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Des Peres town hall

Jennifer Bird, of Crestwood (left), and Gary Weigert, of St. Louis (center), campaign against Better Together's plan to merge St. Louis, St. Louis County and all 88 county municipalities on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Des Peres. The group held signs and spoke with people attending a town hall Better Together hosted at the Des Peres Lodge event center Wednesday. (Photo by Nassim Benchaabane)

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House voted Tuesday to put another roadblock in the path of the push to merge the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Under legislation given preliminary approval by the House on a voice vote, voters in St. Louis and St. Louis County would have to approve the merger proposal backed by the civic group Better Together, which is slated for a statewide vote in 2020.

Rep. Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, who is sponsoring the proposed resolution, said there are merits to discussing how to improve the region, but the rest of the state shouldn’t be able to force the merger on the people of the city and the county.

“I’m all for making the region better. It’s the process I have a problem with,” Plocher said.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, said voters in his district are “downright hostile” to the idea of a merger.

The legislation approved Tuesday, House Joint Resolution 54, aims to amend the Missouri Constitution by requiring any merger to be approved by a majority of voters within the county or city set to be merged.

It is among a handful of bills pending in the Legislature this spring as part of opposition to the controversial Better Together ballot proposal.

The proposal, first unveiled in January, would meld the city, county and all 88 county municipalities into a “metropolitan city” with a unified government and police department.

Supporters say a merged mega-city will better compete for businesses and could reduce administrative costs for taxpayers.

If Better Together supporters gather enough signatures, the question would be put to a statewide vote in November 2020. Backers earlier filed a revised petition, removing former County Executive Steve Stenger as the would-be mayor of the first “metro city.”

Opponents say it’s not fair for the future of the region to be decided by voters in faraway rural counties.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a plan. It’s a coup,” said Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who represents south St. Louis County.

“It’s taking away local control,” said Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, who is sponsoring a separate ballot question that also would limit the merger decision to voters in the city and county.

Another proposal, sponsored by Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, is a nonbinding resolution that denounces the statewide vote. The measure only requires the backing of both legislative chambers, and would not go to the voters.

“Better Together has truly united the St. Louis city and county region,” Dogan said.

Other lawmakers said they were not consulted about the merger idea.

“We see it as a huge sign of disrespect,” said Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson.

Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, railed on the Better Together backers, saying they know the merger will fail if only local voters weigh in.

“It’s not about making our region better. It’s a power play,” Bailey said.

Separately, the St. Louis Democratic Central Committee voted 38-0 on Saturday with two abstaining and 16 absent to oppose the Better Together merger, said chairman Michael Butler, who also is the city’s recorder of deeds.

And the council in St. Charles County, which would not be included in the merger, voted 6-1 for a resolution supporting the “right to self-determination” of St. Louis and St. Louis County residents.

Ed Rhode, a spokesman for Unite StL — the merger campaign organization — said “it’s no surprise the opposition to the Better Together proposal continues to come from politicians who are comfortable maintaining the status quo.”

He said that has been the case in cities across the country that have passed reforms.

Mark Schlinkmann of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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