Missouri’s 2nd special session sets up another fight over cities' ability to self-govern

Jun 11, 2017
Originally published on June 13, 2017 5:24 am

When it goes into its second special session Monday, the Missouri General Assembly will focus on a frequent — and arguably, favorite — target: local control.

On issues ranging from gun rights to anti-discrimination regulations, Republican leaders have made it clear that they believe there should be a consistent law across Missouri. That’s why since 2007, they’ve approved bills to bar communities from enacting stricter gun laws, overturned Kansas City’s higher minimum wage (there’s an action pending against St. Louis’ higher wage, too), and tossed out Columbia’s plastic bag ban.

Missouri isn’t alone in challenging whether local governments can determine their own fate. Just look to Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott will bring lawmakers back to the Capitol in July for a special session that will, among other things, target local governments’ property tax rates. He also has pressed lawmakers to overturn local ordinances dealing with a variety of issues, including oil drilling and transgender bathrooms, saying states cannot allow “a patchwork of local regulations.”

At the behest of Gov. Eric Greitens, Missouri legislators will aim during the second special session of the year to block the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s action to bar employers or landlords from discriminating against women who are pregnant, have had abortions or use birth control.

It’s hypocritical of Republicans, said Rep. Joe Adams, a Democrat and the former mayor of University City.

“They talk about local control. ‘We want local control. We want this, we want that,’” he said. “And then all of a sudden, ‘We don’t want local control when you’re doing something we don’t want you to do.’”

But Republican Sen. Paul Wieland of Imperial said lawmakers take action only when it’s clear that local control has run amuck.

“Local control is good, but in the case of the minimum wage, we had a municipal government set an artificial minimum wage,’’ Wieland said. “The point is, that creates chaos. You look at St. Louis County, we have multiple, multiple municipalities. If every one of those municipalities decided to set a different minimum wage, it would be totally chaos as far as how the economy would be.”

Greitens offered a similar take Thursday, when he visited to Our Lady’s Inn, an organization that cares for low-income mothers and their infants. He argued St. Louis’ anti-discrimination provision violates religious freedom.

“I want to support local control,” the Republican said. “But when we have radical politicians who want to do things like attack the work of a wonderful organization like Our Lady’s Inn, that is helping pregnant women, helping them and their newborn children, we have to stand up and defend them.”

State officials and lawmakers often don’t understand, or don’t care, about the issues that local governments face, according to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. In the case of the minimum wage, she said, it makes sense in a place like St. Louis to have a higher minimum wage, since the cost of living is higher than in most rural areas.

She also faulted the General Assembly’s actions to block local governments on other issues, notably gun rights.

“You know the state legislature takes a ‘one-size fits all’ approach,” Krewson said. “We’d be better off if we were able to continue to make ordinances that make sense for us in the city of St. Louis.”

But state officials like Wieland say there’s no chance that lawmakers will step away, especially when the stakes are considered high by all sides of a given issue.

Durrie Bouscaren, Maria Altman and Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.

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