Category Archives: Capitol Reports

Gov. Nixon Tries to Move the Goalposts

When we first sued to stop Gov. Nixon’s illegal stadium scheme, he told reporters he didn’t have time to worry about “five or six legislators.” When he said, Nixon knew that Sen. Schaaf, myself, and the others did not represent a minority of legislators, but an overwhelming majority. Since that first series of articles, several other key legislators have spoken out against Gov. Nixon, including the Chairs and Vice-Chairs of both the House and Senate budget committees. There are also enough stalwart senators who have pledged a filibuster that there is zero chance next year’s budget will include money for Nixon’s scheme. 

So what does a governor do when the opposition is marching the ball down the field? Move the goalposts. 

His new line on last year’s budget. “They had language that would have limited this,” Nixon said. “And after discussing it, they took that language off.” 

This seems to suggest that the legislature either voted to appropriate money for Nixon’s plan or kept language in the budget that was sufficiently vague to be interpreted to allow him to spend taxpayer money. 

Unfortunately for Gov. Nixon, the actual budget bills are online for the public to read. In particular, section 5.215 of House Bill 5 appropriates $12 million from general revenue “for debt service and maintenance on the Edward Jones Dome project in St. Louis.” There is no money appropriated anywhere in the budget that an honest person could rationally argue was intended for a new stadium. 

Here, Nixon is a poor man’s  Donald Trump. If you just say it loudly enough, someone will believe you. Nixon is wrong to think he’s going to bully anyone into following him down this path of new stadium debt – and he knows it. 

Just this week, Sen. Ryan Silvey (R-Kansas City) promised to work to put stadium funding to a statewide vote next November. Nevermind for a moment  that the project is premised on  illegal financing for an illegal location. Gov. Nixon’s authority to sign any long-term obligation is limited by the Constitution. He cannot bind the legislature to appropriations. Instead, he can only sign an agreement that would purport to bind his and future gubernatorial administrations to requesting appropriations for a project. In plain English, Gov. Nixon does not have the power to appropriate your tax dollars. Much as Gov. Nixon would like to be king, the power to appropriate is exclusively a legislative power.  

Sen. Silvey’s proposal punches the bully in the nose. While Nixon may believe the legislature two years from now will blink, he has to know the people of this state will not authorize their tax dollars to build a stadium for a billionaire. There’s a great chance Sen. Silvey’s proposal will be headed to your ballot next November.

Nixon’s Notes are Worthless

NFL owners met in Chicago two weeks ago  to discuss Los Angeles. Owners competing to move to the nation’s second-largest media market presented their plans. No decisions were made, but a few things became clear. “We need certainty to any proposal,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. “That’s one of the things we’re focused on.” NFL VP Eric Grubman told the Post-Dispatch that Gov. Nixon’s proposal has “made consistent progress” but that “risks remain” including “a litigation threat.”

This week I want to explain exactly what’s happening with Nixon’s convoluted scheme. This week may have marked the beginning of the end for his plan. Nevertheless, the game he’s playing with your money continues in at least five different forums and with dozens of participants: the NFL, Rams’ ownership, our state’s court system, the legislature, the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority, the Missouri Development Finance Board, and his own two-man task force.

The same week as the NFL hearings, Judge Beetem dismissed Gov. Nixon from the stadium lawsuit I filed with five other legislators here in Cole County.  It doesn’t do anything to help Gov. Nixon. In a sideways legal strategy, Gov. Nixon refused to litigate on the merits. Instead, he instructed his lawyers to argue that he hadn’t taken any legally actionable steps to merit a lawsuit. Forget what Gov. Nixon has said for seven months, his lawyers argued, Missouri taxpayers can’t sue to stop him until he takes the final step of signing a document purporting to commit them to 30 years of debt.

