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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

City-County Merger Plan Could Face Big Hurdles From Missouri Lawmakers

Members of the senate walk onto the floor of the House chambers ahead of this year's State of the State address.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers could put up roadblocks to a proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Updated at 3 p.m. on Thursday to detail Senate action on nonbinding merger resolution.

In a Capitol building often defined by division, state Rep. Peter Merideth believes Better Together’s city-county merger proposal is unifying the disparate St. Louis delegation.

But the St. Louis Democrat said it’s not the kind of unity that proponents probably wanted or expected.

“One thing that we’ve seen in this building is a remarkable amount of regional and bipartisan unity in the idea that this is the wrong way to go about a merger in St. Louis,” Merideth said. “I think the thing that we all agree on is that it should not be happening with a statewide vote that doesn’t allow any real, true local control over our own fate.”

Merideth isn’t exaggerating. The proposal to create a metro government overseeing the city and the county is drawing sharp opposition from St. Louis-area Republicans and Democrats. And those lawmakers are doing more than just complaining; they’re backing plans to require any city-county merger plan to get a local vote — a solution to detractors’ most common criticism of the current plan to take the matter before statewide residents.

While these measures are getting traction, it’s unclear how far they’ll go. Better Together is hoping to convince Missouri lawmakers not to put a competing proposal on the 2020 ballot — especially one that could prevent its plan from going into effect.

When asked if he thought the Better Together plan would be the only merger-related item up for a vote next year, Steve Tilley, a lobbyist working with Better Together, replied: “If I was a gambling man, I would bet that to be the case.”

Bipartisan angst

Rep. Peter Meredith argues against an emergency clause on the minimum wage bill after a vote to pass the bill.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Peter Meredith, D-St. Louis, said he's philosophically in favor of a merger but does not like how the Better Together plan is going to statewide voters.

Better Together unveiled its proposal in late January. It would create a metro government overseeing what is now St. Louis and St. Louis County. And that new government would be in charge of public safety, development incentives and public health-care services for a unified jurisdiction.

While the merger has the support of St. Louis’ top political and business leaders, many area lawmakers strongly oppose the plan. That includes St. Louis County Republicans, as well as African American Democrats who fear a merger will dilute their political power.

Even lawmakers who are philosophically in favor of a merger are hostile to the Better Together plan because they contend Better Together’s plan doesn’t add up from a financial perspective. And Merideth said while he sees fragmentation as a major problem for St. Louis, he added that “the details matter.”

“And the process in which we do it matters,” Merideth said. “And I believe fundamentally we have to have a democratic process with the stakeholders at the table making compromises and providing input through that process from a bottom level — rather than this top-down approach of a well-funded effort by a person with a well-known agenda for the region imposing it at a statewide level. That’s just not tolerable.”

A number of lawmakers are getting behind constitutional amendments to require approval of city and county residents in order for a merger to go into effect. If lawmakers approve plans that state Reps. Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, and LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis, sponsored, Missourians could vote on those amendments alongside the Better Together plan in 2020.

Plocher said he’s not trying to make a value judgment on Better Together’s plan. But he doesn’t believe the group is going about the merger in the right way.

“I believe there’s important discussion on how the region can perform better,” Plocher said. “I’ve commended Better Together for invigorating that discussion. My theory here is one of the tenants of democracy is the right to decide who you’re governed by.”

Better Together’s boosters say they need to change the state’s constitution in order to implement its plan. They add that it requires a statewide vote to consolidate police departments and municipal courts.

But lawmakers like Rep. Kevin Windham, Jr., D-Hillsdale said that’s not a good reason to take the ultimate decision out of local voters’ hands. “Just correcting one problem and throwing an entire bad form of government at it is not the right approach,” he said.

Pushing back

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson answers questions from reporters during a press availability at City Hall on Oct. 24, 2018.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has come out in favor of the Better Together proposal.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of the Better Together plan are not quite enamored with Plocher’s amendment — and see it as a poison pill to kill any chance of a merger. Past efforts to try to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County through local votes have failed.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson says Missourians shouldn’t miss their chance to establish a metro government that could help the entire region.

“There are lots of things in that proposal that, as I said, everybody can find something they don’t like,” Krewson said. “Think long term. Think what our community might be like. Think about what we might be able to do with the funds that we save.”

Tilley, a lobbyist and former House Speaker, was tapped by Better Together to make sure “nothing gets done that could be detrimental to the effort to merge the city and the county.” He conceded that he probably won’t be able to convince people who are dead set against a merger to vote against things like Plocher and Bosley’s amendments.

“I would typically say as a lobbyist, you don’t focus your time on people you can’t convince,” Tilley said. “So, I think the better play is to look to people who have an open mind and discuss the facts. And if you have a situation where the vote of the city and county somehow vetoes or overrides the vote of an outstate legislator, I think that’s not necessarily good for the best interest of that individual’s constituents.”

There are two potential ways to prevent a threat to Better Together’s plan. The first is to convince Republicans who control the House or Senate not to take a competing constitutional amendment up for debate. The other is to get senators to block any plan that would put the issue on the ballot.

Tilley said Plocher’s measure “creates a hurdle that’s unnecessary.”

“I think our position is that, unfortunately, you’ve seen the deterioration of the St. Louis City-County region over the course of a generation. And if we continue to do the same thing, we’re going to get the same results,” Tilley said. “This is an out-of-the-box idea that’s been done in other areas in the country with tremendous success. And we think if you want to have a bold new directional change for this region, you have to do bold things.”

Unknown outcome

Sen. Caleb Rowden, center, was elected to the Missouri Senate in 2016.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, center, said he won't stand in the way of a merger plan from being debated in his chamber.

One advantage for Better Together is that most the people who run the House and Senate aren’t from St. Louis — and may not have strong opinions about Better Together’s plan. The exception is Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican who has a portion of St. Louis County in his district.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said it will be up to his GOP colleagues about whether any proposal to counter the merger is debated within his chamber.

“My position hasn’t changed in that, as someone who lives in Columbia and probably, frankly, sees an argument on both sides of this, this is a will of the caucus issue for me,” Rowden said. “My vote will be what it is, but I think if there’s enough interest within the caucus to say, ‘Hey, we’d like to make our opinion known through a nonbinding resolution … or something more effective in terms of what the House is doing.’ If that’s the will of the caucus, that’s the way we’ll go.”

On Thursday, the Senate ended up passing Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh's nonbinding resolution opposing a merger through a statewide vote. And House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said he's putting Plocher's amendment on the House calendar. 

House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann represents a part of St. Charles County but used to live in Glendale. He said he sees some value in paring down the amount of cities and police departments in the city and county.

“From a leadership standpoint, we’ve been certainly heavily lobbied early on that this was a big issue. They want to make this thing happen,” said Wiemann, R-O’Fallon. “I will tell you in the last month or so, it’s kind of died down. I think they’re still trying to work through whether they have a path to get this done.”

He said GOP leaders are taking into account opposition from St. Louis and St. Louis County lawmakers.

“That is kind of weighing on leadership, as far as, 'Do we really want to take this up?'” Wiemann said. “And a lot of us more like, ‘If this is going to be something that’s going to affect you and your community, you should be making that decision.’ Why are we doing that decision at the state level?

“To try to merge or force these all together without some type of political vote of the people that are being forced to do it — to me is just un-American,” he added.

Even if lawmakers don’t act this year, it doesn’t mean that Better Together’s plan is out of the woods. That’s because proponents of the merger still need to gather signatures to get it on the 2020 ballot — and lawmakers could still pass a competing amendment next session.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.