On the Trail: Missouri lawmakers' rocky relationship with 'local control' | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Trail: Missouri lawmakers' rocky relationship with 'local control'

May 31, 2015

Republicans aren’t often compared to Russian communists. But that’s what happened recently after GOP members of the Missouri House helped pass legislation pre-empting cities from banning plastic bags, raising minimum wages or requiring certain work benefits. House Minority Leader Jake Hummel accused his Republican colleagues in a statement of believing that “Soviet-style central state planning is superior to local control.”

“House Republicans think they should make important local decisions instead of local voters and elected officials,” Hummel, D-St. Louis, said in the statement. “I’m proud House Democrats took a strong stand today in defense of local control and the rights of local citizens to determine what’s best for them.”

Democrats have been loudest critics of Rep. Dan Shaul’s bill, which detractors say tries to hypocritically micromanage the affairs of cities. It’s a move that, in part, is inspired by some controversial actions from Columbia’s City Council.

But Hummel and other Democrats were a lot less critical a couple years ago when the legislature was unquestionably usurping local control in the St. Louis area.

Back in 2012, St. Louis County and St. Louis passed ordinances allowing distressed homeowners to enter into foreclosure mediation. The measures were highly controversial, especially since banking and real estate groups contended mediation would add more cost and regulation to the foreclosure process. And in response, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill nullifying the ordinances as a lawsuit snaked through the court system. Gov. Jay Nixon let the bill go into effect without his signature.

There was no dispute that the intent of the bill was to pre-empt the St. Louis-area ordinances and prevent other jurisdictions from enacting similar programs – which, at least at face value, would appear to be upending “local control.” But Hummel joined several dozen other House Democrats in voting for the bill – a move that earned a not-so-nice editorial from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and a rather tart “response to the editorial” story from the Missouri Times).

In any case, even if the legislature had done nothing, the city and county foreclosure laws would have been declared unconstitutional anyway. And this, Hummel said, was a key difference between the current debate over Shaul’s bill and the somewhat lower-key local control fracas in 2013. (There's ambiguity over whether a city can raise its minimum wage, but Hummel predicts that courts will find such a move constitutional.)

“When we’re talking about following the constitution, all of us took an oath to defend and to support the constitution,” Hummel said. “Not only in the United States, but also in the state of Missouri. And I think that’s the difference between the two.”

Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, voted against Shaul’s bill and for the 2013 bill nullifying the foreclosure ordinances. He said that current day criticism about “local control” is about showcasing inconsistency within the GOP ranks.

“When it comes to local control as a stringent philosophy that is held, that is a philosophy that is largely held in the Republican Party,” LaFaver said. “That is not something Democrats largely agree on. There are a lot of times when federal laws are necessary. Local control and demanding local control has never been a philosophical standing point of our party.”

He went onto say that he thought his “colleagues mentioning issues of local control is less about the philosophy and more about pointing out the hypocrisy of the philosophy of the majority party.”

“In that, they run in every election cycle talking about bringing power back to the little people,” LaFaver said. “And they get up here and they throw out their strongly held philosophy almost immediately.”

Money in the bank?

But at least one person who’s followed both bills has another theory about why Democrats supported the anti-foreclosure mediation bill in 2013, while opposing Shaul’s legislation. 

State Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, center, voted to nullify St. Louis and St. Louis County's foreclosure mediation ordinances in 2013. But the Kansas City Democrat says "local control" isn't a philosophical approach embraced by his party.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications

Metropolitan Congregations United’s Susan Pender Sneed helped push for the county foreclosure mediation ordinance – and has called on Nixon to veto Shaul’s bill. She said the “thing we always figured out with the bigger issue of foreclosure was that there was just too much pressure coming from banks and mortgage interests.” (Indeed, the Missouri Bankers Association and the state’s real estate groups were openly supporting the 2013 bill’s passage.)

“There was just too much pressure and too much money involved,” Sneed said. “And nobody would take on that fight. I mean, we had at least one legislator say ‘I can’t spend that political coin on that.’ There are other issues that are much more timely. And a lot of them told us ‘the feds are going to come down with some rulings.’”

Democrats are more likely to oppose Shaul’s bill because it involves curtailing the ability to raise the minimum wage, which has become something of a Democratic wedge issue in the last few years.

“Minimum wage has always been a bread and butter issue for the Democrats,” Sneed said. “They’ve always fought for it. And the plastic bag stuff? That just boils down to ‘Let the people in town decide what they want to do about plastic bags.’ I don’t know. It seemed like a ridiculous bill to just suddenly come up and say ‘Well, no. Everybody in the state should have a choice: plastic or paper. And that’s all there is to it.’ I mean, really? This is what you’re spending your time on?”

(As the Associated Press’ David Lieb noted earlier this month, Shaul is the director of the Missouri Grocers Association – which may have a little bit of interest in a city banning plastic bags.)

For his part, LaFaver said he didn’t feel that much pressure from banks or realtors to nullify foreclosure mediation ordinances. Rather, he said that he voted for the 2013 bill because some Democrats from the St. Louis area were supportive of the idea.

“If you are interested in this on a bipartisan basis to take this, then you’re going to know what’s best for your folks more than I am,” he said. “And so, I relied on my colleagues’ expertise to help guide me on that vote.”

Curtailing experimentation?

Still, it could be argued that Hummel’s initial point about “Soviet-style” meddling isn’t necessarily contradicted by recounting the saga of the anti-foreclosure mediation bill. 

State Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, doesn't buy the idea that limiting the power of local government is antithetical to conservative philosophy.
Credit Bram Sable-Smith I KBIA

After all, it’s pretty common for Republicans to talk about “getting government off” the people’s back or “reducing regulations” during a campaign season. Is using the power of state government to limit the power of local municipalities going against that philosophy?

For state Rep. Caleb Rowden, the answer is no. The Columbia Republican sponsored a separate bill that curtailed municipalities’ ability to “ban the box,” which is the shorthand for a policy that bars employers from asking employees about their criminal history. It also barred cities from raising the minimum wage or requiring certain employer benefits.

When asked during a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcast whether his bill was meddling with “laboratories of experimentation” within Missouri cities, Rowden shot back: “Yeah, except if their ideas are horrible.”

“I’m fine with local folks doing things more progressively than we do at the state level, if it’s within their confines of what they’re supposed to be doing,” Rowden said. “So it’s not as much about the policy. I said all along, this isn’t really an argument about the merit of ban the box – which I believe in its purest form isn’t a bad thing. Or the merits of a higher minimum wage or anything of those things. It’s just a matter of who should be making the decision in these cases?”

Rowden readily admits that state government gets “the role of government at the state level wrong all the time.” But he said that municipal laws could overly burden companies that operate within multiple cities. He also said that his city’s council – which proposed a plastic ban before withdrawing it – has gone too far.

“I was in Kansas City, and Mayor Sly James said ‘I wish your city council would calm down so we would stop getting thrown under the bus with them,’” Rowden said. “So you’re talking about the mayor of Kansas City – a liberal town for all intents and purposes. And they’re telling me that what we’re doing in Columbia is excessive and going too far in many cases. So I think that says everything you need to know about our current state.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.