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This year's limits on municipal fine revenue get first approval in the Missouri Senate

Sen. Eric Schmitt
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Eric Schmitt's bill aimed at restricting non-traffic fine revenue passed out of a Senate committee earlier this week.

Updated 6:40 p.m. Jan. 26 with Senate vote - The Missouri Senate has given first-round approval to legislation that would place further limits on cities using fines to collect revenue. Last year's municipal court reform law restricted the percentage of money from traffic fines that could be used in city budgets. The sponsor, Republican Eric Schmitt of Glendale, says this bill would place fines from municipal code violations under the same caps:

Schmitt said he was opposed to city making money from " roving bureaucrats going around neighborhoods, peeking into people's homes for mismatched blinds, mismatched curtains, chipped paint, (or) citing people for having a barbecue in their front yard."

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.
Credit Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Eric Schmitt

Democrat Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur agrees with the bill in principle, but during floor debate questioned whether the problems are as widespread as Schmitt says they are.

And Democrat Kiki Curls of Kansas City expressed concerns that the bill would provide an unfair advantage to banks that own abandoned property in her city:

"I am really concerned that that provides even less of a deterrent for folks that can pay or for some of these banks to keep up properties … and some of the properties are atrocious; and they've been foreclosed on, and the banks that own them will not fix them; they have left them completely."

The bill, though, passed easily on a voice vote.  It needs one more vote by the full Senate before moving to the Missouri House.

Original article - The Missouri Senate is one step closer to expanding upon last year’s overhaul of municipal governance.

Last year, the legislature lowered a cap that restricts the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities could keep.The threshold went from 30 percent to 20 percent statewide and 30 percent to 12.5 percent in St. Louis County. (That measure, known as Senate Bill 5, is currently being litigated.)

Sen. Eric Schmitt's new bill would effectively count revenue from non-traffic ordinances against that cap. The Glendale Republican said that could include housing code violations and has cited Pagedale as an example of a bad actor. (If cities go over the fine-revenue cap, excess funds would have to go to schools. And if St. Louis County municipalities don’t follow the remitting procedures, they could face an automatic disincorporation election.)

"It’s consistent with the thought process that went into Senate Bill 5 last year," Schmitt said. "We’re not saying you can’t do any of it. We’re saying that it can’t be a disproportionate amount of your budget where it looks abusive." 

Schmitt's bill passed out of a Senate committee this week and could be headed to the Senate floor soon.

Schmitt said that lawmakers want to make sure that cities don’t try to recoup soon-to-be diminishing traffic fine revenue with ordinance violations, adding that “we’re going to be watching to see if, on this road to reform, if some cities were looking for exit ramps.”

“Senate Bill 5 was a heavy lift in that it was a dramatic change,” Schmitt said. “I think this year is sort of a follow up to that in reminding people that we have to be watchful. If these abusive practices take place in moving violations, we have to make sure that they don’t take place with non-moving violations as well.

“There’s a greater understanding now of this issue. ... It’s been covered extensively by the media – local and nationally,” he added. “I think people understand that this is wrong. “

Municipal League opposition

While Schmitt’s latest bill hasn’t faced significant legislative pushback so far, it has attracted the opposition of the Missouri Municipal League. (Municipal officials were some of the loudest critics of the 2015 municipal overhaul, especially the lower cap for St. Louis County cities.)  

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Municipal League deputy director Richard Sheets said in a telephone interview that Schmitt’s bill was applying “a solution statewide for a problem that may exist in one city.”

He also disputed the idea that cities use housing code violations as a revenue generating device.

“They use this by saying ‘if you don’t cut your grass or if you don’t move that shed off the property line, we’re going to prosecute you in municipal court,’” Sheets said. “And the vast majority of times, they get compliance and they drop the case. So very rarely do cities prosecute for these violations. I think it’s an overreaction to the situation in Pagedale and to the hype that’s surrounded this one person.

“And passing legislation that has implications for cities throughout our state is just an overreaction and an unnecessary state intrusion into local authority and local prerogatives,” he added.

Sheets also said he’s worried Schmitt’s bill would provide a disincentive for cities to enforce ordinances aimed at cleaning up derelict properties.

“It’s beyond just appearance of property, it’s also a public health issue,” Sheets said. “And cities throughout the state struggle with that. If people don’t cut their grass and keep debris and junk in their front yard, it not only detracts from the property values of their neighbors – it’s also a breeding ground for vermin. It’s a struggle they have. And cities have a limited amount of tools. Just like the state of Missouri when somebody violates the law, you use the law to get compliance.”

For his part, Schmitt said he doesn’t “dismiss that it’s important for cities to maintain their vitality and for neighbors to feel safe.”

“The purpose of these ordinances to the extent that a city chooses to enact them should be compliance though,” Schmitt said. “And it should have less to do with revenue generation. And again, that’s when you get to the heart of what I think drives the abuse is when it becomes about the money.

“Hopefully this is an opportunity to re-evaluate some of these things – like vegetation in the side yard or not being able to barbeque on your front lawn with three or more people,” he added. “At the end of the day, a local government still has an ability to enact an ordinance like that. What we’re saying is you can’t use it as a revenue generation tool to prop up your government.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.