Heavy-handed Missouri legislators should stop trampling on local control

Citizens look to City Hall for a minimum wage increase in Kansas City. Missouri lawmakers disagree.
Citizens look to City Hall for a minimum wage increase in Kansas City. Missouri lawmakers disagree. rsugg@kcstar.com

Your state legislature always knows best.

Says who? Why, your state legislature, of course.

Lawmakers in Jefferson City think they, not local elected officials, should set the minimum wage for workers in Kansas City.

They also think decisions on workplace benefits, such as sick leave, should begin and end with them.

And that ever-pressing question — paper or plastic? The Missouri General Assembly thinks local officials can’t be trusted to determine what kind of shopping bags merchants can offer to customers.

Missouri legislators are expected to vote this week on whether to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of House Bill 722, which strips local governments of the right to set policy on wages, workplace benefits and, yes, shopping bags. Sustaining the veto will be a challenge, but a victory would mark a welcome pause in the rush by state legislatures here and elsewhere to stomp out local control.

Around the nation, Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws negating the ability of city and county governments to pass environmental regulations, limit the growth of industrial agriculture, restrict access to tobacco products and regulate activities such as fracking.

Known as preemption laws, many of these heavy-handed measures are a result of coordinated efforts by industry lobbyists or prompting from the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes “model legislation” for state legislatures to advance corporate interests.

Those interests have a powerful role model — the gun industry. It has succeeded over the last couple of decades in removing the power to regulate firearms from local governments in almost every state, including Missouri and Kansas.

The Kansas Legislature has become particularly meddlesome over the last few years. Bills have dictated expanded gun rights, the dates of local elections and a requirement for a public vote before local governments can raise property taxes.

In Missouri, lawmakers are especially susceptible to corporate-driven power grabs. With no limits on lobbyist gifts or campaign contributions, legislators have every incentive to elbow aside community interests at the behest of wealthier benefactors.

House Bill 722 started out as a measure to prevent the city of Columbia from banning disposable plastic bags. Its sponsor, Dan Shaul, a Republican from Imperial, is state director of the Missouri Grocers Association.

At the request of business groups, a provision to stop local governments from raising minimum wages above the state’s threshold was added to the bill after Kansas City and St. Louis began considering that possibility. And for good measure, lawmakers added language preventing local governments from legislating workplace requirements that exceed the state’s limits.

As Nixon, a Democrat, noted in his veto message, Missouri is a diverse state. A wage floor that works in the rural communities of southeast Missouri isn’t necessarily right for Kansas City and St. Louis, where living costs tend to be higher. Local elected officials are best suited to decide what’s right for their communities. If they get it wrong, voters will let them know.

Nixon also observed, correctly, that “it is highly questionable that the bagging of groceries is one that warrants intervention by the long arm of state government.”

Here’s the irony: Lawmakers in Jefferson City spend a great deal of time making speeches about the tyranny of the heavy-handed federal government. They object on principle to elected officials being told what they can and can’t do — unless it’s they who are doing the telling.