For years there has been anger and distrust percolating across many Missouri communities. The citizens in these communities are right to be angry about how they have been treated by their elected leaders.
The root of the problems in communities throughout the St. Louis area is that many local municipal governments no longer exist to serve their citizens, and only see them as ATMs to fund their municipal boondoggles. In many cases, these elected officials have abused their police forces by forcing them to write a specific number of traffic tickets and meet quotas for fines and other schemes to generate revenue. When the goal is a cash grab through traffic tickets and fines, taxation by citation takes precedent over public safety and poisons the relationship between citizens and police.
Missourians have had enough of small municipal governments shaking down residents, especially poor and disadvantaged citizens, to prop up budgets and hold onto power. Taxation by citation in all its forms is wrong.
Over the past two years, I have been advancing historic social justice reforms for Missourians by changing the way our local governments and municipal courts interact with our citizens. Cities are on alert that they can no longer use citizens as ATMs to fund their bloated governments. In the Legislature, we have addressed how cities write traffic tickets and how they enforce property ordinances.
In 2015, I lead the effort in passing Senate Bill 5. This legislation limited the amount of revenue cities can raise from traffic ticket fines. Many cities in St. Louis County were funding over 50 percent of their entire annual budgets with traffic ticket money. These “taxation by citation” practices hurt the poor residents in these cities disproportionately and make it more difficult for hard-working Missourians to eliminate debt and pay for necessities. By limiting how much money cities can have in their budgets from traffic ticket fines, my hope is to remind bureaucrats that they need to serve their citizens.
The bill also requires municipal courts to maintain certain procedures, with the main goal being to eliminate debtors’ prisons and give residents a sense of accountability from the courts. Municipal courts can no longer jail people for minor traffic violations and must offer alternative-payment plans and community-service options.
Senate Bill 5 also incorporated municipal standards we are asking cities to meet. These standards include having an annual balanced budget, an accredited police department – if a city has a police department, and an easily accessible list of municipal ordinances, among others.
This year, we followed up the historic reforms in Senate Bill 5 with two major reforms. The first, Senate Bill 572, made further changes to the operation of municipal courts, updated some of the municipal standards, and outlined municipal disincorporation procedures should they become necessary. Senate Bill 572 added in other ordinance violations to the reform discussion. We want to make sure bureaucrats are not using other parts of their often voluminous ordinance books to find new ways to take money from residents.
With our latest reform, St. Louis County cities will be restricted to raising only a certain, combined amount of revenue from traffic-ticket fines and other ordinance violations.
The second major reform bill we passed this year was Senate Bill 765. This legislation prohibits bureaucrats from forcing law-enforcement officers to use traffic ticket quotas by writing a certain number of tickets over a given time period or increasing the number of tickets they write.
Missourians understand that it is necessary to pay their fair share for schools, roads and public safety. They are justified in their anger when bloated bureaucracies stop acting in the best interests of the people they are elected to serve and instead start treating its citizens like ATMs.
All of these reforms – limiting local government revenue from traffic and other ordinance violations, instilling municipal standards, reforming our municipal courts, and banning traffic ticket quotas – will help restore trust between residents and their local governments and law enforcement. We must continue to build that trust, and these social justice reforms are helping jump-start that process.