How Better Together’s Plan Will Circumvent Democracy and Bankrupt St. Louis

How Better Together’s Plan Will Circumvent Democracy and Bankrupt St. Louis

At first I thought it was an oversight.

When Better Together announced its plan to merge St. Louis city and county, I was excited by the long overdue energy around a regional vision, but the decision to refer the proposal to a statewide vote worried me. I had seen supporters claim that their hands were tied, because the approval of state voters would be necessary to effect the broad constitutional changes envisioned by the plan, but I thought I could offer a way out.

I had served as director of economic policy for Mayor Francis Slay, and as an adviser through Mayor Lyda Krewson's transition. That is to say, I've worked with many of the plan's advocates, so I called someone who had helped edit the language of the proposed constitutional amendment.

I asked if they had considered including a provision requiring majority support at both the statewide and local level. The Supreme Court approved just such a mechanism in Town of Lockport v. Citizens for Community Action. I explained that this approach would simultaneously afford the legal authority to amend the state constitution while protecting local rights to self-determination.

To my surprise, I was informed that the statewide vote was critical because they did not expect the proposal to pass at the local level. I asked if imposing a new government on an unwilling population might not foster resentment and further division. They said it was worth it.

The casual display of cynicism left a bitter taste in my mouth, and it compelled me to take a hard look at the proposal. I wanted to understand why the plan's proponents had such little faith in their ability to persuade local voters to support their vision.

What I found was that, despite marketing materials that speak in the language of equity and progress, the text of the proposed constitutional amendment reads quite plainly as a blueprint for a city structure designed to entrench white, wealthy political power and obstruct real reform. Better Together's decision earlier this week to abandon provisions that would have enthroned County Executive Steve Stenger as king of the unified city through 2024 represents a step in the right direction. But the Stenger-related components were just the most dramatic flaws in a fundamentally broken structure that deprives vulnerable communities of political power.

I don't say this lightly. I desperately wanted to get excited about a plan to finally unite our great region. The City-County Divorce of 1876 is the original sin behind a St. Louis that is defined by its silos. Lines drawn over a century ago have proven surprisingly durable, and our fragmented political structure has taken a moral, economic and psychological toll. We waste resources competing against ourselves in a race to the bottom instead of putting our best foot forward toward the nation. We forget that we are a major metropolitan area with enviable collective assets. Most significantly, we neglect the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors just because they live across arbitrary geographic lines. This is a profound moral failure, but it's also shortsighted. Isolation may be the path of least resistance, but it is not a viable long-term strategy.

Furthermore, having worked in local government, I know it's easier to tear down imperfect compromises than to build a better future. I recognize that there are many laudable aspects of the plan and that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. I understand why so many have been seduced by the plan and its vision for a more equitable future.

Unfortunately, a thorough legal and financial analysis has led me to conclude that the proposal is not merely imperfect, but likely to make life worse for a broad swath of vulnerable St. Louisans across the region. While many will benefit from merging our police departments and reforming our nightmarish municipal court system, Better Together's plan also puts the city in a financial hole, forcing deep cuts. By erecting a political structure that largely disenfranchises underserved communities, the plan all but ensures, barring uncharacteristically enlightened leadership, that they will bear the burden.

Ultimately, I fear that the proposal is little more than a Trojan horse designed to advance a libertarian billionaire's quest to cut taxes on the wealthy and defund government.

Part I: Undermining Democracy

The plan advances this agenda, which does not have popular support, by establishing a series of anti-democratic mechanisms and structures. The problems start with the statewide vote, which allows the new city to be established without a local mandate, but they go much further — to the foundations of the new city's political system.

The work of designing the new government's charter and political map is entrusted to leaders whom the proposal takes various steps to insulate from political checks. Furthermore, the plan establishes a budgeting scheme that privileges wealthier municipalities and affords their elected representatives disproportionate influence. While certain pieces of this structure are individually defensible as necessary political compromises, their cumulative impact is to create an indefensible system that deprives vulnerable communities of political power.

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