Rather than achieve certainty with his actions, Nixon has only delayed it. For his stadium plan to proceed, he must eventually sign a Project Financing agreement similar to the one Gov. Ashcroft signed in 1991 for the first stadium – which the General Assembly approved. On signing that document, Nixon will create the standing necessary for litigation on the merits to proceed — and, then, the same suit will be filed against him.  Meanwhile, litigation continues in St. Louis against the Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority.

On Tuesday, the Missouri Development Finance Board approved $15 million in tax credits for the new stadium. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder mounted a vigorous defense of Missouri taxpayers but was the only no vote on the Board. To the Board’s credit, the credits are contingent on the NFL’s agreement to keep a team in St. Louis and the signing of a 30 year lease with an NFL owner to keep their team in the new stadium. (Also to the Board’s credit, they allowed me to testify in opposition to the proposal at the hearing.)

Gov. Nixon’s insistence on proceeding with tax credits has compounded the uncertainty for his project. Under the current financing agreement, the state pays $12 million per year to the RCSCA for debt and maintenance on the existing dome. The debt will be satisfied in 2024. Gov. Nixon’s not-so-secret financing plan would have the RCSCA roll the existing debt into a new bond issue that provides new debt for construction of a new stadium.

To put the legislature in a trick box, Nixon’s plan is for the annual payment to remain $12 million. If he could pull that off, Nixon believes he can force the legislature into a heads-he-wins, tails-taxpayers-lose situation. If the legislature zeroes out the existing payment of $12 million, Nixon will argue that the legislature has a responsibility to pay it. Attorney General Chris Koster has said the state is not legally obligated to appropriate those funds. However, Nixon will argue that zeroing out the existing payment will risk the state’s credit rating and cost more money than to just pay it. Conversely, if the legislature appropriates $12 million for the combined old and new debt, Nixon will claim the legislature has approved the new stadium.

On Monday, state Sen. Rob Schaaf sent a letter to Nixon and a warning to anyone contemplating selling or buying the Nixon-backed bonds. “To give Gov. Nixon and the RCSCA fair warning,” Schaaf declared, I will do everything in my power to prevent appropriations for payments on bonds that include any funding for a second St. Louis football stadium.”

In response Gov. Nixon claimed it was just “a couple of legislators” and that “there’s a whole lot of legislators.” He’s right about one thing. There are a whole lot of legislators – the vast majority of whom are vehemently opposed to his plan to add 30 years of debt without a vote of the legislature. Senator Schaaf has since been joined by Sens. Ed Emery and Bob Onder. They will soon be joined by several more in the Senate and by dozens in the House before session starts again in January. And those are just the legislators who have opined in writing. Based on dozens of conversations I’ve had with legislators, I am confident that a super-majority of legislators oppose Nixon’s plan. However, even with just those three senators, that promised filibuster cannot be broken. Ask anyone who knows how the Senate operates.

The late Tom Schweich said there were two types of corruption in politics. The first is the straight-forward bribe. It’s rare. The second type he described as the short-circuiting of the ordinary political process by those with power and money – whether politicians, donors, or political insiders. Gov. Nixon’s stadium scheme is the worst and biggest example of type-two corruption in Missouri in at least a decade. He put together a scheme to avoid Sunshine Laws, avoid public votes, and avoid legal oversight as long as possible in the hopes that he could spend enough money to intimidate the legislature into backing down and put additional pressure on judges determining the legality of his financing plan. His theory is that if he just starts spending it, no one will have the guts to stop him.

There are right and wrong ways to change policy in a democracy. As bad as welfare for NFL billionaires is as public policy, Nixon’s type-two corruption to make it happen is even more troubling. With his no vote this week, Lt. Gov. Kinder pointed out that, if Nixon’s corrupt scheme would have worked out as planned, Kinder might have been the only person accountable to voters who ever had to make a decision on whether to bind them to 30 years of debt. Regardless of what you believe about stadium funding, everyone should agree that Nixon’s scheme is not how government should work in our state or country.

For Rams fans, the worst part is that Gov. Nixon had time last session to make an effort to get legislative approval. In an act of hubris, Nixon opted to try an end-run around the legislature. If he had tried the good government route, he would have had a fighting chance. Now, there is none.

