After surviving weeks of legal challenges, a highly contentious initiative that goes before voters next month seeks to institute a number of changes to Missouri’s political and legislative landscapes.
Amendment 1, backed by a group called Clean Missouri, would institute changes that supporters argue are needed to clean up the General Assembly and make state government more transparent.
The proposal includes limiting campaign contributions, lobbyists’ gifts and extending a prohibition on lawmakers becoming lobbyists.
But the biggest — and most controversial — change is the amendment’s plan to alter the way legislative districts are redrawn. Supporters, mainly Democrats, say the current process is broken and that leads to unaccountable politicians; opponents, mainly Republicans, claim the proposal is a power grab by Democrats who are deceiving voters by packaging redistricting with other more popular ethics reforms.
Daniel Mehan, head of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Paul Ritter, a Republican voter, sued to get the initiative off the Nov. 6 ballot, arguing it violated Missouri’s “single-subject” rule. Cole County Circuit Court Judge Dan Green ordered that the initiative be removed from the ballot, but the appeals court overturned that decision a week later. The Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Current redistricting process
Missouri’s legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census. Under the current system, new district maps are drawn by two bipartisan commissions, one from the House and one for the Senate.
The House panel has 16 members, eight from each party, selected by the political parties and the governor; the Senate panel has 10 members, five from each party, selected the same way.
Each commission’s legislative district plan has to be approved by 70 percent of its members. If the maps fail to get 70 percent, the Missouri Supreme Court appoints a commission of six state appellate judges to draw up maps.
Missouri’s legislative districts were last redrawn in 2011, and it required the use of the court-appointed judges. Missouri saw a 7 percent population increase from 2000 to 2010, requiring major changes to the state’s legislative districts.
Although the commissions are bipartisan, Clean Missouri spokesman Benjamin Singer said that’s part of the problem: There’s no independent voice, Singer said, and commissions are composed of partisan insiders.
“The fact that 90 percent of districts are uncompetitive — safe Democratic seats, safe Republican seats — leaves almost no accountability for almost any legislator, regardless of what party they are,” Singer said. “We need competitive races so we can hold our legislators accountable when they fail to act in the public interest.”
Singer claims the fact that more than 300,000 Missourians signed petitions calling for the amendment is evidence that they want the changes.
“We’re thrilled at the enthusiasm of over 1,500 volunteers from across the political spectrum who helped gather over 300,000 signatures from every county to clean up Missouri politics,” Singer said.
Republicans have held a majority in both chambers since 2002. Opponents of the initiative argue Missouri’s current system is a model that other states are moving toward and that creating competitive districts is nearly impossible.
Critics of Amendment 1 also have cited newspaper reports that indicate George Soros is behind Clean Missouri. Soros’ Open Society Policy Center gave $300,000 earlier this year to the MOVE Ballot Fund, a St. Louis-based group that almost immediately gave $250,000 to CLEAN Missouri. The group also has received nearly 3,000 donations from people or groups in California and 1,500 donations from people or groups in New York, compared with 1,200 from Missouri groups and individuals so far this year.
However, the group has collected the most money from people or groups in Missouri, totaling more than $700,000 this year.
Missourians First is the organized group campaigning against Amendment 1. It formed in August, and Republican megadonor Rex Sinquefield, of St. Louis, donated $200,000 to Missourians First on Oct. 9. It’s the only listed donation to the campaign, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Missourians First campaign manager Scott Dieckhaus said creating competitive districts would require stretching out urban districts with high Democratic populations into rural districts, creating “spaghetti-like” boundaries.
“Amendment 1 would put an experimental idea into the constitution that has not been tested anywhere,” Dieckhaus said. “This would draw communities that have very dissimilar interests into one another in order to meet the fairness and competitiveness standard.”
Under Amendment 1, the state auditor would nominate at least three people for a nonpartisan “state demographer” position. Those nominees would be submitted to the minority and majority leaders in the state Senate, who would then select one of the nominees.
If the Senate leaders can’t come to an agreement, each one would remove one-third of the nominees, and the auditor would select the demographer through a random lottery. The demographer would be in charge of drawing the maps, using a mathematical formula, and the results would then reviewed by a citizen commission that can make changes only if 70 percent of the members approve.
Districts would still be required to be contiguous and compact, and there would also be protections to ensure minority representation.
Republicans have been quick to point out that the proposal includes the state auditor, currently the only statewide office held by a Democrat. The auditor would create the application for the state demographer, review the applications and select the candidates that get sent to the Senate leaders.
That process, Dieckhaus claims, essentially lets the auditor do all of the choosing.
“The demographer position would be entirely partisan,” Dieckhaus said. “In regard to the commission having a say in the process, they really don’t. If 50 percent of the commission members are of the same party as the auditor and demographer, the chance of there being changes to the map is nearly zero.”
Clean Missouri has been able to secure bipartisan support, with some Republicans backing the initiative, including former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth.
Former state Sen. Marvin Singleton, a Republican from Joplin who served from 1989 to 2002, is one of a handful of Republicans who have voiced public support for Amendment 1. Singleton went through two redistricting processes and said he found it to be a partisan problem.
“I think there’s a tendency to maintain status quo because people who are elected want to continue to be elected,” Singleton said. “They do not want to embrace debate or competition and would like to have easy elections, and I’m not sure that’s beneficial to getting the best representation.”
Singleton also said he was able to get a rule into the Senate rule book when he served that prohibited senators from receiving more than $100 per year in lobbyist gifts, but that was removed after he left office. He hopes the passage of Amendment 1 will create a more transparent government.
“Good government should be a bipartisan participation by citizens of the state of Missouri,” Singleton said. “It’s disappointing to see a group of people who are against transparency in government.”
Though it’s a large chunk of the amendment, redistricting isn’t the only provision within it. The amendment also seeks to:
• Limit the amount lobbyists can give to lawmakers to $5 for each gift. Currently, there is no limit.
• Reduce individual campaign contribution limits from $2,600 to $2,500 for Senate candidates and from $2,600 to $2,000 for House candidates.
• Increase the time prohibition on lawmakers becoming lobbyists from six months to two years.
• Close a loophole that allows “dark money” organizations to donate to candidates.
• Make lawmakers subject to the state Sunshine Law.
State Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, has served in the Missouri House since 2010 and is running to replace state Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, in the 32nd District. White has never accepted any lobbyist gifts, a record he often touts.
Some lawmakers have tried for years to pass lobbyist gift restrictions but have been unsuccessful. Last year, the House passed overwhelmingly a bill to limit gifts, but it died in the Senate. Lawmakers also tried to push through a Senate measure on the last day of the session that would have banned lobbyist gifts and also changed term limits, but it died in the House in the final minutes of the session.
“It shouldn’t take a law to have your legislators act in an ethical manner,” White said. “If you vote in people who don’t do it, then you don’t even need the law, but we’ve passed it out of the House every single year and it’s died in the Senate.”
White’s main problem with Amendment 1 is the redistricting measure.
“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, honestly,” White said. “The idea that we are going to give one nonelected person that has no accountability to the people the power to redraw districts is crazy.”
There is no limit on the amount of money lobbyists can give to lawmakers in Missouri, but gifts to individual lawmakers has declined since 2014.
Total lobbyist gifts to individual lawmakers:
• 2017: $204,445.
• 2016: $238,139.
• 2015: $281,432.
• 2014: $263,217.
Source: Missouri Ethics Commission