The fight for gay rights has never gotten much traction in the Missouri Capitol. For more than a decade, efforts to outlaw discrimination against gays and lesbians have fizzled.
So advocates have worked around the Republican-dominated General Assembly by making their case locally.
That strategy has worked. More than a dozen cities and counties around Missouri have passed ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including Kansas City and Jackson County.
Opponents have taken notice. And they’re ready to push back.
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Business groups are aligned behind an effort to challenge the power of local governments to set their own rules on a variety of things, from discrimination law to the minimum wage. And they expect a warm reception in the Missouri General Assembly.
“When certain activists can’t get their agenda through at the state level, they are frequently taking it to a local level,” said Tracy King, vice president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “We have some major concerns with this.”
The effort is being greeted with howls from city leaders. It’s hypocritical, they say, for a legislature that complains about the federal government foisting one-size-fits-all policies on the state to do the same thing to local governments.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James “deeply believes that states should not be in the business of telling cities how to run themselves,” said his chief of staff, Joni Wickham.
But supporters say they simply want one set of rules for businesses across the state.
“We’re trying to get regulatory uniformity in just three areas of law that we believe are critical to the business community and the state’s economy,” King said. “There should be one statewide standard.”
The chamber is focused on a three-pronged agenda. It wants to ban local governments from implementing discrimination laws that are stricter than the state’s. It wants to prohibit cities from boosting their minimum wage. And it wants to ban cities from mandating benefits such as vacation or sick leave.
The legislation may also take aim at other local ordinances, King said, such as one recently passed in Columbia prohibiting private employers from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history or conducting background checks before making a conditional job offer.
Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said that “it makes more sense for decisions like this to be made at the state level.”
Nondiscrimination ordinances are spreading around the state. But, so far, no Missouri city has attempted to raise the minimum wage or mandate paid sick leave. Whether Missouri cities even have the authority to do so is murky, King said, with court decisions more than a decade ago leaving the question in limbo.
But polling shows minimum wage bumps and paid sick leave are popular, and nationwide, campaigns are picking up steam.
New York City, Portland, Ore., Seattle and a handful of other cities require private employers to offer paid sick leave. Numerous others — most recently Seattle and Chicago — have minimum wage requirements that surpass the state and federal level.
Last week, President Barack Obama announced he’ll grant at least six weeks of paid leave to federal employees after the birth or adoption of a child. And in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he called on Congress to require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.
He’s also encouraging state and local governments to pass their own paid leave requirements if Congress fails to act.
The idea is sure to be greeted with hostility in Jefferson City, where Senate leaders listed “pushing back against the federal government” among their top legislative priorities for the year.
With minimum wage and paid sick leave ordinances gaining momentum nationally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other groups have ramped up efforts to resist workplace regulations.
About a dozen states have already passed so-called pre-emption bills thwarting local efforts to bump the minimum wage or mandated sick leave. Missouri and Kansas are not among them.
Oklahoma became the latest state to take up the cause, with lawmakers responding to a push in Oklahoma City to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. In signing the pre-emption bill last year, Oklahoma Republican Gov. Mary Fallin argued local minimum wage increases would “drive businesses to other communities and states, and would raise prices for consumers.”
Critics of the efforts counter that it makes sense for cities to raise the minimum wage because the cost of living is often much higher than in rural parts of a state.
Discrimination law will be included in the Missouri debate, King said, although it’s still not clear whether the bill would void local ordinances already on the books or leave them in place and simply prohibit future expansions of discrimination protections.
“Either way would be a win for our members,” King said.
The Missouri chamber has historically opposed efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Act alongside things such as race, gender and age. They’ve argued doing so would open businesses up to litigation.
A.J. Bockelman, executive director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Promo, says the Chamber’s efforts position it against a rising tide of public support for gay rights.
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 36 states, and court rulings have allowed same-sex couples to marry in St. Louis and Jackson County. Yet under Missouri law a person can be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a public place just for being gay.
The chamber’s proposed legislation also puts it at odds with some of its biggest members, Bockelman said. St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., for example, has offered same-sex domestic partner benefits for more than 10 years and brags that it was named one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” by the national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign.
Rep. Sheila Solon, a Blue Springs Republican and chairwoman of the House Committee on State and Local Governments, hasn’t seen the chamber’s proposed legislation. But she does agree that “consistency in the rules and regulations across the state is a good thing.”
But that has to be balanced, she said, with an understanding that on many issues local control is a better option.
“Local government is the closest to the people,” she said. “Here at the Capitol, we have to respect that. But there are instances when the state has to step in and make sure local government doesn’t stomp all over people’s freedom.”