JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Less than one month into the 2023 legislative session, Missouri lawmakers are taking up two big priorities for Republicans: education and initiative petition reform.
Representatives spent Wednesday focused on initiative petition, which are how referendums like recreational and medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion made it on the ballot. Under current law, it takes a simple majority, meaning votes in favor than against. Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, is sponsoring House Joint Resolution 43, which would increase the threshold needed to approve a referendum.
“The Missouri Constitution is a living document but not an ever-expanding document, and right now it’s becoming an ever-expanding document with over 60 additions since 1945 to the constitution,” Henderson said. “Missouri has one of the larger constitutions in the country.”
The most recent initiative petition was Amendment 3, which voters approved in November, legalizing recreational marijuana for those 21 and older and expunging non-violent marijuana offenses.
HJR 43 would require an initiative petition to receive 60% approval from voters in order to pass. Democrats say this takes away the people’s voice.
“If you want to do away with the initiative process, do away with it,” Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, said. “But don’t sell the people of Missouri a false bill of goods.”
If the legislation is approved by the General Assembly, voters would have the final say, but it’s the question on the ballot that caused some heartburn.
“The first thing we have on the ballot language says, ‘to allow only citizens of the United States to qualify as legal voters’ and my fear is that people are going to go to the ballot box and think that this is what that’s about and they are going to be misled,” Rep. David Tyson Smither, D-Columbia said.
The ballot language as it reads in the legislation right now says:
“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to:
Allow only citizens of the United States to qualify as legal voters;
Require initiative petitions proposing to amend the constitution to be reviewed by the 8 voters in each congressional district; and
Require amendments to the constitution be approved by a sixty percent vote?”
“They [voters] are getting hoodwinked by us, or really by you all I should say, by the folks in this building, that time and time again have said, we saw what voters voted for, now we’re going to undo it,” Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis said.
Senate President Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said last week he is hesitant to make it more difficult to put ballot proposals before the voters and instead would rather make it hard to pass constitutional amendments.
The legislation that was given first round approval by the House Tuesday would not increase the number of voter signatures needed to put an amendment on the ballot. Members spent nearly three hours debating the bill. The measure is set for a final vote Thursday morning. If approved, it heads to the Senate.
Over in the Senate, members debated a bill that would create a transparency portal for parents and restrict educators from teaching critical race theory, but the legislation doesn’t define what CRT is.
“The teacher is going to get up there and be afraid to say something because they are not sure if it’s going to be controversial,” Sen. Doug Beck, D-St. Louis said. “They are not sure if it’s going to be divisive.”
Senate Bill 4, 42 and 89 would allow parents to inject themselves into their students’ education, better known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” Under this provision, the state’s education department would start an accountability portal where districts would be required to make materials used in curriculum public online.
“The first step is accountability because the unfortunate reality is that parents don’t have confidence often in the schools that their children are attending,” Sen. Ben Brown, R-Washington said. “By having access and feeling involved in the education, I think that can help us rebuild the foundation, rebuild that trust.”
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, would also require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to create a “patriotic and civics training program.” Teachers who complete the training will receive a $3,000 bonus. The bill would also prohibit schools from telling teachers to “personally adopt, adhere to, or profess a position or viewpoint” that would espouse beliefs about one race or ethnicity. If violated, districts could be held liable through legal action.
“This is not about the teaching of history, it’s about what I’ve heard from complaints from parents where kids are being separated in the classroom and then somehow being blamed,” Koenig said.
During debate Wednesday afternoon, he told the chamber that he does not want to prohibit educators from teaching topics of slavery, racial oppression and sexism. What curriculum teachers would be restricted from under the bill’s language is “individuals of any race, ethnicity, color, or national origin are inherently superior or inferior.” Koenig’s bill would also prohibit teachers from placing blame or including their belief or opinion on a collective group or race when it comes to history.
Democrats held the floor for hours, before debate was stopped and the bill was laid over.
“I wonder if it’s incidental that we’re talking about this on the first day of Black History Month,” Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said. “Why are we not talking about paying our teachers? Why is it that we’re trying to prevent educators from teaching anything in reference to Black history? Let’s talk about getting some educators in the field of education. How do we get educators to come to Missouri and teacher? This is not it.”