A Republican state senator has pre-filed legislation that would lower the amount of traffic fines a city can keep.
Sen. Eric Schmitt's, R-Glendale, proposed legislation would lower the percentage of traffic tickets and fines that constitute a city's budget from 30 percent to 10 percent. A draft of the bill wasn’t available on the Senate’s web site, but Schmitt said it lowers the threshold currently governed by the so-called “Mack’s Creek law.” (Read more about that here.)
St. Louis’ municipal courts have received national attention since Michael Brown’s shooting death in August. Some law professors and attorneys contend cities that engage in aggressive ticketing throw low-income individuals into unnecessary financial and legal trouble.
During a recent appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast, Schmitt said lowering the “Mack’s Creek” threshold would help ordinary citizens – and law enforcement as well.
“I think it places people in an awkward position,” Schmitt said. “There’s not a lot of police officers that I know that wanted to become police officers so they could write a lot of traffic tickets. I think that they wanted to be in this community policing arena and there’s a lot of work for us to be done.”
Schmitt, who grew up in north St. Louis County, said his measure could provide a disincentive for cities to pad their budgets through ticketing. He provided the example of St. Ann, which has come under scrutiny for having a glut of police officers on Highway 70.
“My grandmother still lives in St. Ann,” Schmitt said. “When Northwest Plaza was Northwest Plaza, there weren’t any police cars on Highway 70. Now, there are police cars on Highway 70 and there is no mall. So, I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on in a lot of these communities.”
Schmitt’s bill will probably not get a free pass in the legislature. Earlier this year, Richard Sheets of the Missouri Municipal League said his group would oppose lowering the Mack’s Creek Law threshold.
"If there's a problem, we want to help fix it," Sheets said. "We don't want a broad-brush solution that's going to cause harm in 650 cities to solve a problem that's in eight cities."
Sheets also said that Missouri couldn’t expect municipalities to patrol state roads if the Mack's Creek law threshold is too low.
“If they look at some these traffic tickets, I’m not sure what the complaint is,” Sheets said. “If somebody’s going 10 miles over the speed limit, what are we talking about? Should we raise the state speed limit to 90 miles an hour? These are state highways. And the state highway department sets these limits and puts these safety zones in.
“So, I think some of the responsibility is going to be on MoDOT and the Highway Patrol and the state government,” he added. “They have to play a role. Not just penalizing municipalities in general for enforcing the speed limits that were set by the state.”
In addition to Sheets’ concerns, there’s also the question of how Schmitt's bill would define a municipality's “revenue” – and how it would be enforced. It’s also possible that lowering the threshold to 10 percent would hurt cities and towns’ ability to function.
When asked whether his proposal would ultimately force some smaller cities to dissolve or merge, Schmitt replied that cities shouldn’t exist to be a “revenue generating machine.”
“I think we just start to ask the question, ‘Is this most efficient use of taxpayer dollars?’" said Schmitt, referring to small municipalities that have their own police and fire departments. “And then, we let the solutions flow from that really important question. And once we have answers to that, then I think we can look at it a little bit further.”
“A lot of the issues that I think we’re having conversations about now that we didn’t before, some good could come it,” he added. “I do think municipal court reform is not the only thing. But I do think it’s a big thing that we can take a look at and try to find solutions together.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Schmitt's bill would lower the threshold of fine revenue a city can keep. It should have said that the bill would lower the percentage of fine revenue that can constitute a city's budget.