JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Key provisions of SB 5, last year’s bill that sought to crack down on municipal governments that abused their power, were struck down by a Cole County Circuit judge Monday.
The decision sent shock waves through Jefferson City and the rest of the state, particularly in St. Louis’ outlying municipalities, some of which were the original inspiration behind the legislation.
Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem found that because the bill set limits on which towns, cities and municipalities could make a certain percentage of their revenue from traffic citations it was a “special” law which violated Article III, Section 40 of the Constitution. That article is designed to protect local control.
Beetem also declared that parts of the bill requiring municipalities to audit themselves, present balanced budgets, obtain insurance, policies regarding use of force by police officers, among other provisions were “unfunded mandates” and thus, unconstitutional.
Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, the House handler for Sen. Eric Schmitt’s bill, noted that he strongly disagreed with the Beetem’s legal findings, arguing that because political subdivisions are only given their power by the General Assembly. Thus, he reasons, the legislature should be able to change the definitions of what constitutes a political subdivision or municipality of any size.
“I believe the state can put any requirements for a municipality to exist in order for the state to recognize that subdivision,” Cornejo said. “Not only that, but the General Assembly has passed many laws that apply only to targeted municipalities, such as the St. Louis County sales tax pool,” he said. “I would caution the municipalities involved with the lawsuit that the sword they are trying to use may cut both ways.”
Cornejo also said that should the ruling continue to stand after the appeals process, he would work with Schmitt on legislation that would achieve the same result while trying to make them conform with Beetem’s ruling.
The primary plaintiff in the case, Gov. Jay Nixon, was also disappointed with the ruling, especially since the bill was one of the most significant bipartisan efforts in recent years.
“The historic reforms contained in Senate Bill 5… took meaningful and much-needed steps to end the unacceptable abuses of the municipal court system in the St. Louis region and ensure all municipal courts in the state operate fairly, ethically and transparently,” Nixon said in a statement Monday night. “As we continue to review today’s ruling, I look forward to working with the legislature this session to make any changes that are needed to ensure this important law can be fully and fairly enforced.”
The state’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Chris Koster, also announced Tuesday morning that he would file an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
Cornejo and Schmitt said they both appreciated the efforts by Koster to keep the law on the books.
“Last night, I called on AG Koster to appeal the ruling from a lower court and I support his announcement today stating he will in fact appeal,” Schmitt said. “For too long citizens have been viewed as nothing more than ATMs for some bloated local governments. I remain confident the Missouri Supreme Court will uphold our historic reforms.”