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Government, Politics & Issues

Missouri Senate Leaders Make Redistricting Change Prime Priority In 2020 Session

Missouri Senate on the second day of the 2020 legislative session Jan. 9, 2020
Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
Republican leaders in the Missouri Senate said state redistricting is a top priority and will be one of the first items discussed during the 2020 legislative session.

The GOP leaders of the Missouri Senate say they plan to make changes in the process for drawing the state’s House and Senate districts a top priority — and are prepared to withstand any opposition among the Democratic caucus.

That makes it basically inevitable that Missouri voters will decide whether they want to retain a new redistricting system that they approved in 2018 — or largely go back to a prior system that was used to craft state legislative maps.

After the second day of the 2020 session, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters Thursday they plan to take up constitutional amendments early in the session on the redistricting issue. 

Rowden said there’s nearly universal agreement in his caucus that the new system, widely known as Clean Missouri, is unacceptable. The new system gives much of the power over drawing state legislative districts to a demographer. Several lawmakers have introduced amendments that would, if approved by voters, transfer that power to a bipartisan commission — and, if that commission deadlocks, appellate judges.

“I’ve got 24 people who are willing to stay all night,” said Rowden, referring to his 24-person GOP caucus. “I have 24 people who are willing to answer quorum calls. So that really opens up to be able to work to what we need to do. I don’t envision us having to take any drastic measures to get that thing across the finish line.”

Proponents of Clean Missouri contend that the new system’s emphasis on drawing competitive and fair districts will lead to a more responsive Legislature. But primarily Republican critics believe the new system is oriented to helping Democratic prospects in House and Senate races. 

“There’s people on both sides of the aisle that look at this, and they have some potential issues with what Clean Missouri proposed,” Schatz said. “So it’s not like this is going to be a one-sided argument in conversation. I strongly believe that people look at the redistricting portions of that and are concerned of how that may impact minority districts.”

Schatz is referring to fears among African American lawmakers that the new system may lower the percentage of black voters in districts — and subsequently make it more likely for a white candidate to get elected. Clean Missouri proponents point to language in the amendment that would prevent that type of scenario from occurring. 

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh addresses reporters at a press conference following the second day of the 2020 legislative session on Jan. 9, 2020
Credit Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh told reporters there is no division among Democrats. They will all attempt to keep Clean Missouri intact.

For her part, Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said her caucus is willing to stand up against an attempt to send legislative redistricting changes to the ballot. Walsh and other Democrats have said that any effort to change the new redistricting system is an affront to the will of Missouri voters.

“I would venture to guess that my caucus is pretty lockstep on Clean Missouri,” Walsh said. “It’s going to be more difficult, because it’s a top priority for Sen. Schatz and Sen. Rowden’s caucus. So we’ll just move forward and see. It’s always tough. The things my caucus does in this chamber are always tough.”

Senate Democrats often have more power to stop bills they don’t like by engaging in the filibuster. But Republicans have been more willing in recent years to use a maneuver known as the previous question to force votes on bills.

And Walsh said Thursday that her caucus is likely to shrink soon from 10 members to eight. That’s because Gov. Mike Parson is expected to appoint Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, to the Public Service Commission and Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, to the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. Both are term-limited from running again.

Once any effort to change redistricting makes it through the Senate, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that the House will send the measure to voters. 

“As optimistic as I want to be, I also have to be realistic at the end of the day. And I fully suspect that voters are going to have the opportunity to weigh in again in November of 2020 about redistricting,” said Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia. 

Kendrick, though, rejected primarily Republican arguments that voters weren’t aware of the state redistricting changes when they voted in 2018. Among other things, Clean Missouri also placed caps on lobbyist gifts and increased the waiting period for lawmakers and staff to become lobbyists.

“Voters showed the ability to thread the needle on three fairly complex and complicated medical marijuana initiatives that were on the ballot,” Kendrick said. “I think Missouri voters studied the proposed ballot language and proposals before they got to the ballot.”

The Senate work on redistricting began Thursday as Schatz referred to committee a redistricting proposal sponsored by Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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