By Phill Brooks
There is an issue on Missouri’s statewide general election ballot that I will be watching to see if Missourians continue a trend of rejecting the decisions of their elected officials.
It is the initiative petition proposal to legalize possession and sale of marijuana.
That’s an idea that has made no headway in the legislature.
In recent years, Missourians have approved other ballot issues that had been blocked in the General Assembly.
By nearly a two-to-one margin in 2018, Missouri voters legalized medical marijuana.
This came after the legislature had blocked similar medical marijuana measures for years.
Nearly two years later, Missouri voters expanded eligibility for government-funded Medicaid health-care coverage after legislative inaction on the idea.
Even after voter approval of Medicaid expansion, the Republican-controlled legislature refused to fund the voter-approved expansion until a Missouri Supreme Court decision held funding for expansion was a constitutional mandate.
Another example of this conflict is the 2018 adoption by Missouri voters of the “Clean Missouri” constitutional amendment to change the state legislative redistricting process and impose limits on lobbyists and campaign contributions after years of legislative inaction.
Although two years later Missouri voters approved by a narrow margin a constitutional amendment submitted by the legislature to remove the state demographer process in redistricting.
November’s election result on marijuana legalization might provide an indication of whether this pattern of disharmony between Missouri voters and legislators continues.
Legalizing pot is substantially different than allowing marijuana use only for a medical purpose with a prescription.
There is, of course, a major difference between legislative actions or inactions and Missouri voting decisions on public policy issues.
Making a decision on a complex and controversial issue raises a number of potential ramifications for legislators.
How you vote on a ballot issue is private.
But public legislative actions on controversial issues can effect future votes of constituents, support from colleagues, support from statewide government leaders and contributions from both state and national special interests.
Some of these special interest organizations have long memories about a legislator’s voting record.
Beyond that, as we have seen, a public legislative roll call vote can be used in the future for negative attack advertisements against the legislator by political opponents.
Further, there also are many more substantive public policy factors for legislators to consider.
The unintended consequences or governmental costs of legislative proposals can generate intense legislative scrutiny.
These complicated ramifications of a proposal get far less attention, if any, in statewide media campaigns that tend to focus on simplistic arguments financed by state and national special interests both for and against ballot issues.
Unfortunately, these media advertisements usually do not provide a balanced presentation of both sides of an issue.
I have no doubt that the framers of Missouri’s Constitution established the ballot-issue imitative and referendum petition processes to give Missouri voters a way to get around legislative inaction or unpopular action.
But I’m also sure that decades ago, our state constitutional authors did not realize the growth of special interest money that would finance simplistic mass-media advertising to influence voter decisions.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.