June 17, 2024


Equality opinion

Should elected officials live in area they represent?

When Missouri’s House begins its 2021 session, it may face a fascinating issue of residency which has a long history.

The issue arises from a St. Louis Post Dispatch report that Rep. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles County, purchased a home for his family outside of his House district — while claiming residency in his district via a lease to live in the basement of another person’s home.

I was not surprised that a lawsuit by his Democratic opponent challenging his residency was rejected.

Five decades ago, Missouri’s Supreme Court struck down an ouster effort against Mo. House Rep. Jet Banks, D-St. Louis, for not living in his district.

Newspaper stories documented Banks probably did not live in his district.

House Republicans even brought signs to the House chamber proclaiming “I live in my district.”

An ouster lawsuit filed against Banks by Republican Attorney General John Danforth seemed a slam-dunk case.

Missouri’s Constitution explicitly provides that “If any senator or representative remove his residence from the district or county for which he was elected, his office shall thereby be vacated.”

But the Supreme Court rejected Danforth’s effort because the Constitution also makes the legislature the “sole judge of the qualifications, election and returns of its own members.”

Since Democrats controlled the Missouri House, Banks’ membership was safe.

Later, Banks, a sharecropper’s son, made history as the first Black man to serve as Missouri Senate’s majority leader.

Ironically, years later another Missouri Republican attorney general faced his own residency controversies.

Missouri law requires the attorney general to “reside at the seat of government.”

But in 2017, newly elected Josh Hawley lived in Boone County where he had taught at MU’s Law School.

A couple of Republican legislators promptly filed bills to repeal the Jefferson City residency requirement.

Hawley, however, solved the issue by renting an apartment in Jefferson City.

Hawley now faces another residency controversy raised by a recent front-page Kansas City Star report that as a U.S. senator he no longer owns an actual home in Missouri.

Instead, the paper reported he’s registered to vote at his sister’s Missouri home while owning a Virginia home as another Missouri home is being constructed.

To be honest, I wonder about some of these residency issues.

Living within the legislative district you represent is one thing.

But why does the law require that the attorney general who represents the entire state live in Jefferson City when many Columbia residents easily commute daily to the capital for their state government jobs?

With COVID-19, large numbers of state employees have worked at home, wherever that might be.

Further, Missouri’s Supreme Court struck down a constitutional provision stripping the governor of powers when out of the state because modern communications systems make absence from Jefferson City not a “disability” to govern.

As a former congressional reporter, I fully understand how the near full-time demands of Congress require extended residency in the DC area.

The U.S. Constitution actually authorizes a member of the U.S. House to live outside the district, so long as the member resides somewhere in the state.

I should confess a financial interest in this residency issue because of my marriage to an Illinois college student more than five decades ago.

When Lori moved to Columbia where I was attending MU, her application for lower in-state tuition to complete her college degree was rejected, although married to a long-time Missouri resident.

At the time, MU’s residency rules required a one-year state residency before qualifying for lower in-state tuition.

Being the fiscal hawk that she remains today, she refused.

She ultimately earned a post-graduate degree from MU in public administration and became a Missouri government public policy administrator.

As an aside, Missouri’s Higher Education now puts weight on “intent” to make Missouri a permanent home in defining residency.

That’s an approach that might apply to both Schroer and Hawley — although maybe a departure from the traditional concept that elected government officials actually have a physical residence in the areas they represent.

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.