Missouri lawmakers will try one more time before they adjourn for the year to reach agreement on a new Congressional redistricting map.
If they fail, the job will likely fall to the courts. But with three pending lawsuits – one in federal court and two in state court – it is uncertain where a map would be created.
On Wednesday, after nearly two weeks of talks with Senate leaders, the House Special Committee on Redistricting will hold a public hearing and vote on a new plan for dividing the state into eight equal districts. There is still time to get a bill to Gov. Mike Parson by May 13, said committee Chairman Dan Shaul, R-Imperial.
“The best argument you can make on this is that what I hope to push out of committee tomorrow would be a better map than we have seen before but also a far superior map to what the courts would draw,” Shaul said.
Missouri is entitled to eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, and districts must be revised every 10 years after a national census. The first plan, released in December with backing from the Republican leaders of both chambers, essentially kept the partisan breakdown of the state’s delegation unchanged, with six safe Republican districts and two Democratic districts in Kansas City and St. Louis.
That plan, with few changes, passed the House in early February.
The seven members of the Senate’s conservative caucus, however, demanded a map that cracked the Kansas City district and combined it with a huge swath of rural counties to make it possible for the GOP to capture the seat.
The “6-2” vs. “7-1” debate came to a head in February when the conservative caucus began a filibuster that blocked progress not only on the redistricting plan but also on basically every other bill. The deepening factional split in the GOP has continued to bedevil the Senate leadership, and members of the conservative caucus have seen their own bills die in what is at least partial payback for their intransigence.
Recent negotiations over the map have included House leaders, Senate leaders, Shaul and Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, a member of the conservative caucus who has tried to bridge the divide with other Senate Republicans.
At a meeting Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said four versions of a congressional map were discussed.
“It wasn’t very productive right off the bat, but we are still talking,” Schatz said. “We know where the problems are and so we’ll just see. I am just hopeful that people will stop drawing lines in the sand and say we are willing to give and take a little bit.”
There are two pending lawsuits in Cole County Circuit Court, one filed by Democrats and another filed by Republicans. A hearing is scheduled for Friday for arguments to consolidate the cases.
The third lawsuit was filed April 22 in the federal court for the Eastern District of Missouri by Paul Berry of Maryland Heights, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner in the 2nd District Republican primary.
Berry is asking for a temporary restraining order to block new candidate filings if a new map is approved by lawmakers and to bar any new districts from being used for the Aug. 2 primary if the bill does not include an emergency clause making it effective with Parson’s signature.
He is also asking District Judge John Ross to appoint a three-judge panel to revise the map to provide equal representation throughout the state.
In response, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, who is the defendant in the federal suit, said a restraining order is unneeded because there is no immediately pending event that must be blocked.
Federal law, however, directs a judge to name the three-judge panel after a party to a redistricting lawsuit requests it, state Solicitor General John Sauer wrote in the response filed Tuesday on Ashcroft’s behalf.
“Missouri does not dispute that three judges are required here, and Missouri concedes that the court should follow this statutory procedure,” Sauer wrote.
Ross has scheduled a hearing on Berry’s motions for Monday afternoon in St. Louis.
The chances of getting a map passed by May 13, the day lawmakers adjourn, are uncertain, Koenig said.
“I don’t know how optimistic I am, but I do see the possibility of a path,” Koenig said. “The House is in full communication with the Senate, so I think that has been very helpful.”
The top demand of the conservative caucus is a 7-1 map.
Short of that, members want to increase the Republican share in the 2nd District to keep it safely in GOP hands, minimize the number of times large counties are split among districts and to keep Missouri’s two military bases in the same district. The bases, Whiteman Air Force Base in Johnson County and Fort Leonard Wood in Pulaski County.
How those issues will be addressed in the bill up for a hearing Wednesday was still being worked on Tuesday, Shaul said.
“We are still working very hard to get it right, to get it prime-time ready for the committee,” Shaul said. “We’ve addressed those issues to try and make a more palatable map while still sticking to our true goals.”
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, has been a key part of the conservative caucus filibuster over redistricting. In an interview Tuesday, he said he had not been briefed on the latest proposals for a congressional plan.
A legislative solution is better than a court-ordered plan “as long as that something is a good map,” Onder said. “It needs to be a good map.”
Koenig said his job would be to persuade other members of the conservative caucus to accept a map if he supports it.
“I think what you will see is that they will probably, right out of the gate, reject it, but I am going to work on them and see if I can get them to come around,” Koenig said.
The bill, in whatever form it takes, will be the legislature’s last chance to pass a map this year unless Parson calls them into special session.
“As long as we are still working,” Schatz said, “there’s always a chance.”
This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.