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Missouri National Guard becomes its own state department this month. Here’s what that means

 Missouri National Guard medic Dakota Wilson puts a Band-Aid on 54-year-old Dwayne Furlow's arm after giving him a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on May 4 at St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri National Guard medic Dakota Wilson puts a Band-Aid on 54-year-old Dwayne Furlow's arm after giving him a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on May 4 at St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis.

The establishment of the new department comes after nearly 50 years of the Missouri National Guard being part of the Department of Public Safety.

In 1974, an act consolidating Missouri’s departments moved the Missouri National Guard from being its own agency to one within the Department of Public Safety.

Now, almost 50 years later, the Missouri National Guard will once again be its own Cabinet-level department of state government. The organizational change is to take effect this month. It will increase the number of state departments to 16.

The reorganization is due to a constitutional amendment that voters passed in the November election. Around 60% of voters approved of the amendment that established the department.

Rep. Bill Hardwick, R-Waynesville, was one of the lawmakers who worked on the resolution that brought the question to voters. He said this was something the Guard has wanted to accomplish for years.

“We sort of became more integrated with the active component with overseas forces. It seemed like something that made a whole lot more sense,” Hardwick said.

He said there were always lines of communication between the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard and the governor, but this change further streamlines the process.

According to the language in the amendment, the guard is required to “uphold the Constitution of the United States, uphold the Constitution of Missouri, protect the constitutional rights and civil liberties of Missourians and provide other defense and security mechanisms as may be required.”

The resolution ended up sailing through the legislature, passing with no opposition in the Missouri Senate and only two “no” votes in the House. The language, in particular the portion on the protection of constitutional rights, is the reason Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, was one of the "no" votes.

“It was hard for me to come out against the Guard on this knowing that a lot of the Guard members and leadership supported it,” Merideth said. “But I really did struggle with finding a good explanation of why it would make any positive difference for them. I still question that, honestly.”

Merideth is concerned that the language of the amendment could create situations in which the state government is at odds on an issue and the National Guard is used to push back against the federal government.

He cited the passage of the state’s Second Amendment Preservation Act, which prohibits the enforcement of federal gun regulations as an example of such a conflict.

“I realize that sounds pretty alarmist, and hyperbolic, but in the current political climate, it also doesn't seem that unrealistic after a bill like SAPA was passed,” Merideth said.

When asked about the transition from the Department of Public Safety to its own department, Mike O’Connell, communications director for the safety department, said the Guard’s mission will remain the same. A spokesman for the Guard declined to comment.

The language within the constitutional change is different from the state mission listed on the Missouri National Guard’s website, which is to “provide trained and disciplined forces for domestic emergencies or as otherwise required by state law under the authority of the governor.”

The National Guard has been activated to respond to emergencies like floods and winter storms as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to its state mission, the guard’s federal mission is to “maintain properly trained and equipped units for prompt mobilization for war, national emergency, or as otherwise directed by the president.”

Hardwick says he does not envision a scenario where the Guard is pulled in two different directions.

“I think that guards are used to vacillating between the authorities they are operating under whether you're working for the president or the governor, and then being bound by the laws that are pertinent there,” Hardwick said.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is St. Louis Public Radio’s Statehouse and Politics Reporter, taking on the position in August 2021. Sarah is from the St. Louis area and even served as a newsroom intern for St. Louis Public Radio back in 2015.
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