by Collin Reischman
Jefferson City, Mo. — There are more than 800 cities and municipalities in Missouri of all shapes and sizes. Some are towns of less than 1,000 people. Others are the ones you already know, like Saint Louis or Kansas City. But of the 800+ cities and towns in Missouri, 673 have one thing in common: the Missouri Municipal League (MML).
Dan Ross, Executive Director of MML, said the MML served two primary functions for their members when they lobby in Jefferson City. The first? Maintain local control for their members and keep “one size fits all solutions,” at bay. The second, stopping unfunded mandates.
But lobbying to maintain income taxes or use taxes, or fighting for clarity on the prevailing wage, isn’t the only service offered by the MML. For a simple fee, any city can join and have access to a catchall service provided by the MML.
“99 percent of the calls we get on a daily basis are from small towns and cities that maybe don’t have an attorney on staff,” Ross told The Missouri Times. “Maybe they need legal advice, or they need to know what constitutes a quorum or they are doing something else they’ve never done before. Whatever they need, we take the call an we try to give them guidance.”
Ross said the MML is mostly about playing defense. They won’t be marching into the Capitol with legislation to file, or bills to hock to local officials. No, they’ll be focused on watching and waiting. Ross said their members have a wide range of concerns, sometimes contradictory, but that the overreaching message of local control always remains.
“Take gun control, we have 673 members, right?” Ross said. “Well, I bet we have 673 opinions on the matter. We, the Missouri Municipal League, we don’t have an official policy of what we want or don’t want for gun control. We just want to hear our members and try to make sure that any laws handed down in Jefferson City allow
our members to make their own decisions and control their own fate.”
The anti-tax climate in Jefferson City is something Ross and the MML will need to watch closely, he said. Bills before the legislature reducing income taxes, licensing fees and penalties as well as changes to the Use tax could have a serious impact on many of his members.
“For a smaller city or town, these are major revenue streams,” Ross said. “When we begin to reduce those revenue streams, our members can’t provide the same services people have some to expect. Businesses expect cities to provide certain services so they can grow, and so do citizens.”
Ross said his organization was deeply concerned about a possible reduction, or complete abolition, of the individual and/or corporate income tax. Replacing it with a sales tax, Ross said, won’t be nearly as effective in raising revenue.
The MML has experience with tax battles. They’ll be involved in a Use Tax ballot initiative this year, and Ross said one of MML’s finest moments came when they successfully defeated a measure that would have “destroyed” Kansas’ earning tax.
“I’d love to be the first state on the planet where a reduction in taxes equals economic development,” Ross said. “I just doubt it. Look at Kansas, they are already predicting a budget shortfall after their decision on income taxes, and the shortfall is expected to get bigger. We’ve got to be cognizant of the bigger picture and think long term.”
Ross said he understood the logic behind large reductions in taxes, but didn’t think the end result was the desired one. In Kansas, Ross said “monied interests” came together to lobby the legislature for lower taxes under the guise of development, but were really just looking to reduce their own tax liability.
“When you lean on a sales tax in place of an income tax you place the tax burden of the state on people who were already not paying income taxes,” Ross said. “If you can’t raise enough revenue to have some kind of quality infrastructure like roads and good schools, than you can’t have a good business environment. Business doesn’t come to a place that is crumbling, and that’s the risk you take.”
Ross said the legislature was trying to appear “small government” by reducing taxes and pushing responsibilities downstream onto smaller municipalities.
“We can restore struggling areas and preserve local control,” Ross said. “We just have to be reticent of the big picture, and work as hard as we can for our members.”