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I attended the training in St. Louis yesterday (Sat.) for the Your Vote Counts petition drive.  This is an effort to collect enough signatures to have a vote of the people in November 2012 on whether to add an amendment to the Missouri Constitution that will require a 3/4 vote of both houses of the state legislature to overturn or amend a law passed by the voters through the initiative petition process.  It will also allow the legislature to send a law they don’t like back to the voters, so essentially, it will make it harder for legislators to do what they did and tried to do this past legislative session to so many progressive victories in the past.

I know there are many progressives opposed to this petition drive, and I respect independent thinking.  I went with an open but cautious mind yesterday for that reason.  People I admire greatly have given me their reasons for not participating in this process, so I wanted to hear the reasons why I should.

I arrived a few minutes late (parking in U City is the pits) so I didn’t get the introductions and names.  I looked up the man who ran the session online.  He is M. Dane Waters, President and Co-Chair of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC – CalTech Center for the Study of Law and Politics.  He is currently directing the initiative and referendum projects of the Humane Society of the U.S.

(I’d guess that 3/4 of the 60 or so people at the training were there because of Prop B.  I recognized many of the faces from rallies this spring.)   His main point is that “We, the People” have the rights in this country.  We “give” the federal and state governments some of those powers in order to manage our society more efficiently.  His implication seemed to be that, if we don’t use our rights of initiative and referendum, we will lose those rights and too much power is vested in the hands of a few elected officials already.

A man whose first name is Patrick from Citizens in Charge spoke briefly about how the Missouri Constitution grants the people the right to initiative and referendum.  (For those who aren’t familiar with those terms,  an initiative is a proposed law or const. amendment initiated by voters.  A referendum is when an already passed law is “referred” back to the voters.)   I looked up Citizens in Charge, and it is definitely a very conservative group and includes prominent Libertarians on its board.

Rep. Scott Sifton was the next to talk to us.  He described how he was inundated by proposals to change many of the laws passed by the initiative process within 24 hours of arriving to take his seat as a first-term legislator.  He said his first thought was, “Why bother voting if the legislature is just going to overturn or gut what the people want?”   He introduced a bill that would require a 3/4 vote of the legislators to overturn something that was recently passed.  And then scaled back to 2/3 when an issue had been on the books awhile.  Of course the GOP leadership sat on his bill and it never came up for a vote.  Scott said that progressive Democrats have to use the initiative and referendum (I & R) process because we are so outnumbered in the legislature, and the chances of progressive Dems controlling both houses any time soon are very slim.  He also mentioned that, although many individuals and groups say requiring a 3/4 vote is too high, most of the bills passed in the legislature this year received 90 to 95% of the vote.

He said he understands why representatives from districts that vote against I & R proposals by large majorities feel the need to try to overturn them.  If a 3/4 vote is required to return the issue to the voters, those legislators will have less incentive to do that.

Next on the agenda was Barbara Schmitz, Missouri Director of HSUS.  She said animal protection supporters are outnumbered and outspent which makes it impossible to get anything passed in the legislature.  Her group and others have tried for 20 yrs to update the law passed in 1992 that regulated puppy mills, all to no avail.  (She didn’t mention it but the attacks on HSUS are funded by the same industries and billionaires who attack everything else progressives try to do.  E.g., the same people who fight us when we try to raise the cigarette tax.  I have tons of info on those groups if anyone wants more on that.)

Former Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell was, by far, the most dynamic speaker at the session.  His involvement with this campaign to protect the vote of the people is because of the renewable energy issue (Prop C) passed by 66% of the voters in 2008.  He was very involved in that campaign and has been working with a group of people since it passed to write the rules to put it into effect.  They finished their work in December 2010, turned it in, and the legislature’s first priority was to gut the whole thing.  So, he said, within 30 days, a handful of powerful legislators gutted what he had worked on for four years.  He listed many other laws that were gutted or attempts that were made to gut them this spring, and he’s obviously passionate about this petition drive to make it harder for the lege to do that in the future.  He said we’ve been “rolled over, tramped on and flattened” in the halls of the legislature, and we have to do something to stop that.  If it takes a 2/3 vote of the legislature to overturn a governor’s veto, it should take a 3/4 vote to overturn the will of the people.  He said back 20-30 years ago, laws passed by I & R were “sacrosanct.”  The legislators respected the voters enough not to mess with them.  He didn’t say it, but I will.  The anti-government, anti-people yahoos running our state legislature right now are out of control.  Like their ALEC counterparts in Washington, DC, they have no respect for the opinions of others.  They think they are right and will do anything they are allowed to do to dismantle every state and federal program that works for the benefit of the people as individuals.  (www.alec.org)

The Q & A session was a no-holds barred discussion and the suspicions on both sides came out. I asked the question about billionaires who can afford to pay signature gatherers getting their laws passed and how this 3/4 vote of the lege would make it harder for us to overturn them.  Rep. Sifton, Dane Waters and Joe Maxwell all responded saying “the rich will do what the rich always do,” and it’s not true that money always wins in elections.  They had several examples of this including billionaire candidates that don’t get elected.  Dane Waters mentioned Rex Sinquefeld, and Patrick from Citizens in Charge countered with the money the Sowers family put into passing stem cell laws.  (I’m not all that familiar with that issue, so feel free to correct me.)

Dane Waters answered another question about whether the conservative groups in this Protect the Vote coalition are actually going to help, or are they on board just to sabotage the effort.  (I said the discussion was blunt !)  He pointed out that, although the conservative groups in the coalition may not be able to enlist as many signature gatherers as the progressive groups, they can help in other ways.  He mentioned funding, but he also said they could “tamp down” the opposition to the effort.  (I’m not sure what that means in practice.)

I was impressed enough with Dane Waters, Scott Sifton and Joe Maxell that I signed up to be a petition carrier.  Anyone who wants to carry petitions in Missouri must sign up with the Secretary of State’s office.  You do not have to be a registered voter to carry petitions, but the people who sign them do.  You can get all the info you need here.