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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.

Missouri Senate Leaders Pan Proposal For Statewide Vote On City-County Merger

Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, talks with reporters on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, talks with reporters on the first day of the 2019 legislative session.

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Missouri Senate are expressing misgivings about who could be voting on a proposal to merge St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Better Together, a group that’s been studying the concept of a city-county union for more than five years, is slated to release a plan on St. Louis-St. Louis County consolidation this month. One major detail — first reported by the St. Louis Business Journal — that’s united both GOP Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh is the idea that the plan will be decided by a statewide vote — and not just residents of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Both senators don’t like the idea.

“Obviously, I think that majority of the constituents who have communicated with me believe that’s an issue that should be resolved by the people who reside in St. Louis County,” said Schatz, whose district includes parts of St. Louis County and all of Franklin County.

Schatz said that when he doesn’t have a strong position on an issue, he relies on his constituents for guidance. “And they’ve communicated with me very clearly that they believe that’s an issue that belongs to the citizens that it’s going to affect.”

Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said she’s also received less-than-positive feedback about the merger plan from constituents. She’s also been hearing some negativity about legislation barring smaller citiesfrom having their own police departments.

She added, “If this does come to a vote, then the people it affects should be the ones that vote on it — people that live in the city and the county. I think that my folks that live in the county should have the right to vote on it. I do not think that somebody in a rural area in Missouri should be able to vote on that.”

There is language in the Missouri Constitution dictating how a city-county merger plan could be voted on by St. Louis and St. Louis County residents. But past efforts have all failed, and Better Together executive director Nancy Rice told the Post-Dispatch that a statewide vote is necessary to consolidate police departments and courts. 

Gina Walsh, April 2017
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, is opposed to the idea of a city-county merger proposal going to a statewide vote.

A statewide vote also opens up the possibility that city and county voters could reject a plan to substantially change its government — and still have it go into effect if the rest of the state approves it. That presents a vexing rhetorical issue for Democrats, who have made preserving the “will of the people” a key plank of their agenda for the next couple of years.

Neither Schatz nor Walsh say their caucus has talked about any legislative response to the initiative. That could include the Legislature placing a corresponding constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot requiring any merger plan to pass in the city and county.

But in the meantime, Walsh has introduced a nonbinding resolution specifically opposing any merger plan going to a statewide vote.

“I live in a municipality. And I live in that municipality for a reason. I like the form of government I live under,” said Walsh, alluding to how county municipalities may be substantially weakened under the Better Together proposal. “So I’m going to be watching this.”

Unlike Walsh and Schatz, both St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger have told St. Louis Public Radio they accept the idea of a merger proposal going before statewide voters. Both have said the state constitution needs to be changed to accomplish Better Together’s plan, which in turn necessitates a statewide vote.

That’s a change from their predecessors, former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who stressed at Better Together’s unveiling in 2013 that any plan from the organization would have to get the city and county’s blessing.

Slay went so far to say to reporters in November 2013 that “nothing will happen unless the people of St. Louis City and St. Louis County approve it — and that’s my promise.” Dooley expressed similar sentiments.

At least one city-county merger fan, outgoing St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie, was asked about Slay and Dooley’s comments late last year. The 24th Ward Democrat said, “Slay and Dooley are probably in a long line of people who recognize that this is a problem — but it’s not really their effort at the end of the day.”

“I don’t know if it’s their decision to make,” Ogilvie said. “That was their take. I don’t know what the ultimate plan will be when it’s unveiled. But all of this conversation just points back to the fact that there is a big problem. We should have open ears when we hear people talking about ways to potentially set us on a path to fix that problem.”

Follow Jason on Twitter:@jrosenbaum

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