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Missouri state senators seek municipal court changes

Missouri state senators seek municipal court changes

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JEFFERSON CITY • Police officers, state Sen. Eric Schmitt said, didn’t get into law enforcement to issue speeding tickets.

They want to walk a beat, said Schmitt, R-Glendale, and develop relationships with the community.

But “bloated government” gets in the way of that, he said. Municipalities across the state heavily rely on traffic tickets to beef up their general revenue — a practice Schmitt said preys on “the poorest among us.”

That’s why he filed a bill Monday ahead of the 2015 legislative session that would allow municipalities to fund a maximum of 10 percent of their budgets with revenues generated from traffic tickets. Currently, the traffic ticket income is capped at 30 percent of a municipality’s budget, known as “Macks Creek law.” Anything more must be sent to the state to spend on education.

The Mack Creeks law was named for a central Missouri town that tumbled into bankruptcy after the restrictions spoiled its speed trap. It was enacted in 1995 and capped at 45 percent only for tickets written on state and federal routes. It was lowered to 35 percent in 2009 and 30 percent last year.

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County, also filed a bill aimed at this practice. Although his bill would keep the cap at 30 percent, it would require municipalities collecting more than half their revenue from traffic violations to forfeit their portion of St. Louis County’s sales tax pool.

“I don’t want to limit local jurisdictions’ ability to assess fines in order to promote traffic safety, but my constituents are adamant that there has to be an upper limit on what municipalities can reasonably collect,” Sifton said in a news release.

Both bills comes as municipalities’ money-making methods face more scrutiny following the fatal shooting Aug. 9 of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

In October, state Auditor Tom Schweich outlined a plan to audit 10 municipal courts, including Ferguson’s, that have taken heat for saddling heaping fees upon the poor. Bella Villa, Pine Lawn and St. Ann in St. Louis County will also be audited.

The list was a mix of cities with the highest number of traffic stops per capita, those that generated the most complaints on the auditor’s hotline and those that raised the biggest concerns with elected officials.

For example, the courts make up more than 70 percent of Pine Lawn’s general operating revenue.

Schmitt called the practice a “modern day debtors prison” and believes it contributes to the overall distrust in government that came to light after Brown was killed.

Because of this, he expects bipartisan support when the session starts Jan. 7.“I think that people recognize that this has been going on,” Schmitt said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist ... people have seen (what’s happening).”

Schmitt has declared his intent to run for state treasurer and Sifton for attorney general in 2016.

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Alex Stuckey is a statehouse reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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