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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Bill limiting traffic fine revenue includes risk of 'death penalty' for municipalities

Sen. Eric Schmitt's legislation limiting traffic fines could make it easier for cities to dissolve. The current process involves collecting hundreds -- if not thousands -- of signatures, and is only available to certain classes of cities.
Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio

There are times the Missouri General Assembly can be a factory of cynicism. Simple proposals can get massaged, manipulated and altered so much that the end result satisfies no one.

Some thought that that would be fate of state Sen. Eric Schmitt’s legislation lowering the percentage of fine revenue a city could have in its budget.

But rather than getting watered down, Schmitt’s bill unanimously left the Senate last week with sharp teeth intact. The bill gradually lowers the percentage of fine revenue some cities can have in its budget from 30 to 10 percent. It requires all of the state’s municipalities to account for all traffic-related revenue to the state auditor. The auditor has to notify a city that’s over the percentage to remit the excess to the Department of Revenue within 60 days. 

And it would enact severe penalties if cities don’t turn over excess revenue to local schools – including an automatic ballot initiative to dissolve the town. 

The Glendale Republican says he expects the provision will grab the attention of mayors and city managers.

“People get to decide,” Schmitt said. “They get the ultimate decision on the death penalty for your city if you’re in violation. If people think you should continue on, you still have to hand over that excess to schools. Or they may say ‘we’ve had enough of this and we want to weigh in.’

“I’m convinced that with the current power structure in some of these municipalities that would never happen without this type of enforcement provision,” he added.

State law stipulates that disincorporation elections are only possible in fourth-class cities and villages – not third-class cities like Wellston or charter cities such as Ferguson. And the only way to get them on the ballot is to gather signatures of “one-half of the voters of a city,” which in a fourth-class city like St. Ann would amount to about 3,890 names.

Schmitt’s bill marks a major shift. By forgoing the arduous process of signature gathering, Schmitt said his bill would facilitate “a massive transfer of authority back to the people.”

“The people ought to have a chance to weigh in,” Schmitt said. “So we’re not saying (the municipalities) have to go away. We’re just saying the people in your communities get a chance to decide. I’m glad that remained in.”

While the bill could theoretically place, say, Columbia's existence in jeopardy, Schmitt said larger cities tend to have more diversified revenue streams. He added: “I still believe that 10 percent of your budget from traffic tickets and fines is a lot.”

“If you start looking at it from where people are, that may seem like a much lower number,” Schmitt said. “If you were to design a city budget as a public policy student at the University of Missouri and someone were to tell you ‘what is a good of mix revenue?’ I’m pretty sure 10 percent would still be a lot.”

No unanimous praise

Schmitt’s bill passed without opposition in the Missouri Senate – perhaps a surprising result considering that groups like the Missouri Municipal League expressed misgivings about the legislation. 

Democrats are in the super minority in both the Missouri House and the Missouri Senate.
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
The Missouri House still needs to act on Schmitt's legislation.

While the league's deputy director Richard Sheets said some aspects of the bill move the issue in the right direction, including a more specified definition of “general revenue,” he emphasized that his organization isn’t happy with the disincorporation language.

“People still want other amenities and other kinds of protections that cities provide," Sheets said. "Bringing (disincorporation) up just because of a speeding ticket or traffic revenue … there’s just no connection there.”

He also predicts the bill may result in less funding for services that control traffic.

“We’re going to have less police protection in our smaller communities, and we’re going to have more accidents and more fatal accidents,” Sheets said. “I think that’s inevitable. Instead of enforcing the law now – and there may be some bad actors that need to be reprimanded and made to comply. This is just an overreaction to that small problem in just a handful of cities.”

At least one St. Louis County municipal leader – Bel-Nor Board of Trustees Chairman Kevin Bucheck – opposes the bill for another reason. Through a series of Tweets directed at Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger, Bucheck, who is white, predicts the bill would ultimately disband small St. Louis County cities led by African Americans.

He reiterated that contention in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, adding that "if we’re going to eliminate all these small municipalities, we’re going to eliminate that pipeline for black political leaders."

"And for most folks, that’s the way to springboard into statewide politics," Buchek said. "Typically, you start out as a trustee or alderman, then you become maybe the mayor, then maybe a state rep, a state senator. If you look at folks like Charlie Dooley, he started out as a trustee in Northwoods before becoming the county executive."

Buchek emphasized he's willing to consider mergers between municipalities -- but not dissolution of cities into unincorporated St. Louis County. While Buchek said he doubted the automatic disincorporation elections would be impactful, he added he's concerned Schmitt's bill would lead to insolvency in some cities.

"We provide a great level of service in these smaller municipalities," said Buchek, adding that roads on Monday in Bel-Nor were "well-plowed" compared to the "terrible" county and state roads. "And that service has a cost. To provide a more personal level of service, it costs more than that level of service that folks are getting from St. Louis County and from unincorporated St. Louis County."

"The folks that live in these municipalities like that level of service and I don’t think would ever vote to disincorporate," he added. "If they wanted to live in unincorporated St. Louis County, they wouldn’t choose to buy a home in an incorporated municipality." 

Schmitt said he had heard those types of arguments when meeting with north St. Louis County municipal officials. Needless to say, he wasn’t persuaded.

“The people in those communities who are targeted by this abusive scheme are poor, African-American residents,’” Schmitt said. “So, just because someone’s in a leadership position doesn’t insulate from the fact of how this is playing out. And it’s accelerated over the last decade or so.”

In any case, it'll remain to be seen whether Schmitt’s bill faces any substantial changes when it goes through the House. It'll be up to state Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, to guide the legislation through the General Assembly’s lower chamber.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.