Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is trying to resurrect a more stringent cap on the percentage of traffic fine revenue that St. Louis County municipalities can have in their budgets.
The impetus for the move is a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that shifted the landscape on the definition of an unconstitutional special law.
When he was a state senator, Schmitt handled sweeping municipal court legislation known as Senate Bill 5. One of the key provisions was a dual fine cap: St. Louis County municipalities were limited to 12.5% of fine revenue in their budgets, while the rest of the state could have 20%.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that such a provision violated the Missouri Constitution’s prohibitions on special laws that apply only to one part of the state. But Schmitt filed a motion in Cole County Circuit Court on Thursday to revive the county cap, pointing to precedent in a Missouri Supreme Court case that upheld St. Louis County’s sales tax distribution system.
That December 2019 case found “there were rational bases” for how the General Assembly constructed the sales tax system. Schmitt said that’s a big change from the old standard, which required the state to prove that law wasn’t unconstitutional.
“The jurisprudence as it relates to how the court deals with ‘special laws,’ it's been a sea change,” Schmitt said in an interview. “Now, under the Supreme Court, which is really a big shift, it's presumed to be constitutional, and only a rational basis is now required.”
Schmitt contends there are good public policy reasons for St. Louis County to have a more restrictive cap than the rest of the state. When he was in the Senate, Schmitt pushed the bill forward in response to nationwide attention on St. Louis County’s municipal governance after Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting.
“We do see particular challenges and abuse in St. Louis County,” Schmitt said. “So we’re going to have a lower number there, because we need to make sure this gets fixed.”
Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said he wasn’t sure that Schmitt’s motion would be successful.
“The logic with the opinion in the Supreme Court was that there was some rationale behind why there was revenue sharing in St. Louis County to make it easy to understand,” Kelly said. “But there is no rationale to just applying this to St. Louis County, because I don't think the municipalities in St. Louis County are unique to the state of Missouri.”
Schmitt said he’s unsure how long it could take for the courts to resolve the issue — but added he’s hoping for a swift decision. If the Cole County Circuit Court doesn’t grant his motion, he said it could be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.
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