Here’s where we stand: the NFL says it must have certainty in its efforts to strong-arm St. Louis and other communities into building stadiums for billionaires. But, as the NFL has noted, there’s “a litigation risk” – and it’s not going away until Nixon submits to litigation on the merits. Just as important, there’s more than an “appropriations risk” – there’s an absolute certainty that the legislature will not appropriate funds for a new stadium.

Gov. Nixon can whistle and pretend as if the deal is locked and loaded.  He can tell the NFL it’s just a few legislators who oppose long-term debt to pay for a football stadium. But NFL and bond buyers beware: Gov. Nixon is the most veto over-ridden governor in the history of our state. He has close to zero influence on what the legislature does. He does not know what legislators think because he doesn’t bother to speak with any. The legislature opposes the project and will not blink.

Nixon’s notes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

How to Fight Prescription Drug Abuse Without Violating Privacy Rights of Innocent Missourians

The legislature may take an annual seven month break, but the effort to put your prescription drug use into a government database continues.. Over the past month, proponents of a prescription drug monitoring program for Missouri have been busy pressing the issue with the media. They’ve garnered positive press in many outlets – including the News Tribune.

The tracking advocates argue that the legislature’s failure to mandate that the government track every citizen’s prescription drug purchase and put them in a database is creating a growing heroin problem. Their logic: 75 percent of new heroin users first become hooked on prescription drugs. If Missouri could track every person’s use of prescription narcotics, they argue we could dramatically reduce drug abuse.

Of course, in order to do so, the trackers first need first to put the medical records of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Missourians, into a government database. To protect others the trackers want to create a state-wide dragnet. They seek to invade your privacy – even though you have done nothing wrong. Taking a legal prescription does not create any reasonable suspicion that you’re a drug abuser, nor should it, the overwhelming majority of Missourians do not abuse prescription drugs.  

Proponents seek to create enough momentum outside of session to create a “mission accomplished” feeling by the time session starts. They will not succeed. 

Dragnets are un-American – even when proponents seek to create them for a just cause. Those opposing   the government tracking program, myself and Rep. Keith Frederick (R-Rolla) included, will not go quietly next session if the tracking advocates try the same old thing.We will never go quietly. On the other side of the building, Sen. Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) will have to be run over before a bill passes to create a dragnet.

But don’t mistake opposition to a dragnet as opposition to everything. There is real room here for a creative compromise. Next session, I hope to help pass legislation that creates a drug abuser registry. Rather than putting every prescription drug purchase into the government system, the state would instead create a registry of Missourians who are known narcotics abusers. There could be four ways to be placed in the registry.

First, any person convicted of a drug crime or a crime in which a court finds that they were under the influence of drugs or influenced by drugs at the time it was committed would be placed on the registry. Second, any person involved in a civil lawsuit where drug abuse was an issue and they were found to be a drug abuser could be placed in the registry at the judge or administrative hearing officer’s discretion. Third, a person could be placed on the registry after a hearing if they are reported through a sworn affidavit signed by a family or household member. (To guard against abuse, there must be serious consequences for false reports.) Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, a person could place themselves on the list.

The state could make this list accessible to health care providers writing and filling narcotic prescriptions. If a provider suspected a patient may be an abuser, they could type the suspected patient’s name into the system, along with another personal identifier, and would be informed whether they were in the database. At that point, the provider could determine how to proceed, but would need to document any prescription authorized. (In no circumstance should the registry be available to law enforcement or any other person to use in a legal proceeding. It would be terrible policy to allow a person’s decision to put their name in the registry to be used against them somewhere else.)

This type of system will identify those most likely to need help. Most people with serious drug problems make an effort at some point to get clean or have someone around them who tries to turn their life around. Many times they fail. That’s the nature of addiction. They promise one afternoon to go to rehab, and then they conveniently disappear before everything is packed up and ready to go. With a registry in place, however, they have been flagged. The next time a provider suspects them of being an abuser, the provider will have a way to check.

