State looks to usurp some local controls

Some legislators are worried that local governments overtax.
Monday, February 26, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:28 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The answer: Cable TV, telephones and large livestock farms.

The question: In what three areas are state lawmakers trying take away control from local governments?

In reality, there’s a lot more than three areas in which the state is proposing to preempt city councils and county commissions.

Those are just the most prominent examples.

In fact, some longtime politicians believe the state is increasingly trying to limit what local governments can do.

Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon drew hearty applause from about 250 people at a Missouri Municipal League conference last week as he derided the state legislative efforts on cable television, telephones and farms.

“There is a growing and alarming trend in our state for state government to try to usurp your local control authority,” Nixon said.

If that’s the case, some lawmakers reply, it’s only because some local officials are getting out of control with their taxes and regulations.

“There are times when the local governments do not take into consideration what is in the best interest of their constituents,” said state Rep. Shannon Cooper, R-Clinton.

Cooper is the lead sponsor of a pair of measures seeking to limit local governments’ abilities to collect taxes from phone companies.

Dozens of cities have sued cell phone companies seeking about $500 million in back taxes, which the wireless phone companies claim they should not have to pay. Cooper’s bill would invalidate those lawsuits

in exchange for a partial payment by the phone companies.

It also would cap the tax rates local governments could charge to either wireline or wireless phone companies.

Cooper also has proposed constitutional amendment to limit the taxes that local governments can charge on telecommunications services.

“These cities have had a stranglehold on certain industries — telecom is probably No. 1,” Cooper said. “They’re not willing to change to allow consumers to have better competition and more choices.”

Competition was the most cited reason why senators voted 32-2 last week for legislation that would end a requirement for cable television companies to reach franchise agreements with the cities whose residents they serve.

The bill would let telecommunications companies such as AT&T Inc. get statewide approval to offer video service in Missouri. Cable TV companies could opt for that same statewide approval, ending the need to negotiate with cities.

The TV competition bill is sponsored by Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, who served for a decade as a city councilman and Franklin County commissioner before being elected to the state Legislature in 1992. Griesheimer has always considered himself sympathetic to local governments.

“Generally we do tend to go with local control,” Griesheimer said. “However, I’m sorry, sometimes the locals get out of control and they need to be reined in.”

Cities, for example, “will tend to tax everything that wiggles and moves,” Griesheimer said. “I’m sorry, that’s not the proper role of government. Every once and a while we have to jerk their chain.”

Gary Markenson, the executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, said that chain is getting jerked more often. Markenson has lobbied for cities since 1980, and he carries around a list of at least a dozen bills that, if passed, would preempt cities’ authority on various issues.

Among those is legislation backed by Gov. Matt Blunt that would prohibit local governments from regulating agricultural operations. The effect would be to nullify more than 30 local health and zoning ordinances that primarily target large hog farms blamed by opponents for foul odors, dirty water and decreasing property values.

Blunt said some of the ordinances are designed to drive farmers out of business.

Nixon said the proposal bows to the special interests of big pig and big chicken at the expense of a good neighbor policy.

“I don’t know why any city would want to make life more difficult by abrogating local control to the whims of the Legislature and the influence of special interests when it comes to the health and safety of your citizens,” Nixon told the city officials.

Although the agriculture, cable TV and telephone bills all are sponsored by Republicans — who control the Legislature — Markenson said Republicans aren’t necessarily responsible for what he sees as a steady trend in efforts to usurp local control.

Markenson blames term limits, which have forced longtime lawmakers out of office. It’s his perception that fewer of the lawmakers have experience in local governments.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, is a former public school board member. He agrees there is a trend toward state preemption of local control. Part of that may be because of the increasing complexity of government issues, he said.

And part of that may be because of the lawmakers themselves.

“I think legislators typically think we’re the ones who are supposed to control — the world revolves around us,” Shields said.

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