Missouri governor to consider whether cities should receive less from municipal fines

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Legislation that would slash the amount of revenue Missouri’s cities can collect from minor infractions has made it way to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk  – legislation supporters say would address issues raised by a Justice Department report into predatory fining practices in towns like Ferguson.

On Thursday, the bill passed the House 134-25 following a 31-3 vote in the Senate the night before. Citing towns that were exceeding the current 30 percent maximum of their general operating revenue that can come from such fines, House Speaker John Diehl, R-St. Louis, said some municipalities are engaged in “taxation by citation.”

“This isn’t the way government should operate,” he said. “We’re not going to allow or encourage predatory practices by governments.”

The bill is the only bill that’s been passed by the legislature in response to unrest in Ferguson, with just a week remaining in the legislative session.

Under current law, cities are limited to collecting only 30 percent of their general operating revenue from traffic fines and court fees. The bill would cap municipal revenues from fines in St. Louis County at 12.5 percent, and statewide at 20 percent. The bill would also cap fines at $300 each.

With changes added by the House, the state would require municipalities in St. Louis County to meet minimum standards like balanced budgets, and police departments would be required to receive accreditation within six years.

While the bill emerged following unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of Michael Brown, a young black man, by a white police officer there, black lawmakers in the legislature did not vote unanimously on the bill. Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis, said the bill treats towns like his unfairly — requiring them to find more revenue elsewhere than towns outside of St. Louis County.

“This isn’t a fix for Ferguson,” he said. “I think if you look at their numbers, they might alright after this. This isn’t a fix to something in St. Louis County. This is hurting cities that never did anything done.”

Smith added, “All I want is equality and fairness.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-St. Louis, would also eliminate failure to appear charges, which have been cited as part of a snowball effect that turns a traffic ticket into an expensive series of fines that have landed some people in jail for the inability to pay.

The bill heads to Nixon’s desk with wide margins of support in the General Assembly. Diehl said Thursday that Nixon’s office had been involved in the bill’s drafting. In his state of the state address in January, Nixon called for changes to the rules that govern Missouri’s municipal courts.

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