This system is similar to Missouri’s gambling addiction registry. As with prescription drugs, a small percentage of gamblers in Missouri are addicts who endanger their own and their families’ financial future with their habits. Missouri has a Problem Gamblers’ List that bans people who put their own names on the list from entering Missouri casinos.

What would the public reaction be, however, if a group proposed creating a government database of every transaction that every visitor to a Missouri casino made? My bet is that you and just about everyone you know would be appalled. Why should innocent people have their legal activity tracked when they’ve done nothing wrong? And yet, the government tracking advocates propose the very same thing without batting an eye.

I refuse to believe that privacy is dead, and I’m confident we can pass legislation to fight prescription drug addiction without violating the privacy of millions of Missourians.

The Mo ABLE Act

The Mo ABLE Act

With the scandal-news as the backdrop, I was grateful for the opportunity this week to assist a mock legislative session hosted by the Missouri Youth Leadership Forum for Students with Disabilities. On Tuesday, these students from around the state convened in Jefferson City to visit their capitol and meet Gov. Nixon.

Leading student sessions like these are refreshing. They are enthusiastic and ready to learn. It’s fun to see them absorb how things work so quickly. After about 15 minutes, the young man elected Speaker for this session was already doing well enough to show he could preside over an actual House session with a little more practice.

Their topic for debate this week was Senate Bill 174, sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-St. Louis). SB 174 created the Missouri Achieving a Better Life Experience program this year. This legislation, carried by Speaker Todd Richardson in the House, allows families of Missourians with a disability to open a tax-exempt savings account to pay for expenses related to the disability. Anyone can make a tax-deductible contribution of $8,000 per individual or $16,000 for married couples to another Missourian’s ABLE account.

“Helping children with disabilities is not a partisan issue, it’s a human issue. It is about the right of all children to realize their God-given potential,” Gov. Nixon said when he signed the bill into law on June 29. “The Missouri ABLE program will allow people with disabilities and their families to save money in a special, tax exempt savings account so that they can provide for their basic necessities, and maintain a better quality of life. It’s a common sense, compassionate piece of legislation.”

Not surprisingly, the Mo ABLE bill passed by wide margins – with only a single no vote in the entire legislature. Our state legislation follows a federal law passed in 2014, which allows persons with disability to save up to $100,000 tax-free. In addition, any interest earned on the savings is tax free.

Scandal makes better copy. Partisan or ideological conflict supplies juicier bits for attack ads. Yet, the business of Missouri government still includes people of good will working to make Missouri a better place.

A Short Note on Scandals

The Missouri legislature’s reputation has taken a beating this summer. The bad acts of the few have maligned the reputation of the many. I’ve long advocated for ethics reform – and call me naive, but I do not recognize the capitol culture depicted in many articles as the same place I work every day from January to May.

The capitol culture most people experience who work in the building is not Sesame Street, but it’s also not Animal House. It’s obvious from the news of the past three months that there are legislators who become corrupted by power and the sycophancy attached to it. (Or maybe they came to office particularly susceptible to temptation.) Most legislators, however, – Republican and Democrat – are good people who try to do their best for constituents.

So what can be done? A gift limit would definitely help. A more formal, centralized internship program would help keep the focus where it should be. Standing up for those who speak up is a must. Finally, more clearly written rules and training won’t hurt. But let’s not pretend there’s a magic rule out there that will prevent all scandals. Power corrupts. Human beings are corruptible. In the most recent cases, the formal and centralized internship program would certainly have helped, but more clearly defined written rules would not likely have prevented the outcomes.

Does any normal person really need a written rule to know it’s not appropriate for a legislator to drink heavily with an intern or invite them to their apartment? The same is true for sexually explicit text messages from elected officials to interns.

Here’s a basic rule of conduct for legislators: if you wouldn’t want your spouse, kids, parents, or constituents to know what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it. That works everywhere in life. The vast majority of legislators already follow it, and every legislator should.

