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Redistricting, violence top issues for Missouri lawmakers

Missouri lawmakers returned to the Capitol Wednesday to start work on issues ranging from an overhaul of the voter-approved redistricting plan to combating violence in the state’s biggest cities.

Republican leaders of the House and Senate said a top priority will be sending voters yet another proposed change to how legislative districts are drawn.

Voters in 2018 approved redistricting changes included in a sweeping constitutional amendment called Clean Missouri. That measure created a new position of nonpartisan demographer to draft state House and Senate maps after the 2020 census with a goal of achieving “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness.”

While the amendment drew bipartisan support, some Missouri Republicans criticized it as a way to help Democrats win elections through redistricting. In response, House Republicans last year advanced a new proposal to instead vest greater redistricting powers with a bipartisan commission, which handled redistricting after the 2010 census.

The measure failed to pass the Senate, but Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz said reviving last year’s GOP proposal will come up early this session.

Republicans must act this session to put a new redistricting plan on November’s ballot in hopes of revamping the process before maps are redrawn in 2021.

Senate Democrats, who have the power to block a vote by stalling with a filibuster, pledged to fight.

“We remain steadfast in protecting our constitution’s Clean Missouri Amendment from any attempt to weaken or reverse its voter-approved policies — including the much needed anti-gerrymandering provisions,” Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh said in a Tuesday statement.

Lawmakers also face pressure to address a jump in homicides last year in the state’s two biggest cities, although Republicans and Democrats are split on how to tackle the uptick in violence.

St. Louis and Kansas City have among the highest homicide rates in the U.S. St. Louis had 194 killings last year, which was eight more than in 2018. Kansas City’s homicide total rose by 10, to 148.

Police have said witnesses fear retaliation if they cooperate with investigations. Law enforcement officials in both cities also say they believe the state’s lax gun laws are a contributing factor, including a 2017 law that allowed firearms to be carried without a permit.

Republican lawmakers have proposed ramping up witness protection and undoing a rule that requires St. Louis police to live in the city, which Schatz said could beef up the St. Louis police force.

Democrats are pushing for gun restrictions, which are likely a nonstarter under a Republican majority that has been fiercely defensive of gun owners’ rights. Schatz said it’s “highly unlikely” that any gun restrictions will advance.

“It’s unfortunate, honestly, that the other side is just so black and white with this conversation,” House Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade said.

Other issues expected to come up this year include addressing unregulated video gambling that has popped up in gas stations and convenience stores across the state, Democratic efforts to increase access to voting, and drafting a state budget.

House Speaker Elijah Haahr said the state could see massive expenses down the road if a proposal to expand Medicaid eligibility gets on the November ballot and is approved by voters. Medicaid is a government-funded health care program for people with low incomes.

Haahr also warned about an economic downturn and a possible $125 million verdict against the state following a Missouri prison guard lawsuit that alleged that they were shorted on their pay. The lawsuit is pending.

“We need to budget judiciously in preparation for some of these upcoming issues,” Haahr said.

Both Republican and Democratic legislative leaders cited K-12 public school funding and higher education funding as top priorities.

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