On the Trail: 5 takeaways from SB5, the sweeping, significant and complex municipal courts bill
If you’ve developed an interest in legislation inspired by the unrest in Ferguson, then you’ve probably seen some strong adjectives attached to a law known as Senate Bill 5.
Sen. Eric Schmitt’s legislation has been described as “sweeping,” “multi-faceted,” “massive,” “broad” and "significant.” It lowers the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities can keep; prompts St. Louis County cities to adhere to certain standards; and provides new guidelines for how municipal courts should operate.
Most believe the bill that goes into effect on Friday will have a major effect on municipalities and municipal courts – especially in St. Louis County. But SB5’s impact will likely be complex – and slow moving. It may be years before the legislation’s true effect is clear.
Here are five things that will affect the impact of Senate Bill 5:
1. Many of the key provisions don’t go into effect immediately
Arguably SB5’s biggest change is lowering the percentage of traffic fine revenue a city can keep. That percentage eventually goes to 20 percent for most Missouri towns and 12.5 percent for St. Louis County municipalities.
The state auditor’s office will have a great deal of responsibility for making sure cities comply with the new percentages. Earlier this week, Auditor Nicole Galloway said the financial reporting element of the new percentages doesn’t start until Jan. 1, 2016, or the date after a city’s fiscal year begins. She also said her office is coming up with rules on how cities should turn in financial information and how municipalities can certify certain municipal court procedures.
Galloway said these rules – which should be in place by the end of the year – should provide “additional ways for the auditor’s office” to hold “municipal governments and hold municipal courts accountable.”
SB5 includes a host of municipal standards for St. Louis County municipalities. Cities will have three years to adhere to most of the requirements, including having a balanced annual budget, an annual audit, adequate levels of insurance and use of force procedures. And their police departments will have six years to be accredited or certified by a national or state entity.
It’s highly possible that the accreditation requirement may provide an incentive for cities to dissolve their police departments and contract with an accredited agencies – including the St. Louis County Police Department.
2. SB5’s percentage cap doesn’t encompass non-traffic ordinance violations
Some news outlets – such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – pointed out that SB5’s percentage cap only deals with certain types of traffic fine revenue. And that means a city could hypothetically fill any budgetary hole by writing tickets for such ordinance violations as having grass that’s too high or not having a parking sticker on a car.
State Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, acknowledged that during debate over SB5, he heard that “a municipality trying to get revenue is almost like water going downhill – if you block off one path it’s going to go somewhere else to get the money."
Cornejo, who helped handle SB5 in the House, said he thought municipalities should have the courage to go to the people and ask what they are willing to pay for.
While Schmitt will only be in the legislature through the end of 2016, he said the General Assembly could could step in if cities take this particular route.
“I think we’ve signaled a big culture change about our expectations of local government,” Schmitt said. They "don’t exist for their own purposes. They don’t exist to continue a culture of viewing people as nothing more than ATMs to fund budget projects. So we’ll keep an eye out on that and make sure that there aren’t other abuses that come to light.”
It should be noted that ordinance violations by and large affect the citizens of a particular town or city. So residents could vote mayors or council people out who are seen as overly aggressive in enforcing ordinances – and replace them with people who will repeal or ease up on certain regulations.
3. The new percentage revenue cap likely won’t affect Ferguson that much
SB5 has often been touted as the most significant “Ferguson-related” bill passed over the last year, especially since other measures failed to make it across the legislative finish line.
But while the issue of municipal governance and municipal courts received more attention after Michael Brown’s shooting death, this bill is unlikely to affect the city of Ferguson as much as other cities. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles estimates that the city receives about 15 percent of its revenue from traffic fines – which isn’t that much higher than the looming 12.5 percent threshold.
"The narratives that national media ... have made about the city of Ferguson ... really don’t match up with the city of Ferguson. But they do match issues in the greater St. Louis area,” Knowles said earlier this year. “I think Ferguson has become a symbol. Anytime I read anymore, whether or not it ‘affects Ferguson,’ I just take it as they mean the symbol and not the city.”
That’s not to say the bill won’t impact Ferguson at all, as seen with how the city’s municipal courts made a number of changes in anticipation for the law’s inaction. Some of the municipal court-related changes include no longer requiring someone to pay court costs if a defendant is indigent or the case is dismissed, allowing a portion of somebody’s income tax refund to pay for fines and fees, and no longer issuing an additional charge for failing to appear in court. (Ferguson got rid of its fines for failing to appear in court last year.)
4. Poorer, African-American-led cities will likely be affected by SB5 the most
After Brown’s shooting death, there was intense focus on the lack of racial diversity within Ferguson’s city government – and even more attention when voters elected more African Americans to the city council.
But in a somewhat ironic twist, it’s highly likely that predominantly African-American cities with black elected leadership will be hit the hardest by SB5. That’s because the cities with the highest percentages of traffic fine revenue are clustered in and around north St. Louis County, a major population center for the region’s African-American community.
Cities like Northwoods have talked about possibly curtailing such services as trash collections. Others fear that the legislation will ultimately lead to dissolution of many African-American-led cities – which in turn would decrease black political power. And some observers have noted that if these cities disincorporate, they’ll become part of a county government with one black elected official (Councilwoman Hazel Erby) who’s become more politically isolated since St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger took office.
“I personally feel this is an experiment on the African-American community,” said Normandy Mayor Patrick Green. “We cannot afford it. I mean, the municipalities out west, south – they have the sales tax and property tax to compensate for whatever differential loss they experience out of this bill. We do not. And that’s because we are bedroom communities.”
Schmitt and others, though, emphasized that the focus shouldn’t be on sustaining municipal governments – but on making people’s lives better.
“My interest really isn’t making sure someone maintains a government position ...,” Schmitt said. “My goal was trying to right some wrongs for the people that live in those communities. When you see long lines of people waiting to get into a municipal court at 10 o’clock at night next to a pawn shop, it shocks the conscious.
“And regardless of your party affiliation or your race or any of the other things that we put in these little boxes, I think it encouraged all of us and made us all work together to try and find solutions,” he added.
5. The bill could face a legal challenge
Schmitt’s bill faced major pushback from groups like the Missouri Municipal League – and officials like Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy. Adversaries of the bill contended that giving county municipalities a different percentage threshold is unfair – and potentially unconstitutional.
“We’re looking at our options,” Murphy said, when asked if they would initiate a lawsuit against the bill. “We’re looking at how we can survive 12.5.”
Green added: “The argument here is not ‘Is there a cancer that should be removed?’ There should. There’s a more constructive way of doing it.
“Actually throwing everybody into the well at 12.5 in St. Louis County to me is totally unfair,” Green said. “It goes against our rights of equality. It’s not equal.”
Some SB5 supporters, such as Schmitt, said it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to carve out different types of law for specific places. For instance, there’s a state law in place governing a system for how revenue from St. Louis County’s sales tax is divided.
St. Louis University law professor Brendan Roediger said earlier this year he expects that SB5 will withstand legal scrutiny – if a challenge arises at all.
“I’m not entirely sure that a challenge will be brought. ... But I do think it will withstand,” Roediger said. “As to whether it makes sense? Certainly St. Louis County is the primary perpetrator. The data shows us that St. Louis County is the worst. But once again … If constitutional protections are there, if courts operate the way that they are supposed to operate, they will not make money. That’s just the nature of the justice business. It should not be profitable.”
“So I don’t think 12.5 percent or 8 percent should be the objective. I think the objective should be to have courts that do justice,” he added.
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.