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Voters could call for change in state law; constitutional convention on ballot

October 22, 2002
By: Amy Menefee
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - One of the least publicized issues on the November ballot hands Missouri voters the opportunity to start the process for redefining the very structure of Missouri government and the rights of its citizens.

It is the question of whether Missouri should hold a constitutional convention -- a question some call "dangerous."

"It would be politics on a grand scale," said Secretary of State Matt Blunt. "Every issue Missourians care about would become a part of the constitution. A lot would be at stake."

If voters approved the measure, Gov. Bob Holden would call for the election of delegates to the convention. A total of 83 delegates would be elected -- two from each of Missouri's 34 Senate district and 15 delegates elected statewide.

The convention could propose an entirely new constitution or just propose amendments to the existing document. Any proposed changes would require voter approval to take effect.

Senate veteran John Schneider, D-St.Louis County, said the circumstances of a convention would be new for everyone.

"People are scared to death of a convention because of many issues," Schneider said. "The attitude of the legislature is, who knows what would happen? It would be dangerous."

Rick Hardy, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, agreed.

"There is a danger of a very divisive runaway convention," Hardy said. "Maybe we're better off with the equilibrium we've got."

That equilibrium could be upset if interest groups jumped onto the idea of a convention, due to the variety of issues that would be brought into discussion of a new or modified constitution.

Hardy said anything from abortion to gun rights and the size of the Missouri General Assembly would be up for debate and inclusion or exclusion from a new constitution.

Blunt said he didn't know how much the convention would cost, though that would have to be addressed quickly if voters called for it.

"There would be a cost in establishing a convention," Blunt said. "My guess is if voters were to approve it, then the legislature would need to immediately appropriate funds for a constitutional convention."

The constitutional convention question goes before Missouri voters every 20 years, in accordance with a provision established in 1922.

The last convention was called in 1942, which yielded the constitution that still stands today. In 1982 voters rejected the call by almost 70 percent.

Hardy said the constitution of 1945 has become long and involved.

"It's getting to rival the New Testament in terms of length," Hardy said. He said continued amending of the constitution could cause confusion about its role as "fundamental law."

"States tend to get statutory law confused with fundamental law," Hardy said, emphasizing that the constitution is supposed to be the fundamental basis of law. The current constitution has almost 60 amendments.

Hardy said with the means already available for amending the constitution -- referendum and initiative petition -- voters probably won't see much purpose in calling for a convention.

Blunt agreed.

"The amendment process is something voters use," Blunt said. "They have reasonable ballot access."

However, he said that the constitution should be a "living document."

"Documents need to reflect the will of the people," Blunt said.