For more than 40 years, the Missouri Constitution has prevented state lawmakers from forcing local governments to increase funding for specific services.
That could change in November when Missouri voters will be asked whether they want to amend the state’s governing document to allow the legislature to compel Kansas City to pay more for police.
The move would give state lawmakers even more control over the city’s police force. Kansas City is the only city in Missouri that does not directly control its police. The board is overseen by the governor’s appointees under a 1939 law.
Missouri lawmakers voted to add the constitutional amendment to the ballot Friday in direct response to Kansas City Council’s decision last year to assert more control over police spending.
Here’s what to know about the proposed change to the constitution and what will be on your ballot in November:
Does the Missouri Constitution prevent the state from forcing Kansas City to increase police funding?
Legal experts say, yes.
Missouri law restricts state lawmakers from requiring cities to increase funding above existing levels unless the state government provides additional money.
In 1980, Missouri voters approved an amendment to the constitution that placed a series of tax and expenditure limits on the state legislature. Commonly known as the Hancock Amendment, it includes a “no unfunded mandate” provision that prevents state lawmakers from shifting funding responsibilities to local governments.
“When the legislature tells a local government to do something, it has to give the local government the money to do it,” former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff told The Star Monday. “So they can’t force Kansas City to pay for something… unless the legislature crops up the money to do it.”
Mel Hancock, a Springfield businessman who later served in Congress, sought the amendment to place limits on state government spending. It lowers the government’s ability to raise taxes and prevents the state from forcing local governments to spend money, said Wolff.
The measure approved by the General Assembly Friday addresses the Hancock Amendment. It says the legislature “cannot require a city to increase an activity or service beyond that required by existing law, unless a state appropriation is made to pay the city for any increase costs.”
Missouri is in violation of the “no unfunded mandate” provision when two things happen, according to a report by the Missouri Legislative Academy:
▪ If the state requires a new or increased activity of a local government; and
▪ The local government incurs increased costs as a result of the state mandate.
What will be on the ballot in November?
Missouri voters will decide whether to change the Hancock Amendment to allow the legislature to increase the minimum amount of money Kansas City can spend on its police force. This means voters statewide will be deciding on the city’s police budget.
The ballot question will likely be similar to the wording on the resolution approved by the General Assembly Friday, which asks:
“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to authorize laws, passed before December 31, 2026, that increase minimum funding for a police force established by a state board of police commissioners to ensure such police force has additional resources to serve its communities?”
The constitutional change is directly tied to another bill passed by the legislature on Friday that would raise the minimum percentage of Kansas City’s general revenue that must be spent on police from 20% to 25%. That measure still needs Gov. Mike Parson’s signature.
“The amendment was placed on the ballot to remove all concerns about the constitutionality of the bill,” Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican and sponsor of both measures, told The Star Tuesday.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, reached by phone Tuesday, painted the legislation as unconstitutional. He said it was a politically-motivated attempt by Republican lawmakers to pander to voters and would not actually boost the city’s police funding.
The police department already receives roughly 25% of the city’s budget each year, he said.
“I think we find ourselves in a position that this won’t make a material change for policing,” he said. “It’s just an effort to assert political control.”
The ballot question threatens to undermine the “entire Hancock Amendment itself,” which was crafted to provide more local support for new funding schemes, he said.
It’s “the opposite of everything the Missouri Republican Party has stood for,” he said. “I think it is a huge break from past practice in Missouri. It makes me wonder why they’re doing it.” The Kansas City mayor’s office is nonpartisan, but Lucas typically aligns with Missouri Democrats.
What prompted this proposed amendment?
Last May, Kansas City Council passed two ordinances orchestrated by Lucas that reallocated $42 million from the police budget to establish a Community Services and Prevention Fund.
The plan would have required police commissioners to negotiate with the city on how to spend the money. It would have funded police at the required 20% threshold under state law, while allowing the city to control spending above that amount.
But the police board sued and prevailed when Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Patrick W. Campbell ruled that the council violated Missouri law and overstepped its authority to redirect police funding after it had approved the budget.
Republican state lawmakers, angered by Lucas and city council, vowed to pass legislation this year that increased the minimum Kansas City can pay for police.
Is a lawsuit on the horizon?
While Republican lawmakers praised the constitutional amendment as a step to protect police funding, Kansas City-area Democrats argued the move was a politically-motivated attempt to stifle local control.
Lucas said on Friday he did “not support anything that takes away our ability to work with our local police department and neighborhood leaders in terms of how we get to better solutions for violent crime.”
He floated a likely lawsuit against the legislation late Friday, saying on Twitter the city’s “lawyers and ultimately judges solve the question of our anti-democratic system of state police control.”
There are several scenarios where the mandatory funding increase could result in a lawsuit, including if Parson signs the minimum funding increase into law but voters deny the constitutional amendment.
“If Parson signs the bill, and the voters shoot down the constitutional amendment, then the bill goes into effect, but somebody’s going to take a crack at the courts and courts will strike it down,” said Wolff.
Luetkemeyer, however, said he believes there’s a question over whether the Hancock Amendment would apply to the funding increase bill because the funding mechanism for the Kansas City Police Department was established before the amendment was added to the constitution.
If the constitutional amendment fails, he said there would be litigation to determine “whether the bill can go into effect.”
Who controls the Kansas City Police Department?
The Kansas City Police Department operates under state control by a five-member board of police commissioners, four of whom are appointed by Missouri’s governor. The other member is always the mayor.
The unusual arrangement has roots in Civil War-era racism, historians say. The state first seized control of the city’s newly created police department in 1874.
Political boss Tom Pendergast, who dominated Kansas City politics in the 1930s, challenged Missouri law to regain local control of the police department in 1932. That arrangement only lasted seven years.
In 1939, then-Gov. Lloyd Stark returned the department to state control amid rampant corruption during the Pendergast era.