The St. Louis metro area is considered Missouri’s economic engine. But, it’s in constant competition with both Kansas City and rural areas for state dollars for schools, roads and other needs.
Financial interests are not the only things that drive a wedge between city and country dwellers. In this installment of our series “Bound by Division,” St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin looks at how the divide between urban and rural interests often comes to a head in Jefferson City.
If any issue revealed a divide this year between urban and rural Missourians, it’s the dog breeding ballot initiative known as Proposition B. Rural voters overwhelmingly opposed it, feeling that it would hurt small family farms and eventually regulate livestock owners out of business.
Lawmakers successfully passed bills rolling back the regulations in Prop B, which recently prompted dueling rallies in the Capital City. Jim Beckley from the rural northeastern town of Clarence opposed Prop B and supported rolling back the stricter regulations.
“They looked at it as trying to save puppies and kittens, and there’s just a great deal of misunderstanding," Beckly said. "Most people didn’t understand in those large cities what they were voting for, and if they had...I feel that they would have changed their vote.”
Greg McNay of Kansas City, however, supported Prop B and opposed undoing the stricter regulations. He said that rural Missourians were the ones who misunderstood the issue.
“We voted to protect dogs," McNay said. "Whether or not (rural Missourians) have an interest in protecting other animals in agriculture is beside the point, that’s not what the issue was…so changing (the Prop B law) based on fears that animal activists are looking to go after the farmers now, I think, is kind of misguided, in my opinion.”
But puppies and farm animals are not the only things that have pitted rural and urban Missourians against each other – they’ve been bickering for decades over how much money they get from Jefferson City.
Betty Stokes lives out in the country near Buffalo, about 30 miles north of Springfield. She says it’s easy to assume that lawmakers overlook her town in favor of sending money to St. Louis and Kansas City.
“I think one of the bad things are the rural roads, the state highways," Stokes said. "We just got a new (U.S. Route) 65 highway, but some of the others are in bad shape…bad shape.”
But there are also people in the St. Louis area that feel like their communities are getting short-changed. Debbie Hunt lives in St. Peters.
“I don’t think they’re doing great," Hunt said. "Some of the roads are pretty bad, and I know a lot of the kids are asked to bring their own supplies and tissues and extra supplies to schools because the teachers aren’t getting enough, so they have to ask the students and the parents to bring that stuff in.”
The opinions are much stronger among lawmakers, as they’re the ones fighting to bring state dollars home to their districts.
State Representative Mike McGhee (R, Odessa) represents part of rural west central Missouri, and he says K-12 schools in his district get only about two-thirds of the money that go to schools in St. Louis and Kansas City.
“They should cut that up and each one of these children should get the same amount of money throughout the state, no matter what part of the state (they) live in," McGhee said. "That’s the simple (way) to do it, not by how many representatives you have or how many people live in your district.”
But many urban lawmakers see it differently.
Joan Bray represented St. Louis for 18 years in the General Assembly. The veteran Democrat says St. Louis-area schools have more money because property taxes collections are higher there than in rural areas, and she contends that state funding formulas have actually favored rural schools.
When it comes to highway money, Bray says the St. Louis area has been on the losing end of that battle for decades.
“The Highway Commission was a rural-dominated commission," Bray said. "They’re the ones who came up with this 15-year plan to make a highway of four lanes to every town of 5,000 or more.”
Missouri’s rural and metro areas also fight over federal dollars. Back in 2009, the new Osage River Bridge near the tiny town of Tuscumbia was celebrated as the first project paid for by President Obama’s federal stimulus act. At the time, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay was critical of the choice, especially after 32 other highway projects were chosen to receive federal stimulus dollars – none of them were in the St. Louis area.
Today, there are fewer federal dollars to fight over, and though state revenues have rebounded, the state’s budget still gets cut every year. The struggle between Missouri’s urban and rural areas will no doubt continue.