.

Now eight years later as governor, Parson believes a similar repeal-and-replace effort is necessary for a new voter-approved constitutional amendment revising the way Missouri's legislative districts are drawn. Beyond that, Parson said in an interview with The Associated Press, it may also be time to raise the bar for initiative petitions to appear on the ballot.

The Republican governor acknowledges that neither of those things may sound good to voters.

"Fundamentally, you think when the people vote you shouldn't be changing that vote," Parson told the AP. "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."

Parson, who ascended to chief executive after Republican Gov. Eric Greitens resigned in June, will be participating in his first legislative session as governor in 2019. It's a position that gives him a more powerful voice in shaping state policy, even though he no longer is directly involved in drafting details as he was during his tenure in Legislature, from 2005 to 2017.

Voters last month overwhelimingly approved Constitutional Amendment 1. Dubbed "Clean Missouri" by supporters, the measure limited lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, subjected lawmakers to the state open-records law and changed the process for redrawing legislative districts after the 2020 census.

It created a new position of "nonpartisan state demographer" who will draw state House and Senate maps that achieve "partisan fairness" and "competitiveness" by basing them on the votes cast for Republicans and Democrats in previous statewide elections.

An AP analysis found the formula is likely to increase Democrats' chances of winning elections and cut into Republicans' supermajorities in the state House and Senate. The measure doesn't change congressional redistricting, which is handled by state lawmakers. Repealing it would require a new measure to be placed before voters.

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Parson said politics still will creep into the redistricting process. He notes that politicians — the state auditor and majority and minority leaders of the Senate— will be involved in selecting the demographer. He also criticized the criteria for partisan fairness.

"When you start talking about what they proposed in the redistricting, of how do you make districts even, I think that's so questionable," Parson said.

Republican legislative leaders also have said they may consider changes to Amendment 1 during the session that starts Jan. 9.

"I think the initiative petition itself, there's a lot more to it than what the standard person can understand," said state Sen. Dave Schatz, whom colleagues nominated as the next Senate president pro tem. "I think we're going to have to get some legal opinions on truly the effects of what Clean Missouri really does."

Democratic consultant Sean Nicholson, who directed the Clean Missouri campaign, opposes any efforts to change the measure.

"We'll fight tooth and nail to protect the win and to stand up for voters," Nicholson said.

Officials in other states also have sought to undo voter initiatives.

South Dakota is a prime example. Lawmakers in 2017 repealed voter-approved ethics regulations. House Speaker Mark Mickelson then spearheaded successful measures for the 2018 ballot requiring initiatives to stick to a single subject and banning out-of-state funding for initiatives. Voters rejected a third proposal that would have required a 55 percent threshold for voters to approve future constitutional amendments.

Missouri voters in 2010 approved Proposition B, which capped breeding businesses at 50 dogs and required larger living spaces. Parson warned at the time that the law was "shutting down an entire industry in this state." He led the charge for legislation in 2011 that repealed the 50-dog limit and pared back some other requirements.

Parson told the AP this past week that broader changes may be needed to slow the proliferation of citizen ballot initiatives, which he said are used by individuals and groups "with deep pockets" who "have their own agendas that they're wanting to push."

To qualify a proposed statute for the ballot, supporters must gather signatures equal to 5 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election in six of the state's eight congressional districts. For proposed constitutional amendments, that threshold is 8 percent. Initiative supporters write their own measures; the secretary of state prepares a summary that appears on petitions and ballots.

"The bar should be a little higher for how you do one, and I think there definitely should be streamlining in how the language is wrote," Parson said without going into specifics.

Nicholson said he would oppose any attempt to make it harder on initiative sponsors.

"Getting on the ballot was pretty darn hard," he said, "and then you have to go make your case and win anyway."