Government & Politics

Gowntown versus Capital City is a feud over local control in Missouri, Kansas

The dome of Jesse Hal (left) is framed between the twin stacks of the power plant at the University of Missouri before sunrise Feb. 27 in Columbia, Mo.
The dome of Jesse Hal (left) is framed between the twin stacks of the power plant at the University of Missouri before sunrise Feb. 27 in Columbia, Mo. AP

College-town politics don’t exactly match up with the increasingly conservative leanings of Missouri and Kansas.

That doesn’t stop leaders in the University of Missouri’s hometown from pushing on.

Since the beginning of December, the Columbia City Council has banned private businesses from conducting criminal background checks on job applicants and implemented regulations on ride-booking services such as Uber and Lyft.

It raised the age to buy cigarettes within the city to 21 and barred the indoor use of e-cigarettes.

It pondered, but ultimately abandoned, a ban on disposable plastic grocery bags, and it’s studying whether to establish its own broadband Internet network.

Thirty miles south in Jefferson City, the Republican-dominated Missouri General Assembly has taken disdainful notice.

The implications of what happens next could be felt across the state, as a series of bills make their way through the legislature aimed at blocking or overturning local laws.

“This is about the role of government,” said Rep. Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican. “Columbia is off track and so we need to define the lines between the roles of local and state government.”

Several of the bills may be inspired by the actions of a college-town city council, but their impact won’t be confined to Columbia.

City, county and school district leaders have long complained about actions they deem as interfering with local control. But facing what some say is an unprecedented number of legislative challenges to their authority, local officials around the state are crying foul.

“Nobody knows local affairs better than the locals. Nobody is better able to respond to local needs better than the locals,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “To have people, the majority of whom don’t live in the locale, trying to implement one-size-fits-all policies, I think is shortsighted and unwise at best.”

Blue island in a sea of red

It’s hard not to feel a little picked on by the state legislature this year, said Columbia City Councilman Michael Trapp.

“We’re working hard to address issues that are important to the community,” he said. “Feeling we may be undercut by our legislature is very frustrating.”

Columbia’s politics have always been a little out of step with the rural counties that surround it. But then again, that’s the story for many college towns around the nation.

Travel 160 miles west to Lawrence and you’ll hear similar complaints about the push and pull between college-town city leaders and a conservative state legislature.

“Any time we tried to do something progressive, someone would introduce a bill to prohibit us from doing it,” said Dennis “Boog” Highberger, a Democratic state representative from Lawrence who served six years on the city commission.

The distinction extends beyond purely local issues.

“When you’re talking about issues like guns, women’s health or hot-button social issues, it’s a foregone conclusion that people from Lawrence are going to line up on the opposite side from the majority in the legislature,” said Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat.

It’s no secret that cities in general tend to be more liberal than their rural and suburban neighbors, said Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

Columbia isn’t really that much more Democrat-friendly than the state’s two urban metropolises, Kansas City and St. Louis. In fact, it’s sent more Republicans than Democrats to Jefferson City in recent years — partially because most of the districts include swaths of surrounding rural counties.

“But in college towns, not only are people liberal, but they tend to be more politically engaged,” said Rackaway, who before moving to Kansas lived in Columbia for 10 years.

Lawrence and Columbia “don’t really fit in with the overall culture of the state,” Rackaway said. “They’re like fish out of water.”

Rowden, who lives in Columbia but represents parts of rural Boone County, agrees.

“The politics is just different,” he said. “The folks in Centralia and Hallsville see the world differently than folks in Columbia.”

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, said he’s not surprised that his hometown is getting so much attention.

“When have you seen a municipality propose things like this, especially in such a short period of time?” he asked.

Schaefer is sponsoring a bill of particular interest to Kansas City that would set statewide regulations for ride-booking businesses such as Uber and Lyft.

Kansas City has worked for months to craft local regulations on the businesses, such as ensuring drivers have adequate insurance and safe vehicles.

Uber has argued local rules are too onerous. Schaefer’s bill would prohibit those local efforts.

“This would allow an entrepreneurial technology company like Uber to operate in the state,” Schaefer said, “without local governments trying to regulate them out of business.”

Columbia approved regulations on ride-booking operations last month, said Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid, including mandates that drivers are licensed as chauffeurs.

It hasn’t seemed to hurt Uber’s business, McDavid said.

“I look at my Uber app, and there are a lot of drivers today,” McDavid said. “It seems to be functioning just fine.”

History of preemption

The tricky balance of power between state and local government is nothing new in Missouri. So-called preemption bills have long been a staple of the Missouri General Assembly playbook. Take, for example, the issue of gun control.

Over the last 30 years, Missouri lawmakers have slowly but surely stripped all local authority to regulate guns, culminating last year when legislation was approved voiding any local ordinance restricting the open carry of a firearm.

But this year, the sheer volume of preemption bills is on the rise.

In addition to Schaefer’s ride-hailing legislation, he’s also sponsoring a bill that would prohibit local governments from providing a service already offered by a private company within its borders without a vote of the people.

The bill was inspired by Columbia’s potential foray into the broadband business.

Rep. Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial, has a bill that would prohibit cities from banning disposable plastic grocery bags.

Shaul is also state director of the Missouri Grocers Association.

Rowden is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit cities from boosting their minimum wage or mandating benefits such as vacation or sick leave. It would also overturn Columbia’s “ban-the-box” law, which prohibits private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history or conducting background checks before making a conditional job offer.

Kansas City has a ban-the-box ordinance, but it only applies to public employees, not private businesses.

Originally, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce wanted the bill to prohibit local governments from implementing discrimination laws that are stricter than the state’s. Dozens of municipalities, including Kansas City and Jackson County, have passed ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Rowden said he removed the discrimination provisions and has no intentions of putting them back in the bill.

To Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat, the effort to preempt local laws is simply a power grab. Republican lawmakers have pushed to restrict the power of the judiciary and executive branches of government, he said, and now their focus has turned to local government.

“They want all the power in the General Assembly,” Webber said, “because the districts have been gerrymandered enough that they’re confident they’ll maintain control. The goal is to consolidate power.”

Trapp, the Columbia city councilman, said state lawmakers should keep their focus on state affairs and “stop trying to micromanage city government.”

Schaefer said reining in local governments is a state function.

“Local governments are entirely a creation of the state,” he said. “All authority a county or city has is given by the state.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to