Mayor Sly James isn’t sure what’s ahead for Kansas City’s legislative priorities now that Republicans have complete control in Jefferson City, but early signs are that the city’s earnings tax won’t be under assault next year.
James, a Democrat in a heavily Democratic city, met Thursday at the Hotel Sorella Country Club Plaza with the new Missouri Senate Republican caucus, at their invitation.
“It was a very cordial conversation,” James said. “It wasn’t hostile at all. There was a very good exchange.”
The 15-minute conversation focused on Kansas City’s economic development progress and the mayor’s thoughts on education, housing and a smart connected city. But he says he came away with no sense of what the Republican supermajority agenda will be in the new year.
“They wanted to hear from me. They didn’t want to tell me anything,” James said. “My main concern, frankly, in the very broadest sense is pre-emption (losing local control over city priorities). I’m concerned they’ll continue to pre-empt us in places that hurt us without any real sense of the consequences.”
In recent years, lawmakers have voted to strip local governments of control over regulation of firearms, prohibit cities from enacting their own minimum wage and block local efforts to ban plastic grocery bags. Other proposals that didn’t make it across the finish line would have voided local regulations on vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber or Lyft and prohibit local governments from providing a service already offered by a private company.
But the proposal that drew the most intense opposition from Kansas City leaders during the 2016 session was the push by Republicans to eliminate the city’s 1 percent earnings tax. The tax generates more than $230 million per year, or about 40 percent of the general fund for police, fire, ambulance, trash collection and other basic services.
Kansas City officials launched an aggressive lobbying effort to defeat the legislation, saying it would cripple the city’s budget.
The vehement opposition stalled the bill’s momentum, and it died when Kansas City voters in April approved a five-year renewal of the earnings tax with 77 percent approval. Renewal also passed by 70 percent in St. Louis.
The most outspoken supporter of eliminating the earnings tax — Republican Sen. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia — won’t be returning to Jefferson City next year because of term limits. And a key Missouri House proponent told The Star on Wednesday he wasn’t inclined to resurrect the idea.
“It’s not something I personally plan to sponsor again next year,” said incoming Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican who sponsored one of the earnings tax repeal bills.
“Both earnings taxes passed overwhelmingly by voters in Kansas City and St. Louis this year,” Haahr said. “I’ll always default to a position that (the earnings tax is) archaic and not beneficial to the cities themselves. But the votes renewing the taxes were probably enough to cool any progress on that bill, at least in the short run.”
James said he was relieved to hear that comment, but the earnings tax did not come up in his conversation with Senate Republicans.
“Didn’t bring it up, neither did they and don’t want to,” he said.
In its legislative priorities for 2017, the Kansas City Council says its major lobbying focus will continue to be opposing any proposal to undo the earnings tax or other efforts to undermine local control for Kansas City.
One Kansas City priority with uncertain prospects is a request for $48 million in state funding to match $48 million in private and city dollars for a new University of Missouri-Kansas City downtown arts campus. The private pledges are contingent on the project getting state funding.
Missouri lawmakers are already bracing for a tough budget next year, with House Budget Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick recently telling Missourinet that these sorts of big-ticket spending requests will likely be difficult to fund.
Another area of uncertainty for local leaders is the future of Senate Joint Resolution 39, which would have allowed voters to decide whether to amend the Missouri Constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs in order to refuse service to same-sex couples.
Critics argued the bill would enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination in the state constitution. Democrats staged a 39-hour filibuster to try to kill it in the Senate, but Republicans used procedural maneuvers to push the bill on to the House.
In the House, the bill faced an onslaught of opposition from the state and local business community. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, for example, argued the amendment would cause massive long-term damage to the city’s ability to attract conventions, sporting events and other economic development.
The bill ultimately fell one vote short of getting out of a House committee chaired by Haahr.
Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bob Onder, a St. Louis County Republican, was the sponsor of SJR39 and one of its most outspoken proponents. He said Friday it was disappointing that the Senate expended so much time and political capital to pass SJR39 only to watch it die in a House committee.
“At this point, I don’t think the Missouri Senate will be spending the time on that legislation that we did last session,” he said, “unless the House wants to take the lead on the issue.”
Haahr said Wednesday he wasn’t sure a new version of the legislation would emerge again in 2017.
“That’s a really difficult area, balancing the rights of religious people and the rights of the LGBT community. Even really, really good people can stridently disagree on that issue,” he said. “Until someone runs afoul of a local nondiscrimination ordinance, I just don’t see that there will be a lot movement on that issue.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said the decision on whether to push the proposal again in 2017 has not yet been made.
“Protecting religious liberty is an important issue to Missourians,” Richardson said. “But what kind of form that takes in terms of specific legislative proposals, it’s too early to tell.”