Is this fair? Buy a T-shirt at Independence Center, and pay sales taxes. Order it online, and pay none.

Brick-and-mortar retailers, and the city governments that depend on them for those taxes, have argued for years that it’s clearly not fair. Legislators in Jefferson City have made no significant moves to level that playing field. Some contend a state-by-state approach won’t work anyway and that Congress -- good luck with that -- needs to be the one to act.

This came up again last week as local legislators had some back and forth with local business people at an Independence Chamber of Commerce briefing.

State Rep. Rory Rowland, D-Independence, said requiring online retailers to collect taxes in the area where a given customer lives is entirely feasible.

“I know the process is complex, but it can be done,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, the lack of action is hurting cities and states.

Not to mention retailers.

Legislators and others also kicked around just how much Jefferson City should tell cities to do and how much should be left to local control. Many of those issues involve business.

Broadly speaking, it’s a philosophical point, but legislators said the reality is people look at it case by case and at whose ox is being gored.

“Nothing is black and white,” said Rep. Bill Kidd, R-Independence. “There’s an opposite to every story.”

Some Missouri cities have wanted their own minimum wage, and some have wanted to ban plastic bags. The General Assembly said no. Voters in Kansas City and St. Louis just this month renewed their earnings taxes, yet legislators immediately turned back to measures to ban them. There’s talk again of squelching cities such as Independence that have banned pit bulls.

Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence, says his periodic questionnaires in newsletters to constituents show strong support for local control. But during last Friday’s discussion, he offered a comment he has made many times: “We’re for local control down there in Jefferson City until we’re against it.”

On a seemingly unrelated note, Dr. Bridget McCandless of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City noted that Independence is among the cities that have raised the legal age to buy tobacco to 21, and she wondered if the state could do the same.

There you go, said Kidd. Local control cuts both ways.

He also said, with a grin, “Do you want somebody like us legislating those things?”

Comments welcome

I’ll be at The Examiner’s booth from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at the Eastern Jackson County Business Expo. That event, following an 11:30 a.m. luncheon, is from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence. It’s sponsored by several area chambers of commerce. It’s $10 for the expo, or $25 for the luncheon and the expo.

I’ll be there to chat and listen, and I have a specific goal in mind. The Examiner has a quarterly publication, the Eastern Jackson County Business Review, and each edition has a theme. In February, for instance, we looked at the economic opportunities presented by an aging population.

For May, we’re looking at what state government is doing for businesses – or to businesses, as many say – and what it should be doing. Much of this conversation is about the General Assembly, and I’m hoping to look at not just what legislators are discussing but what they ought to be but aren’t.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. Drop by at the expo, or send an email any time. It’s jeff.fox@examiner.net.

Take the train

Jackson County officials recently cleared a big hurdle -- one of many yet to come -- toward their goal of launching commuter rail service. The county is buying 17.7 miles of unused track from the stadiums to the Longview area, with immediate plans for a bike trail and more in the years ahead.

But longtime civic activist Clay Chastain insists he still has a better solution: A spine of light rail running the length of Kansas City and then reaching out to other metro cities. He said this week he’s halfway to having enough signatures to get on the November ballot in Kansas City only.

“The light rail that I have will function as commuter rail. … I can go 65 miles per hour,” he said.

He said limited stops and good speed are critical “because this thing has to move fast or people won’t use it.”

Here’s the idea: Chastain puts it at a little more than 30 miles from the massive Cerner complex under construction at I-435 and Bannister Road in south Kansas City north to Kansas City International Airport. “That’s a long spine,” he said.

Stops between those two points would be at the zoo, Brookside, the Plaza, Union Station, the Sprint Center, North Kansas City, Vivion Road and the Twin Creeks neighborhood.

“It connects to the major destinations and job centers in the city,” he said. Eventually, as one example, a line would run from the stadiums east to the Independence Center area.

The county’s plans, first rolled out seven years ago, have shifted as opportunities and obstacles have presented themselves. The current idea is to start with the 17.7 miles in Lee’s Summit, Raytown and east Kansas City and then, to the north, swing through the East Bottoms to the River Market, which connects a rider with the Kansas City streetcar that starts up next month. That would be the first of several lines.

County officials have stressed that these things, especially working with railroads, take time. Just getting the $52 million purchase of the 17.7 miles from the Union Pacific took a couple years.

Let’s be clear. The county and Chastain have the same goal -- getting people to and from work, a boon to business -- but these are not complementary plans. The county has pursued commuter rail, which runs on regular train tracks, the kind Kansas City has in abundance, many of them unused or little used.

Light rail is, well, lighter, and it would require all new tracks, a point Chastain concedes. County officials have long argued that’s the beauty of their idea, that putting old tracks back into use costs pennies on the dollar compared with new tracks.

So, has Chastain talked to the county folks?

“No. See, that’s not my style,” he said.

He did say people such as former County Executive MIke Sanders, who energetically pushed the commuter rail idea for years, deserve credit, and he said the overall goal is “superior transit connectivity.”

“We lack that,” he said. “Everybody knows we lack that.”

Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s business editor and reporter. He posts business items and other things on Twitter @FoxEJC.