Dave Helling: The lines that divide us can be erased

08/11/2014 3:22 PM

08/11/2014 3:22 PM

Before voters handily rejected plans for a new streetcar district in Kansas City, its mayor explained why he was keen to extend the service into the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

“We have to go east and west,” Mayor Sly James told The Star. “There are too many things in this city that go north and south.”

He was quite right, of course. There are two great dividing lines in Kansas City, south of the Missouri River: State Line Road, which separates Missouri from Kansas, and Troost Avenue, which divides the races. Both travel north to south.

Both streets divide political power, and therefore responsibility: Kansans and Missourians argue over tax policy, jobs, transit, schools. Troost segregates housing, neighborhood improvements, education, crime.

Yet the barriers are completely artificial. There is no inherent reason why a neighborhood east of Troost should be less desirable than one west of Troost, or that Kansans and Missourians should fight over scarce and dwindling public resources.

We’re not divided by physical barriers like mountains or fences or even streets. Our divisions are a largely a function of how we think and act.

Take a look at Kansas City’s council districts. For the most part, they stretch north to south. They reinforce the divisions that State Line and Troost create.

How different would Kansas City be if its council districts stretched east to west? What if every council member were responsible for the rich and the middle class and the poor or constituents of all races and ages?

And what if Kansans and Missourians paid less attention to State Line?

Resource allocation and problem-solving would probably be quite different, based on the common good, not us versus them.

The problem isn’t limited to the Kansas City region. There are many explanations for the dysfunction in Congress, but one of the most important is how House districts are drawn. To protect incumbents in both parties, a formula is used that dramatically reduces the incentives for compromise. A 50-50 country is represented by 70-30 House districts.

Yet those districts are artificial. Drawing them to more accurately reflect the public might reduce the bitter stalemate infecting our national government.

Our broken politics isn’t the inevitable result of events beyond our control. Dysfunction is partly a structural problem of our own making.

I think that’s what Mayor James was trying to say. He was right.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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