Missouri lawmakers violated residents' constitutional rights to amend state laws when they preemptively tinkered with the intent of a renewable energy initiative before it went before voters, the state's highest court decided Tuesday.
The ruling overturns a law that legislators approved that exempted Empire District Electric Co. from a measure requiring electric utilities to give rebates to customers for solar energy projects and produce at least 2 percent of their energy from solar sources. Lawmakers approved the exemption after the measure was scheduled to appear on the ballot but before residents gave the OK to it in November 2008.
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Allowing the Legislature to preemptively overturn an initiative petition and make voting on the ballot measure a "meaningless act" would violate voters' rights under the state constitution, according to the court. But the Legislature can still repeal or limit laws passed by voters after they've been approved, the court's decision notes.
The Legislature also can still pass laws dealing with approved initiative petitions, the court said, but if the measure is approved, the voters' version prevails when there is a conflict.
The exemption that lawmakers approved applied to companies that generate 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Joplin-based Empire District Electric is the only company that qualified.
A spokeswoman for the company said Empire was still reviewing the ruling and intends to comply with the law.
Henry Robertson, an attorney for Renew Missouri, an environmental group that had challenged the exemption, said Empire District Electric customers can now receive the solar rebate that others throughout the state have been getting.
The decision provides some protection for ballot measures that go through the initiative petition process of gathering signatures, Robertson said.
"It certainly removes a potential threat to initiatives," he said. However, after voters weigh in, the Legislature can modify the law. Robertson said that's one reason several groups have more recently decided to try for constitutional amendments, which once passed require another statewide vote to change.