Missourians deserve better. All elected officials ought to hold themselves and be held to a higher standard. When one takes an oath, they become the voice – and a true representative – of their community. We serve in the public trust and our actions in office – good and bad- reflect on our own community.

Our state capitol will never be an idyllic oasis of angels. And I don’t think anyone expects that it will. Creating new rules won’t prevent every future scandal. Humans will always be human. But fostering an atmosphere that supports those who speak up and lets potential predators know their actions may end up on the front page of their hometown newspaper will make a difference. I’m hopeful that these recent events will mark a sharp turning point in the culture of state government.

The End of Planned Parenthood?

Planned Parenthood’s unmitigated implosion continues. Since last week’s report, the Missouri Senate announced it would investigate Missouri’s chapter with an interim committee on the Sanctity of Life chaired by Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia). Attorney General Chris Koster announced Tuesday he would heed Sen. Schaefer’s and my call for a criminal investigation, noting that the video released called for careful review “regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-choice.” Two Missouri House committees have also announced a joint investigation.

Also on Tuesday, the Center for Medical Progress released yet another disturbing hidden video of a Planned Parenthood doctor trafficking in human body parts. In the new video, Planned Parenthood’s Medical Directors’ Council President is shown haggling over payments and jokes, “I want a Lamborghini.”

Planned Parenthood has since apologized for the first video’s tone –which only further shows that they exist in a parallel moral universe from the vast majority of Americans. I could feign shock or surprise by the latest video. But think about it. Set the legal arguments aside. Planned Parenthood leaders believe what they are doing should be legal, but also believe there is nothing wrong with what they are doing. Slave owners didn’t think there was anything wrong with what they were doing either. The brazen treatment of innocent lives by Planned Parenthood should not shock anyone.

For normal moral people, every abortion is a tragedy a for the child, but also for others, for the mother and father, for the family, for society. For Planned Parenthood, abortion is just another medical procedure. To the Planned Parenthood leaders on the videos, these are not lives they are talking about. To Planned Parenthood, these are mere tissues – in these videos, commodities to be bartered over and sold like ordinary property –even though in many cases they could survive outside the womb.

I am not suggesting, of course, that every person who is pro-choice thinks like Planned Parenthood doctors. Most people who are pro-choice try to avoid assigning a moral value to decisions on abortion. Many people say, “Personally, I’m pro-choice. I could never do that. But it’s not my choice. I can’t tell a woman what to do with their own body.” For most pro-choice Americans, the child is tertiary. It’s the individual choice of the woman. The child doesn’t have a say.

For most things in life, a general live-and-let-live philosophy is not only defensible, but a necessary value for a free society. Abortion is different. As uncomfortable as it may be, the pro-choice position requires acceptance of the same logic that justified slavery. The pro-choice philosophy requires one to accept that the moral value of an individual life is entirely dependent on some other person’s perspective. But just as “no human being can be justly owned by another,” neither can the moral value of an innocent life hinge on anyone else’s decision.  

Pro-choice advocates have polluted the political debate on the issue by portraying pro-lifers as anti-woman. It is true that the pro-life focus is on the child first. We fight for these children to give voice to the voice-less. There is nothing sexist about insisting that every child matters.

As a society, we do not accept the pro-choice logic in any other aspect of law or life. We don’t accept “honor” killings within a family like they do in the Middle East. It is illegal for husbands here to subjugate their wives. Even the very same child who can be legally aborted is protected by our laws against murder when someone else carries out an act of violence against a mother.

Abortion defenders argue this is different – that what us pro-lifers say is a child is, in their view, not developed enough to be worthy of our protection. But how different is it really? At 18 days a baby’s heart beats. At just eight weeks, all organs function. At nine weeks, they have fingerprints. At 10 weeks, tests show they can feel pain and respond to stimuli. At 12 weeks, they can suck their thumb and make a fist. At 22 weeks, they can survive outside the womb. At 25 weeks, they have a greater than 50 percent chance of surviving.

