Senator Holly Thompson Rehder's Legislative Column for April 28, 2023
Friday, April 28, 2023
Protecting Our Constitution
In 2022, Missourians went to the polls and amended Missouri’s Constitution to allow adults to possess and consume marijuana for recreational purposes. Amendment 3 passed with 53% of Missouri voters in favor, but enthusiasm for the change was hardly statewide. The recreational marijuana proposal passed in just 13 of Missouri’s 114 counties, plus the city of St. Louis. Urban and suburban residents voted to legalize pot, but rural Missourians mostly did not.
Recreational marijuana legalization was rejected in each of the seven counties I represent in the State Senate. In fact, the outcome wasn’t even close. The highest approval rate by any county currently included in the 27th Senatorial District was just 45%, with most counties well below that. Only 32% of voters in Bollinger County supported the amendment. By comparison, 73% of voters in the city of St. Louis approved Amendment 3. Jackson County, which includes the city of Kansas City, carried the proposal by 68%.
This week, the Missouri Senate advanced legislation to make it just a little bit harder for a few areas of the state to impose their will at the ballot box. House Joint Resolution 43 raises the threshold for passing constitutional amendments to 57% of voters statewide. The legislation would still allow the constitution to be amended by a simple 50%-plus-1 majority of voters, but only if a ballot measure carries five of Missouri’s eight congressional districts. Because the Senate made changes, HJR 43 will have to go back to the House of Representatives for another vote. Assuming the House approves our changes, an amendment to the constitution will appear on an upcoming ballot and voters will have the final say.
I believe it’s critical that HJR 43 is approved by the Legislature and brought before voters. Missouri is one of only 16 states that allow constitutional amendments to be placed on the ballot through initiative petitions. Many positive changes have come through citizen-led petitions — the formation of the Missouri Conservation Department, our nonpartisan system of appointing judges and the Hancock Amendment, which protects Missourians from out-of-control taxation, among them. But I believe the recreational marijuana issue proved that with our current system, rural voices don’t count.
The idealistic image of citizen-led democracy often doesn’t match reality. The way I understand it, recreational marijuana became legal in Missouri because a well-funded special interest group wrote a 39-page change to our constitution and then hired canvassers to gather signatures in support. It’s no surprise they focused their efforts in urban and suburban areas and largely avoided small towns. In fact, backers of legal marijuana gathered fewer than 5,000 valid signatures in Southeast Missouri, where 26,800 signatures were needed to show sufficient support in Congressional District 8.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion advocates have looked to initiative petitions as a way to thwart the will of state legislatures. Already, proposed petitions to overturn Missouri’s pro-life laws have been filed with the Secretary of State. If past history is any indication, these efforts will be led and funded by out-of-state groups, and will focus their signature gathering campaigns in urban and suburban areas. Their strategy is simple. Get enough people in the cities to vote to allow abortion and it doesn’t matter how rural Missourians vote.
Passage of HJR 43 will give Missouri voters the opportunity to make it more difficult for out-of-state special interest groups to meddle in our constitutional amendment process. Raising the threshold for voter approval will help ensure amendments are supported statewide.
During the debate, a last-minute amendment was offered, and although it seemed good on its face, it had not been previously discussed or vetted. I’ve spoken about the amendment process before. Tossing an unvetted amendment in at the last minute is reckless. With the lives of unborn children in the balance, I wasn’t willing to risk this critical legislation’s success on language added in such a manner.
I will keep you updated as this critical legislation goes back to the House.
I always appreciate hearing your comments, opinions and concerns. Please feel free to contact me in Jefferson City at (573) 751-2459. You may write me at Holly Thompson Rehder, Missouri Senate, State Capitol, Rm 433, Jefferson City, MO 65101, send an email to Holly.Rehder@senate.mo.gov or visit www.senate.mo.gov/Rehder.