Is Missouri House too big? One state lawmaker thinks so

Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Sen. Travis Fitzwater, left, turns to Sen. Nick Schroer, both freshman Republicans who were to be sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during opening ceremonies in the Missouri Senate.
Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Sen. Travis Fitzwater, left, turns to Sen. Nick Schroer, both freshman Republicans who were to be sworn in Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during opening ceremonies in the Missouri Senate.

The Missouri House of Representatives is made up of 163 members, the fourth most of any state.

Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, is looking to change the institution he once served in.

Fitzwater has introduced Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 70, which would decrease the size of the House to 102 members. The measure also would allow state lawmakers in Jefferson City to remain in office for 16 years without limiting them to no more than eight years each in the Senate and House.

The resolution, first heard in committee Feb. 6, would present Missouri voters with a ballot measure to enact the changes if passed by the legislature.

Fitzwater has introduced versions of this bill in previous years, both in the House and the Senate. Last year, he introduced SJR 25, which would have reduced the size of the House to 136 members and expanded total term limits to 12 years instead of the current eight-year maximum per chamber.

During his time in the House, Fitzwater introduced two bills that would have had the same effect.

This story looks at the two components of Fitzwater's SJR 70 and what effects it could have if it were to be enacted.

Downsizing the House

Fitzwater served four terms in the House, the maximum allowed under law. The leadership structure, he said, was one of the inspirations for his resolution.

"I actually introduced it first when I was in the House because I saw the top-down leadership in the House as a struggle to be effective as a House member," Fitzwater said.

In addition to decreasing the size of the House, it would also require that each House district be drawn within a single Senate district. There are 34 Senate districts. Fitzwater explained this rule as a way to allow for better communication between House members and their senators.

"Senators weren't really listening, as I saw the Senate as kind of dysfunctional as a House member," Fitzwater said. "The idea was you contain House districts within a single Senate district, and maybe you have a little bit more of your senator's ear. Maybe they listen to you more because you are representing a portion of their district, a third or fourth of their district."

When asked how often Fitzwater meets with the representatives in his district, his office said they regularly meet and work closely on issues affecting the district.

If Fitzwater's resolution is passed by the legislature and adopted by voters, the House would be reduced by 61 seats. The reduction in the number of members would save the state over $9.6 million annually after taking effect, according to the resolution's fiscal note.

If passed by lawmakers and approved by voters, the proposal would take effect at the beginning the 107th General Assembly in 2033, with new maps drawn ahead of the 2032 legislative elections.

Because the districts are drawn using census data, Fitzwater said it would be better to wait until after the 2030 census "instead of going back to the drawing board, redrawing House districts right now within Senate districts."

"This also means that most of the people that would vote on this wouldn't be voting themselves out of office, which is another feature of doing it now," he added. "It's like, 'Do you want to right size the legislature without voting yourself out of office?' And that's an important argument."

He noted that the resolution could have a greater impact on rural districts due to how much they would likely grow both geographically and in population.

"The downside in the rural areas in particular is that those districts, which are already really big, become larger. And some of those rural districts really do like having a smaller number of constituents," Fitzwater said.

"This would add anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 new constituents for each House district, which is pretty significant, especially in a rural area where you may be adding multiple counties as a result."

If the measure goes into effect, the process of drawing the maps would fall to the Missouri House and Senate Independent Bipartisan Citizens Commissions, which are assisted by the state demographer and the Office of Administration.

Chris Moreland, the spokesperson for the Office of Administration, said the office is following the resolution but could not comment on pending legislation.

Peverill Squire, a political science professor at MU, said rural districts may become less rural after reallocation and redrawing the map.

"They would probably stretch a little bit more into some of the suburban areas, particularly outside St. Louis, Kansas City and even Springfield. So it might lessen rural voices a little bit," Squire said. "The reality is it would probably still be an overwhelmingly Republican legislature."

He noted, however, that some districts could become more competitive.

"If it were to go down to 102 seats, the impact would be you'd probably have more races that were contested and fewer uncontested races because they'd be a little bit larger populations," he said.

"So you'd have more potential candidates and probably somewhat more competitive contests too because you would have fewer districts that were overwhelmingly one party."

Squire added that more competitive races could also serve to "pull more people toward the middle rather than the political extreme."

Daniel Ponder, a political science professor at Drury University, said that better representation is a benefit of the current 163-member House.

"One of the nice things about having a House of 163 people is that you have smaller districts, often geographically and certainly in terms of population," Ponder said. "And so the representative function, meaning you know, the direct connection between the representative and the people, is actually strengthened by having a larger House."

"I certainly see the appeal that they could at least talk about, which is that it would save millions of dollars," he added. "On the other hand, I think the quality of representation would diminish."

Changes to term limits

The changes to term limits under this bill would allow lawmakers to serve a total of 16 years in the legislature. This could take the form of 16 years in the House, 16 years in the Senate, or splitting that time between the two.

Current term limits only allow for someone to serve up to eight years in the House and up to eight years in the Senate. Of the states that have these restrictions, this is the most common limit.

Eight other states have term limits that match Missouri's of eight years in the House and eight in the Senate. Four states -- Arkansas, California, Michigan and Oklahoma -- have a 12-year total term limit, and in two states -- Louisiana and Nevada -- lawmakers can serve up to 12 years in both chambers.

Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature, has eight-year term limits. However, no state has the 16-year total limit envisioned in Fitzwater's resolution.

Term limits were first established for the Missouri legislature in 1992 after 75 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment.

In 2002, the provision was amended to allow lawmakers who served less than half of a full term after filling a vacant seat to be eligible to serve another eight years in the House or Senate, respectively. This is similar to how President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to run in 1968, despite being president for almost six years up to that point. In the end, he declined to seek re-election.

Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said he likes the proposed change of term limits to 16 years total.

"I think it'd be healthy because I think there's so much information," Smith said.

"One of the problems with term limits is that the lobbyists have institutional knowledge. And so they can come to you and say, 'We've been in the building 25 years. This is how it's really done. This is what's happened with the bill.'"

"They can tell you the history of a bill, and it may not be accurate," he added. "So you're just kind of relying on them, and they've got the upper hand. They've got leverage on you."

Squire expressed a similar sentiment in support of a legislator serving longer in one chamber.

"If you have people who have experience and people who have spent time learning the issues and working on them, that helps inform decision-making. And so it's a net benefit," he said.

One thing the proposal would not change is the lifetime ban on term-limited lawmakers.

Missouri and five other states prohibit state lawmakers who have reached their term limits from serving in the legislature again. Several other states with term limits have temporary bans, usually four years, before legislators can serve again.

The resolution has yet to be voted out of committee, and there is a long path to implementation. The proposal would require approval by the Senate and the House before finally being placed on the ballot for voters to have the final say.

"I don't think there's any guarantee that it would win," Squire said. "But I think if there was a strong enough campaign behind it, you probably could persuade people."

Fitzwater acknowledged that his resolution may fail to win over some, particularly on the question of downsizing the House.

"But right now," he said, "I think it's just worth having a conversation."

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.