In short, they are alive. They are human. They are gifts from God. They have souls. They have moral value. And they are more than worthy of our protection.

In 2009, a similar series of hidden video led to the break-up of ACORN. Could the same thing happen to Planned Parenthood? I hope so. The organization’s defenders argue that it provides vital non-abortion health care services to millions of women. True. But there are better options.  Why can’t county health departments or other health care providers provide those services? If Planned Parenthood did not exist, someone else would provide the same services. And, rather than referring at-risk women for abortions, instead they’d refer them to pregnancy help centers.

Perhaps Missouri can give Planned Parenthood a helpful nudge by passing a law to prohibit any health care provider from operating in this state if it has any relationship with an organization convicted of illegally harvesting or trafficking in human body parts.  

Community Mental Health Liaisons – A Positive Legacy for Gov. Jay Nixon

When a Colorado gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 others in 2012, Gov. Nixon took action. Rather than blaming guns, he looked at the trigger man, who was obvious mentally ill. Nixon asked what Missouri could do to prevent that from happening here.

Starting in 2013, by working with the General Assembly, Gov. Nixon created 31 community mental health liaisons throughout the state. The liaisons train law enforcement to identify Missourians with mental illness. They also help Missourians live more productive lives by making referrals for mental health services. From November 2013 to May of this year, the liaisons made 11,000 referrals for services and had more than 20,000 contacts with law enforcement and Missouri courts.

Senate Bill 426 helps liaisons protect Missourians and refer people in need to mental health services by adding them to the limited list of individuals who can access mental health records for the sole purpose of coordinating care and services.

With Gov. Nixon’s leadership and by working with the legislature, Missouri is a safer place for everyone and a better place to live for those suffering with mental illness. It has not received much press, but Gov. Nixon’s efforts in mental health services have made Missouri a national leader in this area. We can’t guarantee perfection, but when his term in office is finished, Gov. Nixon’s creation of community mental health liaisons will be a lasting, positive legacy. 

Why I Voted to Save You 23 Cents a Year – and Was In a Super-Minority

For decades, the process for awarding license fee offices in Missouri has been a political football and embarrassing for those who care about good government. They were an undeniable vestige of political patronage. The governor would award the money-making contracts to key political supporters. It was wink-wink corruption of which both parties were guilty. Slowly, the patronage aspect of license fees offices has waned. Today, non-profits or apolitical small businesses run these offices more often than political hacks. .

House Bill 137, which Gov. Nixon allowed to become law without his signature, tweaks the bidding process for these contracts. It prohibits the Department of Revenue from requiring bidders for license fee offices to compete on price through a contract provision called “return to state.” Under return to state, bidders for license fee offices were allowed to return a portion of their revenues to state coffers. The result of this was to bring down the cost to taxpayers.

However, many license fee offices are run by non-profits or small businesses that did not feel “return to state” was fair for the bid process. Some labeled it a “pay to play” scheme, but that obliterates the very meaning of the term – a euphemism for corruption where there is a personal benefit to a government official for making a decision. But “return to state” did not benefit any government official personally. Instead, it benefitted you and every other Missouri taxpayer through reduced spending to license office fee agents.

In addition, there should be no sympathy for a bidder on a government contract who complains about price competition.  Outsourcing should only happen if it can be shown that the private vendor can provide better service at a better price through competition over a long period of time. In other words, this is the Show-Me State: a bidder should have to prove they’re better and more affordable before they get any taxpayer dollars. We shouldn’t outsource for the sake of “creating” taxpayer funded private jobs or boosting the bottom lines of non-profits or others.

For those reasons, I voted no on House Bill 137. The vast majority of my colleagues in the legislature viewed the bill differently. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and through the House by a vote of 146 to 5. The combined vote was 180 to 5, which is likely why Gov. Nixon refused to veto it. It’s obvious from those numbers that Gov. Nixon knew he would lose an override fight, so he chose not to have it.  

