JEFFERSON CITY — Two bipartisan state commissions could not agree this month on the partisan task of drawing new districts for the Missouri General Assembly. That means it will be up to a nonpartisan judicial commission to handle the politically significant job.
Redistricting debates can be particularly sensitive political battles because they set the framework for a decade's worth of contests between Republicans and Democrats over control of the legislature.
A favorable map can help to guarantee majorities that bring with them the spoils of control over the agenda in the state House and Senate. The opposite road leads to minority status, a diminished role and the threat of a prolonged stay in Missouri's political backwaters.
In short, the consequences can be significant. And the gap sometimes has been too wide to bridge for the redistricting commission members that are appointed by the governor from a pool of nominees selected by their respective political parties.
Since Missouri established its current process for redrawing state legislature districts four decades ago, the judicial commission has drawn the new map for at least one legislative chamber in every redistricting cycle. The last time new districts were set — 2001 — was similar to this year, with the panel of appeals court judges taking charge of the deed for both the House and Senate.
"You're asking the parties to come to an objective idea about who will gain an advantage and who will be disadvantaged with the map," said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "It's not terribly surprising that they are not going to come to agreement."
New districts are drawn for the legislature and for congressional districts following the decennial census. State lawmakers are responsible for the congressional districts — a task completed this spring after a gubernatorial veto was overridden. The 34 state Senate districts and 163 state House seats are redrawn by two state commissions that have an even number of Republicans and Democrats.
Commission members face several issues in developing the borders for legislative seats. Districts are to be compact, and commissioners must address population shifts such as the growth over the past decade in southwestern Missouri and the outer St. Louis suburbs and the decline in St. Louis County and St. Louis city. Plus, there are political implications for the partisan makeup of the legislature and for the incumbent lawmakers whose districts that could be changing.
Disagreement among Democrats and Republicans who served on the House redistricting commission prompted officials to hand over responsibility to the appellate judicial commission six days before their deadline for developing a tentative map.
The panel's chairman, former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, said it seemed premature when work was stopped, and that Democrats were willing to incorporate the possible House districts agreed to by Republican and Democratic panel members living in the same area. He said minimizing the effects of the new districts for current House members was not a priority for the Democrats.
After last year's election, Republicans seized a historic 106-seat majority in the House that has given them nearly enough votes to override vetoes without help from Democrats. The GOP already has the two-thirds control of the state Senate needed for a veto-proof majority.
Ann Wagner, a Republican and the House redistricting commission's vice chairwoman, said she proposed adjustments to the existing districts to address population changes while at the same time minimizing the overall changes. She said Democrats proposed districts that were not sufficiently compact and seemed to include partisan considerations.
Republicans and Democrats on the Senate redistricting commission proposed the same borders for a district that includes St. Joseph, though they acknowledged the math really allowed only one way to apportion that area. Their proposed borders were different throughout much of the rest of the state.
Doug Harpool, the Democratic chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, spurred commissioners earlier this month to continue working toward a possible deal but also acknowledged that coming up short has happened before and is "not an embarrassment to this commission."
The vice chairman of the Senate panel, Republican John Maupin, said the commission's work allowed the public to have input into the new districts. However, in the end, he said, a panel with appellate judges who do not run on partisan ballots to keep their positions could have an advantage that is not present for a bipartisan panel.
"Ultimately, it might be better if the appellate commission draws it," Maupin said.
Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.