This is the seventieth anniversary of the first meeting of Missouri’s Unicameral General Assembly.
We’ve lost track of the number of years somebody proposed reducing the size of our legislature, usually by doing something mathematical with the number of Senators. For instance, having three House districts for each Senate district. Using current numbers, that system would cut the size of the House from 163 to 102. There have been proposals to increase the membership of the Senate to 35, presumably to avoid tie votes, with three or four Representatives per Senate district, for a total House count of 105 to 140.
The proposals might have gotten through the Senate but not surprisingly have had zero chance to finding favor in the House.
There was a time, however, when Missouri came close to eliminating the entire Senate. All 34 members. AND cutting the size of the House by one-half to two-thirds!
Imagine Missouri joining Nebraska as the only states with unicameral, or one-house legislatures.
Nebraska’s capitol actually has two legislative chambers. The Senate, which has a Speaker, meets in the George W. Norris Chamber. The other chamber, used for ceremonial purposes, is called the Warner Memorial Chamber and was used by the Nebraska Senate for a short time before the change to the one-house general assembly beginning in 1937.
Missouri was not among the twenty-some states that immediately started considering switching to one-house legislatures but we weren’t far behind. The issue was being widely discussed by the spring of 1941. But opponents feared putting the issue on the 1942 ballot would deflect interest away from another important amendment that would give legislators their first pay increase since the adoption of the Missouri Constitution of 1875. Lawmakers were paid five dollars a day for the first seventy days of a legislative session and then only a dollar a day for each day afterward. Supporters of the pay raise believed higher pay would attract better men for the legislature (few women had served by then). But one newspaper suggested the opposite, remarking, “The people might look upon this pay increase with favor if at the same time they had the opportunity to reduce the number of lawmakers by half.”
An organization of businessmen announced in the spring of ’42 that they would circulate petitions calling for a unicameral vote in November. The constitutional amendment would hike salaries to as much as $150 a month with six dollars a day for each day on legislative business.
A petition drive led by former state Superintendent of Schools Charles A. Lee submitted about 85,000 signatures to the Secretary of State on July 1, calling for a one-house legislature of fifty to seventy-five members as of the 1945 session.
But the whole campaign blew up a few days later when Springfield Justice of the Peace Tom Burns, known as a “marryin’ justice,” and a colleague, Erwin A. Greenhaw, were charged with arranging to have thousands of signatures forged in a “signature mill” in Burns’ basement, paying women and girls three-dollars a day to fake signatures. Lee’s committee had paid them more than $2,500 to gather signatures on the unicameral petitions. His group withdrew the petitions, which killed the drive for the vote in 1942. Burns and Greenhaw were later convicted on petition forgery charges. Burns spent two years in the pen. Greenhaw was fined $500.
The incident led State Representative Edgar Keating of Kansas City to introduce a bill in the 1943 legislature “In recent years the initiative petition has gone to the point of being a racket,” he said, a statement buttressed by the admission of Notary Public Lee Weaver, who said he notarized many of the petitions without ever seeing the person who supposedly circulated them, admitting he had done the same thing for Burns and Greenhaw in the 1936 petition campaign that took the state’s conservation department out of politics.
The House passed the bill on February 25, by a vote of 112-0 with 38 members absent. The strong vote made no difference to the Senate, which sent the bill to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee where it was never heard from again.
The issue returned in the long session of 1943-44 but was killed in a House committee when five rural members outvoted the two representatives from St. Louis city. The amendment was similar to an amendment being circulated in a petition backed by a group called “Crusaders for Missouri.”
By now, a constitutional convention was underway, too. A convention committee endorsed keeping the bicameral system, forcing delegate Stanford Lee Morton of Clayton to withdraw his unicameral proposal and plan to offer it in resolution form to the entire convention later. He wanted voters to have a choice when they voted on the proposed constitution but that idea was opposed by Con-Con President Robert E. Blake, an anti-New Deal Democrat from Webster Groves, and other delegates who wanted to send the proposed document to the vote as a single piece. Morton had wanted an 81-member unicameral legislature with one Republican and one Democrat from each of the thirty-four senatorial districts and thirteen at-large members elected in partisan elections each of the state’s then-thirteen congressional districts.
When the Crusaders of Missouri submitted their petitions, Secretary of State Gregory Stockard ruled they were one day too late. But the State Supreme Court said Stockard was mistaken and had to accept them. This time there was no skullduggery and the petitions were found to have enough signatures to make the November ballot. The Crusaders plan called for a legislature of fifty to seventy-five members with a total payroll of $90,000 a year, the lawmakers elected in standard partisan elections to serve two-year terms. The 1945 legislature would decide the size of the new General Assembly, which would meet for the first time in 1947.
But the proposed state constitution got in the way.
The Missouri Supreme Court on September 27, 1944 guaranteed Missourians would get to vote on a unicameral legislature when it refused to review a Cole County Circuit Court ordering the issue to the November 7 ballot.
However, the convention voted the next day to send the proposed constitution to voters with a two-house general assembly retained. And just before the convention adjourned with delegates singing one verse of “America” and a prayer that was the second verse of the song, the delegates set February 27, 1945 for voters to decide if Missouri would have its first new constitution in seventy years, a document 11,000 words shorter than the 1875 document that had been amended sixty times.
The Crusaders of Missouri decided to give up their campaign a week after that. The group said it feared its proposal would interfere with the adoption of the constitution. Plus, adoption of a unicameral legislature in November would become meaningless if voters adopted the constitution with a two-house legislature in February. The Crusaders asked Stockard to withdraw their plan from the November ballot. But Stockard couldn’t do it. Once on the ballot, it stays on the ballot, he said.
The Crusaders decided they would quit campaigning at that point.
On November 7, almost 365,000 Missourians voted for a unicameral legislature, only about 13-hundred fewer than approved calling the constitutional convention. But 402,000 “no” votes were cast. The unicameral proposition failed by just 37-thousand votes even though supporters had not campaigned for the last four weeks before the election. The plan carried St. Louis city and county and almost carried Jackson County. Outstate Missouri defeated it by 118,000 votes.
Missourians approved the new constitution in February, 312,032-185,658. More than fifty-thousand fewer Missourians voted “yes” for the entire constitution than voted for the unicameral general assembly proposal.
A unicameral bill was introduced in the 1945 session but it was killed in a House committee with Miller County Representative Lucien Mace commenting, “It would take some of the power from the country and give it to the cities.”
The Sikeston Herald commented in its May 19th edition, “While the two-house system of government in Missouri may be cumbersome at times, it is believed in the capitol to be the best system yet devised to keep any section of the state from being the balance of power.”
Sikeston, of course, is part of rural Missouri.
And that is why 34 Senators and 163 Representatives still meet each year in Jefferson City. And why we are not celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the Missouri Unicameral this year.