House Bill 137 is a perfect example of how concentrated interests often beat diffused beneficiaries in politics. There are only 178 license fees offices in the state. Every Missouri fee office contractor had a significant tangible interest in the outcome of this legislation. The vast majority of these contractors are good people who do the best they can. They are pillars of their community and have good relationships with their legislators.

The fiscal note for HB 137 estimates it will cost state taxpayers nearly $1.4 million per year. That’s nearly $8,000 a year per fee office and 23 cents a year per taxpayer. That simple math shows why the fee office agents would have much greater interest in the bill, and why it would be difficult to motivate any taxpayer or other group to take the time to work against the bill. It also shows why, after this column, you’re likely to never hear about “return to state” again. They should have named it “return to taxpayers” and it might have had a fighting chance. 

Municipal Court Reform Becomes Law

On Thursday, Governor Nixon signed municipal court reform legislation sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt. Like the transfer legislation Gov. Nixon vetoed last week, Senate Bill 5 was the product of a bi-partisan, cross-regional effort to improve the lives of all Missourians. The major focus of the bill, however, was in the St. Louis region, where dozens of municipalities (which probably shouldn’t exist) have implemented systems of taxation by citation. These cities – like Edmundson, St. Ann, and Normandy – have treated their municipal courts more like profit centers than forums for law enforcement. 

Senate Bill 5 aims to stop these schemes to abuse citizens. Most of the press on Senate Bill 5 focused on the Mack’s Creek portion of the bill. Under current law, a municipality can receive up to 30 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets. Sen. Schmitt’s bill reduces that to 20 percent for most of the state and 12.5 percent for St. Louis County. This will force municipalities to quit balancing their budgets by writing phony tickets. (By contrast, Jefferson City receives just over three percent of its annual revenue from traffic fines and fees.) 

As I’ve written before, the right amount is not 30, 20, 12.5 or even three. It’s zero. Article IX, section 7 of the Missouri constitution requires that the “clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures, and fines” for breach of the “penal laws” must be distributed to schools, not municipal, county, or state budgets. 

For minor traffic violations, Senate Bill 5 caps fines and costs to $300 and prohibits jail time. To help municipalities collect unpaid tickets, the bill allows municipal courts to withhold tax refund money from offenders. Just as important, it requires every municipal court to adopt basic due process standards. Every municipal court: (1) must give defendants in custody due to a municipal arrest warrant must an opportunity for a hearing in front of judge within 48 hours, (2) is prohibited from holding a person more than 24 hours without a warrant after arrest; (3) certify that defendants are not being detained to coerce payment of fines and costs; (4) be held in a courtroom open to the public and large enough to accommodate the public, parties, and attorneys; and (5) must make use of alternative payment plans and community service alternatives. If a municipal court fails to comply, it’s taken over by the county circuit court.

Just as important, SB 5 creates minimum standards for local governments in St. Louis County. To continue their existence, every local government must have (1) a balanced budget, (2) an annual audit, (3) insurance, (4) ordinances that are easily-accessible to the public, and (5) an accredited police force with a written use of force policy. These are simple requirements. A municipality that can’t meet them is a municipality that should no longer exist. The bill empowers citizens by permitting them to file an affidavit with the Attorney General if they believe their municipality is not complying. The AG has a duty to investigate and is given the authority to file suit against the lackluster municipality. If a judge finds that the municipality has failed to meet these standards, they can order an election for disincorporation or place an administrative authority in charge of the city.

In signing the bill, Gov. Nixon rightly called it “the most comprehensive and sweeping municipal court reform bill in Missouri history.” It’s a bill that will help “return our municipal courts to their intended purpose: serving our citizens and protecting the public.”

Of course, some municipalities will still find ways around these restrictions. Just this week, KMOV in St. Louis reported that many municipalities’ revenues are shifting from traffic tickets to other citations. In Pine Lawn last year, the city prosecuted eight non-traffic ordinance violations for every household in the city.

