High number of initiative petition filings puts strain on auditor’s office

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office is currently experiencing a glut of initiative petitions that are wearing its resources thin. Between Nov. 21 and Dec. 8 – a span of just two-and-a-half weeks – 88 initiative petitions were submitted to the state auditor’s office by Secretary of State Jason Kander for the 2018 election cycle.

So many initiative petitions so early is unusual for the government to process. In the 2016 election cycle, it took 10 months for the auditor’s office to receive that many initiative petitions. For the 2014 election cycle, it took over a year to reach that number.

Before a petition can become eligible for signatures, it must go through a multi-step process, and one of those steps involves sending it to the state auditor’s office for the creation of a fiscal note and fiscal note summary to be included in the ballot language. This fiscal note gives potential petition signers a chance to see the financial impact a given petition would have on the state, if it has any at all.

The process of determining a fiscal note involves consulting with local and state government bodies or anyone that may have knowledge of the proposal’s impact. Government departments are involved in the process, and other stakeholders can weigh in on the process as well. Any estimate must be submitted within 10 days of the auditor’s office receiving the petition from the secretary of state.

After sorting, analyzing and verifying those estimates, the state auditor sends their final fiscal note and fiscal note summary to the attorney general. After the attorney general approves of the legality of the summary (which needs to written in as unbiased a manner as possible and distilled to under 50 words), the auditor’s office then sends that final fiscal note and fiscal note summary back to the secretary of state’s office for inclusion in the ballot language.

Needless to say, it’s quite a bit of work for everyone involved in the process, especially since there is theoretically no limit on the number of initiative petitions that can be submitted to the secretary of state’s office for approval.

Gena Terlizzi, a spokesperson for the office, said that while the office had not made plans to hire additional staff to handle the high influx of IPs, the sheer volume of petitions had the office working at capacity.

Attorney Chuck Hatfield, who does a lot of work with initiative petition filings and lawsuits, has two theories as to why filers have been so active. He has two theories that both conclude petitioners are submitting their IPs in a strategic matter. First, he says, some simply want to start gathering signatures as soon as possible. There is no hard deadline on when you can submit petitions, only on turning in the required signatures – usually in early May, a set number of weeks before an election.

“It’s a long and expensive process,” he says. “One million dollars is probably the minimum you’re going to need. People are starting as early as they can to give themselves the most time.”

Second, it may have to do with a changing of the guard in the secretary of state’s office. Hatfield stresses that this option is more a supposition, but he believes those currently filing IPs know how Kander, a Democrat, is likely to write ballot language for a certain IP, while incoming Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a Republican, is an unknown quantity in that regard. Hatfield stresses that how a ballot proposal is written can contribute a great deal to whether it passes or not, pointing to the nuance involved in IPs submitted on embryonic stem cell research and human cloning in the early 2000’s.

Many of the initiative petitions submitted so far involve the legalization of medical marijuana and cannabis decriminalization, and others involve the institution of the Fair Chase Amendment, which would outlaw the confined hunting of big game. On those divisive issues, a progressive Democrat and a conservative Republican could definitely write differing language.

Sean Nicholson of GPS Impact has submitted eight versions of one petition that would overhaul ethics in regards to the legislature including a ban on gifts from lobbyists and a stricter “revolving door” ban. He says the reason that he feels the need to submit petitions is because the General Assembly has failed to listen to voters on important issues. For instance, Fred Sauer’s initiative petition limiting campaign contributions passed by a wide margin in November, despite strong opposition from the majority in the General Assembly.

“The Legislature has shown that it’s completely unresponsive to the demands and needs of the voters who send our legislators to Jefferson City,” Nicholson said. “Certainly, there are leaders that are in the House and Senate right now that are very responsive to the demands of donors, but when it comes to things that improve the lives of their constituents, the Legislature hasn’t been addressing those needs.”

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