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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.

On the Trail: Lawmakers content to wait for judges before altering municipal overhaul

Normandy Mayor Patrick Green (center) speaks to the media during a news conference last year. Green says it doesn't make much sense to spread out Proposition P money based on population.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green, center, speaks to the media after a judge struck down numerous aspects of SB5.

As he stood with his fellow mayors in corridor of the historic Wilson Price Hunt House, Normandy Mayor Patrick Green declined to gloat over the judicial body blow dealt to a landmark overhaul of municipal governance.

Instead, Green took the opportunity to extend a hand to lawmakers who had substantially restricted the percentage of fine revenue St. Louis County cities could keep in their budgets.The truce offer, though, had a caveat: St. Louis County cities had to be treated the same as the rest of the state.

“We want everyone to know that this decision should be a victory that says ‘law is for everyone,’” Green said. “We understand the collective group that lost trust in this region based upon the events of the past. They do not have to be our future. But everyone must be at the table, even … the elected officials who [citizens] elect to basically take care of those matters as executors, as caretakers through the good, bad and even the sad.”

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem last week struck down several aspects of the municipal overhaul known as SB5. Beetem wrote that a provision barring St. Louis County cities from incorporating more than 12.5 percent of traffic fine revenue into their budgets, as opposed to 20 percent elsewhere in the state, was an unconstitutional special law. He also wrote that a slate of standards for St. Louis County cities was a special law and an unfunded mandate. 

Attorney General Chris Koster’s office is appealing Beetem’s ruling, which didn’t exactly contain much legal reasoning. But lawmakers could probably quash this legal fight by creating a set of municipal standards and a fine cap that apply to the whole state.

“We do not rejoice and go back to the belief that the past was good for all of us,” Green said. “Change is better." While Green said he and other mayors embrace the change, "We believe that participation is beneficial to everyone when we’re at the table.”

Green’s wish probably won’t be granted anytime soon, especially since legislators appear content to wait and see how a higher court will rule before altering SB5. 

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, R-Glendale

“I think it has to run its legal course here. Typically decisions from Cole County when they’re filed dealing with legislation, everybody knows that ultimately the red brick building across from the Capitol is going to make the final decision,” said Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, referring to the state Supreme Court. “Whichever way this went, I imagine there was going to be an appeal.”

I’m very proud of the reforms that we put together last year and confident they’ll withstand the final legal challenge of the Missouri Supreme Court,” he added.

During an appearance on Politically Speaking, state Rep. Elijah Haahr concurred with Schmitt that the legislature wasn’t eager to make substantial alterations to SB5 while the legal process was still going forward.

“I’ve heard several attorneys that they’re fairly confident that on the appellate level, that it will be overturned. I just can’t say that,” said Haahr, R-Springfield. “All I can say is that from the legislative position, I think there’s a good group of people who would like to see that be played out in the court of appeals before we make a determination about whether or not we want to heed more closely to the 12.5 or 20 percent if we have to do a statewide number.”

Why the dual standard?

People smarter than this reporter will ultimately decide whether the 20 percent/12.5 percent standard is constitutional. But the bigger question is whether the dual standard makes much logical sense.

After all, it’s pretty evident that the tiered system was heavily influenced by legislative realities, as state Rep. Robert Cornejo explained last year. 

State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, says bringing jobs to low-income communities is essential to effectively responding to Ferguson.
Credit File photo by Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, has been harshly critical of how SB5 has a different fine revenue cap for St. Louis County and the rest of the state.

“Philosophically, I agree that everybody across the state should be the same,” said Cornejo, a St. Peters Republican who handled SB5 in the Missouri House. “It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that the tiered system was going to be the only thing that was going to get through the system – both the House and the Senate. So we kind of kept it at that. I understand the argument that we should all have the same system across the board. But when you start looking at where the problems are, a lot of it is St. Louis County.”

SB5’s opponents, though, contend that the way the percentages were crafted is inherently unfair – especially when cities far away from St. Louis County have garnered controversy for being ticket happy.

Others have argued that judging a city’s oppressiveness by the percentage of fine revenue it generates is misleading. After all, larger cities like Maryland Heights, Creve Coeur and Chesterfield all take in substantial amounts of fine revenue – but have low percentages because the cities have, among other things, larger populations and more business development. (The cities that are most affected by the 12.5 percent cap are generally poorer municipalities. They also have predominantly African-American populations and black elected leaders.) 

“My thing is we’re all Missourians,” said state Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, last year. “We should all be treated equally when it comes to this legislation. If the percentage of [traffic fines is] an issue in St. Louis County, it should also be a traffic issue or a serious concern in Dunklin County or Texas County or Pemiscot County.”

For his part, Schmitt has no problem with lowering the fine percentage for the entire state. He noted that his original bill would have lower the threshold to 10 percent for every Missouri city.

“If you ask any public policy student, grad student or anybody else what is a good mix of revenue for a city, the idea that a full third of your city’s budget or even 20 percent or 15 or 12.5 percent – that’s a lot,” Schmitt said. “I think we’ve opened some eyes to the problems that don’t just exist in St. Louis County exclusively.”

And Schmitt added that the court ruling would not affect his bid to include non-traffic violations within the SB5 fine cap.

“We are not stopping. I intend to make it a priority,” Schmitt said. “And I know a lot of other folks that were a part of this group that got SB5 done that want to continue that work. These cities that are profiteering are on notice. We’re not done. We’re going to continue our efforts to make sure that people are viewed not as ATMS, but as real folks who have been caught up in debtor’s prisons. And a lot of these cities have contributed to the cycles of poverty. And that’s what we’re trying to put an end to.”

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.