Investigative reporter Craig Cheatam highlighted the story of one couple in Hanley Hills. They’re set for a trial on the charge of failure to get an occupancy permit after they were recently married and the husband moved in with his wife. There were not any other people living in the house.  And yet, it’s apparently an offense in Hanley Hills to live with a new spouse without first checking in with your friendly local government bureaucrat. The couple may have a constitutional claim against the statute as applied to them, but even if they don’t, this is the type of case that any sensible prosecutor would dismiss. That is, unless the purpose of the court system making money and not justice. Cheatam’s report highlights the fact that the legislative process is never finished. Just as con men will always find new ways to commit fraud, so too will bad local government officials find ways to squeeze their citizens. Next year’s reform may well be to prohibit municipalities from prosecuting married couples for living together. 

The Safe Sleep Act and the Democratic Process in Missouri

As we pause to celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we should remember those famous words expressed by the Founders in July 1776: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Founders replaced a system of government in which the people had no voice with one in which they did. They specified that government only derives “just powers from the consent of the governed.” And they instituted a democratic system in which, eventually, everyone would have a say.

Of course, the ability to change laws for the better or make your voice heard in Washington is limited in today’s world. In Missouri, it’s different. Here, with a citizen-legislature closer to their constituents, any single Missourian with a good idea can change the law for the better.

This week I want to talk about two heroes of the democratic process this year in Missouri – two Missourians who suffered a tremendous personal tragedy, but who then went to work changing Missouri law to help avoid anyone else having to go through the same loss.

Anna and Aaron Haber are two young parents from Missouri. When they went to choose a day care for their children, they did their research and found a place that was both licensed and reputable.  On August 20, 2014, they dropped their two children off in the morning – including Owen George Haber, their seven month old.

Many people don’t realize it, but, at that age, it’s not safe to place any extra material in a crib with a baby. Nor is it safe to wrap the crib with bumper-pads, sleep-positioning devices, or anything which might restrict the air-flow to the child. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep recommendations makes clear that these materials should not be in a baby’s crib. The reason is simple: these materials risk suffocation.

Owen was put down for a nap that day and never woke up. I cannot imagine the grief felt by Anna and Aaron. It’s hard to say how any of us would react to such a tragedy. It would be an understandable reaction to withdraw or avoid the subject.

That’s not what Anna and Aaron did. They decided they didn’t want any other child or any other parents to suffer the same tragedy. So they started contacting legislators.

Their own state representative is Rep. Jeanne Kirkton from St. Louis. Rep. Kirkton filedHouse Bill 707 to require all licensed day care facilities to implement a safe sleep policy for babies that follows the rules of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Anna and Aaron did their part as well. They traveled to the capitol on several occasions to tell their story to legislators and why the bill was important for protecting children. They had to re-tell and re-live their tragedy in every single meeting. I met with them in the hallway and will admit to crying with them in public. And they did this time and time again.

It probably would have been easier psychologically for Anna and Aaron not to re-tell Owen’s story each and every time. But they realized that, unless they were there to explain the tragedy, their bill to protect children might get lost in the mix somewhere.

They found other allies, including Sen. Jeannie Riddle (R-Mokane). Then Sen. Riddle and Rep. Kirkton did their part. They looked for bills upon which to stick HB 707 as an amendment. Eventually, Senate Bill 341, sponsored by Sen. Riddle was Truly Agreed and Finally Passed by the legislature. SB 341 sits on Gov. Nixon’s desk awaiting his signature.

Anna and Aaron Haber are heroes of democracy. After personal tragedy, they realized the law could be changed to better protect Missouri children. Rather than withdrawing, they chose to work to protect others. I’m not confident I could do it. Their actions took personal courage – and because of them, Missouri children will be safer.

Oh, and there’s another happy part to this story. The Habers are expecting their third child in September. May little Owen George’s soul rest in peace knowing that he will not be forgotten, and that his parents fought so hard to make the world a safer place for other children.