For the second time this year a Missouri House committee rejected legislation Thursday to downsize its chamber from 163 members to 103 members, although the matter could eventually end up on the ballot anyway.
The House Downsizing State Government Committee voted 8 to 7 against a bill that passed the state Senate last week. It called for a constitutional amendment doing away with 60 House districts following the 2020 census, after all serving lawmakers would have left office because of term limits
“We are the fourth largest state House in the nation, yet we have the 18th largest population,” said state Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, the legislation’s sponsor. “We’ve been looking at state government trying to find efficiencies, and I think we need to look and determine if this could save the taxpayers money.”
State officials estimate that eliminating 60 lawmakers could save Missouri around $5 million a year. Lembke also said reducing the size of the House would also help solve problems with available office space at the Capitol.
State Rep. William White, R-Joplin, said his worry is that in a rural state, expanding the number of people living in each district could mean constituents don’t get their voices heard as easily as they currently do.
“With more constituents, you’re not going to have the contact or familiarity with the people you represent,” he said. “If you live three counties away from the person who represents you, are you going to feel adequately represented?”
Lembke said he doesn’t believe increasing the number of people represented will cause connection to the people to suffer. Districts currently average around 31,000 residents. A House with 103 members would mean district population average would rise to around 55,000, Lembke said.
“You would have a hard time convincing me, as someone who served six years in the House, that you can’t represent 55,000 people,” he said.
State Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, said the population increase wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but rather the increase in geography. Rural areas could be lumped together into a massive district, or placed in the same district with an urban area.
“I see the benefits of cutting back, but I certainly see the potential for a disconnect,” he said.
State Rep. Cole McNary, R-Chesterfield, voted in support of the measure. He said the bill likely won’t return this session, since a House version of the legislation was rejected by the same committee earlier this month. But while the issue may be dead for the legislature, the state Democratic Party has no intention of letting it go.
Missouri Democratic Party Chair Susan Montee said the party plans to collect signatures in order to put the constitutional amendment reducing the House on the ballot.
“We are ready to begin once we see what the legislature is going to do on a number of issues,” Montee said. “But we’re ready to go.”
The state House of Representatives is “way out of whack in regards to our population,” Montee said. She also dismissed the argument that bigger districts would mean a decline in the quality of representation.
“Talk to a state Senate candidate, who says they can knock all the doors in their district,” she said. “Representatives will be just fine.”
Montee points out that the California Assembly, the equivalent of the Missouri House of Representatives, has only 80 members for a population seven times larger.
The get the amendment on the ballot, Democrats would need to collect around 147,000 to 160,000 signatures from registered voters from at least six of the state's nine congressional districts. The number of signatures depends on which districts the signatures are acquired from.
Missouri is hardly alone in looking at reducing its legislature to save money, according to Brenda Erickson, legislative management program principal with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
“More than two dozen proposals that either increase or decrease legislative size or switch the legislature to a unicameral system have been introduced in 2011, at my last count,” she said.
Proponents of reducing the size of a legislature say that not only would it result in savings, but it would also reduce fragmentation and overlap of work that happens when a chamber becomes too large. Opponents say a larger chamber means more face-to-face contact with constituents.
“Good government needs to be close to the people,” said state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific. “I think you have to work to balance good government and cost savings, and in this instance, you go with good government.”
According to the NCSL, the last time Missouri change the size of its legislature was 1962, when it went from 157 members in the House to the current 163 members.