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Groups circumvent legislature with ballot initiatives to amend the constitution

October 17, 2005
By: Leslie Yingling
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY -

Missouri's legislature will find itself left out in the cold if the state's health care industry succeeds with two ballot issues to amend Missouri's constitution.

A proposal for an 80-cent cigarette tax increase and a measure to protect stem cell research have both skipped the General Assembly in favor of constitutional ballot initiatives.

If approved by Missouri voters, the cigarette tax increase and stem-cell research protection measures would be immune to legislative tampering. Unlike legislative law changes, constitutional amendments cannot be modified by lawmakers.

"Sometimes people feel they're not being heard, and proposing a constitutional amendment is a method to circumvent the legislature," said Richard Hardy, an associate professor of political science at MU who has been involved in three constitutional amendment initiatives in Missouri.

Despite bypassing the General Assembly, the strategy doesn't guarantee public support or judicial approval, he said.

Petitions for the initiatives will require nearly 150,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

Both proposed amendments are detailed in ways that further bar legislators from molding their implications.

The stem cell research initiative details consequences for violators of the proposed amendment guidlines, including specific prison sentences. The amendment to institute a higher cigarette tax specify how the tax revenue could be spent: 17.5 percent toward free help for Medicaid recipients who want to quit smoking; 28.5 precent toward health care and disease management; and 54 percent would pay reimbursement to doctors who see Medicaid patients.

Advocates of both proposals say amending the constitution will protect their initiatives.

Lori Pickens, a spokesperson for the coalition behind the tobacco tax proposal, said constitutional amendment is the best way to ensure appropriate use of the tax revenue.

"The public has a great deal of concern about the funds not being used by the legislature in the way they're intended," she said.

A group of medical organizations, patient advocacy groups and businesses has launched a campaign to amend the state Constitution to guarantee that all stem cell research procedures allowed by federal law also be permitted in Missouri.

Donn Rubin, the chairman of the coalition behind the stem cell research measure, said a constitutional amendment was a natural choice for the organization, calling past legislative efforts to ban stem cell research "fundamentally unfair."

"Only a constitutional amendment can provide the permanence and certainty to protect patient rights from current or future legislative attempts to criminalize or ban stem cell research and cures," he said.

Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, led an effort to ban stem cell research earlier this year and said he intends to file similar legislation in 2006.

Aside from anticipating that a measure protecting stem cell research would likely die in the General Assembly, Rubin said a public vote would be more reflective of Missourians than a legislative hearing. He said he is confident the measure will see voter approval.

Hardy said to expect a maelstrom of controversy surrounding the "emotionally charged" ballot initiatives.

"Amending the constitution is a real way to circumvent the legislature, " he said.

"It is a political tool that some argue shouldn't be used, but sometime it's necessary."