Legislative session shows how states are anachronisms

How generous and gracious it was of the powers that be in the Missouri legislature to designate the final day of the session as “St. Louis Day.” It was truly magnanimous to allocate one out of 127 days to the state’s largest metropolitan area. If truth be told, the largest metropolitan area in the state was essentially an afterthought to the legislators.

Let’s consider a few relevant facts:

• The state of Missouri has a population of 5,987,580.

• The St. Louis metropolitan area has a population of 2,779,939.

• The Missouri portion of the St. Louis metropolitan area has a population of 2,094,043, or 35% of the state’s population.

However you might want to define St. Louis, the fact remains that its influence in the state legislature is far less than its numbers would warrant.

In today’s world, Missouri, like virtually every other state, is an artificial construct. It exists only because states were the natural outgrowth of the colonies, which were created as the British and others crossed the Atlantic in search of freedom and opportunity. It’s interesting how the colonies were similar in size to European countries. Rhode Island could have been the Netherlands; Pennsylvania could have been Germany.

What is unique about America is that it saw the wisdom of unity, first in opposition to the British who had colonized it. After the successful revolution, the concept of “states’ rights” was given a try with the Articles of Confederation, but it had inherent weaknesses. Sounder minds prevailed, and the Constitution of the United States, bringing the former colonies together, was ratified in 1788.

We are a nation of Americans, diverse at that, but united in the identity of a country with standards that we can try to practice and that others can emulate.

Back to St. Louis. We define our identity and even allegiances by how we “walk the walk.” Where do we go when we leave our metropolitan area? It’s hard to find a St. Louisan who hasn’t gone to Chicago. Many have gone to Memphis, to New Orleans, and to the megalopolis that defines the northeast area from Boston to Washington. California is still a highly desired destination with increased interest in the cities and natural beauty of America’s southwest and northwest.

Missouri is made up of 114 counties. How many people have been to more than a handful of them? How many people have lodged for an evening in more than five counties?

Yet when it comes to making numerous rules regarding how we live, we are united with Adair County, Barton County, Cooper County, Daviess County, Hickory County, New Madrid County, Pulaski County, Saline County, Taney County, Worth County, and nearly one hundred more. What do we have in common with them? Mainly geographic proximity, but there are even holes in that argument. It takes over six hours to drive from St. Louis to Atchison County in the northwest corner of Missouri. It takes less than five minutes to drive from St. Louis to St. Clair County in Illinois. We can fly to virtually any metropolitan area in the United States in less time than we can drive to Atchison County.

So, when the Missouri legislature tries to govern, St. Louis is linked with entities with which it has very little connection. St. Louis is connected to the rest of Missouri by boundaries that may have made sense two hundred years ago, but are essentially meaningless now.

Despite the fact that the St. Louis metropolitan area is the largest concentration of people in the state, the views of many Missouri legislators from outside the area range from indifference to hostility. Consider what happened, or didn’t happen, in the just-concluded Missouri legislative session.


Missouri legislators celebrate another year of obstruction.

In the area of crime-fighting, the legislature once again failed to lift its control of the St. Louis City Police Board, something that it co-opted 150 years ago at the beginning of the Civil War. Maybe they need more time to study the issue. In a related issue, the legislature must have thought that there aren’t enough guns on the streets, so they lowered the age at which a citizen can carry a concealed weapon from 23 years of age to 21.

With the one issue of crime, we can see how flagrantly the interests of St. Louis are stymied, because it is saddled with an antiquated association with over 100 rural counties, with which it has few common interests.

If the 2,779,939 in the St. Louis metropolitan area (including Metro-East), were a unified governmental entity that was autonomous, so long as it abided by federal law, we would immediately have local control of the police, and most handguns would be outlawed, at least on public streets.

Instead of the Missouri legislature looking for new ways to keep women from their constitutional right to abortion, we would be establishing health clinics throughout the area, in which women could receive comprehensive reproductive services, provided in a non-judgmental fashion.

Tax credits to preserve historic buildings would be determined by the people who live closest to these buildings, not others who are hundreds of miles away. The concept of tax credits for a possible China hub would also be decided by those most affected. My hunch is that the idea would be deep-sixed and replaced with meaningful credits to re-stimulate manufacturing in St. Louis, rather than distributing someone else’s goods.

On Sunday, May 15, 2011, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized that the “job creation agenda lay in tatters on the Capitol’s marble floors.” The editorial examines the roots of the problem.

As this legislative session proved again, the problems in Jefferson City are institutional. They’re tied to campaign finance rules that are practically non-existent, term limits that start the clock ticking on the next election cycle before the session even begins, lax ethics rules that allow lobbyists to have outsized influence with impressionable first-time lawmakers and a political system that has both parties playing to their most extreme factions.

Missouri is not the only state that stymies the will of its metropolitan areas; it happens across the country. So what can we do about it? We cannot eliminate states, if for no other reason than they were here first.

What we can do is harness the power of the federal government to better utilize its effective tax tools of a progressive income tax to collect money in a fair fashion (currently in a hiatus so long as the Bush tax breaks for the wealthy remain in effect, for rather inexplicable reasons). Straightening out the federal tax code is an easier enterprise than trying to do so in fifty states.

With the federal government as “tax collector in chief,” it could eliminate direct grants to states and instead send them to newly strengthened metropolitan governments, as well as newly created rural governing entities  that could make policy without the hindrance of metropolitan interests.

None of this will happen quickly. As described in chapter 17 of An Unlikely Candidate, meaningful change will require at least a generation. What we can do now is recognize the absurdity of state governance and begin the dialogue toward a more meaningful federalism based on progress rather than obstruction.

[Image credit: News-Tribune]