Missourian rights to change their constitution


Missouri’s Republican legislators might want to give a second thought to their party’s push to impose higher vote requirements to amend the state constitution.

If some of these requirements had been in effect in 1980, it likely would have led to voter defeat of a major issue for Republicans.

The 1980 “Hancock” constitutional amendment requires voter approval for tax increases and requires tax refunds when state tax revenues exceed a growth limit defined in the amendment. The amendment is named for Mel Hancock who led the initiative petition to put the proposal on the statewide ballot.

He was a conservative Republican, later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and a fervent opponent of tax increases. Hancock’s constitutional amendment was approved by just 55 percent of Missouri voters in 1980.

That is below the 60 percent vote this year’s House-passed plan would require for passage of a constitutional amendment.

And it might not have met the more complicated Senate-passed alternative that would allow approval by a simple majority statewide vote, but only if the amendment also won a majority approval by voters in more than one-half of the state’s congressional districts. Otherwise, a 57 percent statewide vote would be required.

Hancock’s amendment provides an example of concerns voiced by some Republicans about special interests, including groups outside Missouri, who finance support for constitutional amendments on the ballot. In 1980, Missouri Farm Bureau’s support of Hancock’s amendment was a major reason it made it to the ballot and passed.

I still remember decades ago reading a study from my public policy class that found the length of a state’s constitution correlated with the power of special interests backing constitutional changes. The study concluded that special interests pushed constitutional amendments because unlike a change in law, a constitutional amendment cannot be changed by a state legislature without statewide voter approval.

Missouri Republicans learned that lesson when the Missouri Supreme Court effectively held the Republican-controlled legislature could not block funding for the 2020 voter-approved constitutional amendment mandating expansion of Medicaid health care coverage.

Obviously, Missouri’s political landscape has changed significantly since voter approval of Hancock’s amendment. In 1980 Democrats had a significant majority of both Missouri’s House and Senate. Several voiced concerns about Hancock’s amendment.

Yet, I do not recall any significant Democratic legislative effort to restrict the power of Missouri voters to change the Constitution in response to the Hancock amendment.

A related example of legislative resistance to restricting the power of Missouri voters to change state law was demonstrated a decade earlier.

In 1970, Missouri voters approved a referendum that repealed a major state tax increase proposed by Democrat Gov. Warren Hearnes and passed by the Democrat-controlled state legislature. Although a major political defeat for Democrats, there was no proposal enacted into law to impose a higher vote percentage to overturn a law passed by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.

Of course, a constitutional change is significantly different from changing or repealing a law.

Republican legislators argue that because the Constitution is the foundation of Missouri government it should require more than a simple majority vote to change. Besides, any change the legislature passes to amend the state Constitution would require statewide voter approval.

(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).