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Missouri legislature sends municipal court changes to the governor

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 6:14 p.m. May 7 with comments from Gov. Jay Nixon and House Speaker John Diehl - Missouri lawmakers have sent Gov. Jay Nixon the first bill of the 2015 legislative session that deals with the fallout from last year’s unrest in Ferguson.  The House passed Senate Bill 5 today, 134-25, after the Senate overwhelmingly approved it Wednesday night.

Senate Bill 5 would cap traffic revenue used by local governments at 20 percent of their general operating revenue statewide, except in St. Louis County, where it would be capped at 12.5 percent.  Fines and court costs for minor traffic offenses would be capped at $300, and no one would be sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a fine.

Also, citizens would be able to vote to dissolve their local governments if they don’t turn over excess traffic revenue to the state within 60 days.

Nixon says he'll give the bill a "hard review" before deciding what to do, but so far he's expected to sign it.

"It's certainly within the zone of what I've called for," Nixon told reporters Thursday.

House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, who has said that he would not have a “Ferguson agenda,” strongly urged lawmakers to pass the bill.

“You want to talk about freedom?  Let’s talk about ending taxation by citation,” Diehl said before the vote.  “Government ought not to exist (to) fund itself by fining and imprisoning its citizens to collect money.”

Most of those who voted “no,” including Democrat Clem Smith of Velda Village Hills, say it’s unfair that St. Louis County municipalities would only be able to keep 12.5 percent of their traffic fine revenue, while towns in the rest of the state get to keep 20 percent.

“When I go home, I gotta talk to my neighbors to figure out why some of their city services may be getting cut,” Smith said, “and I say ‘well, it’s somebody that didn’t live here – well, maybe somebody that lived close by – that did this to your community.”

The 25 House members who voted “no” included 14 Democrats from the St. Louis area and four Republicans from mostly rural areas.  Meanwhile, 11 Democrats from the St. Louis area voted “yes.”

Senate Bill 5 was sponsored by another St. Louis area lawmaker, Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale. 

  “Government doesn’t exist to find new and innovative ways to extract more and more from its citizens; government exists to serve the people," Schmitt said Wednesday night.  "When you have a system where it becomes about revenue generation, and the rights of individuals take a back seat, people are in jail for minor infractions, that’s an injustice.”

The measure is the leading proposal to address concern that came out of the unrest that erupted last summer in Ferguson. Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, says the bill is not a fix-all, but suggested that it could help address inequality in Missouri.

“We’ve had ice storms in the state of Missouri (and) we have had tornadoes in the state of Missouri; those are all natural disasters,” Chappelle-Nadal said.  “It took a human disaster to have this bill in front of us; without that human disaster this bill would not be before us and we would not be voting on it.”

The Senate passed SB 5 by a 31-3 vote.  The three “no” votes all came from rural-area senators.

“If you get a speeding ticket or whatever, a minor infraction, and you don’t appear in court, there doesn’t appear to me to be any penalty for that, so why would you ever appear in court?” said Sen. Jay Wasson, R-Nixa.

Back in February, Wasson had also expressed concern about the financial impact the bill could have on small rural towns. He was the one who sponsored language setting the traffic fine revenue cap at 20 percent for rural areas, which would now cover all of Missouri except St. Louis County in the final version of the bill. The original version would have lowered the cap to 10 percent statewide.

“When you’ve got a $120,000 (annual) budget, it doesn’t take too much to get over 10 percent,” Wasson said.  “So (20 percent) helped.”

Wasson said he could have easily supported the measure if had applied only to St. Louis County and not the entire state.

Senate Bill 5 would adjust the 1995 Macks Creek law, which limits cities and towns to using only 30 percent of revenue collected from traffic citations in their budgets. Macks Creek is a now-unincorporated village near the Lake of the Ozarks that was once known as Missouri’s most notorious speed trap. More than 75 percent of its operating budget had come from speeding tickets and other traffic citations.

The chart: The information that was used in the legislature -- provided by Sen. Eric Schmitt's office -- did not include St. Louis municipalities that do not have municipal courts or some that did not get any fine revenue. Data was not usable for Bel-Nor. And was incomplete for Kinloch.


Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.