I had the rare honor of testifying before the Missouri Senate committee on Economic Development. The hearing's subject was Senator Eric Schmitt's Senate Bill 5 to reign in traffic court abuses in Missouri. Here's some perspective:
- St. Louis County accounts for 22 percent of Missouri's population and over 50 percent of traffic tickets
- St. Ann's traffic court revenue exploded from about $500,000 in 2009 to over $3.5 million last year
- Traffic court generates 90 percent of the total revenue for one Missouri city
- Ferguson, Missouri, has three outstanding traffic ticket warrants for every citizen
- The mayor of Edmundson in North St. Louis County wrote a memo to his police chief admonishing him to write more tickets or face wage and job cuts
I testified immediately following a representative from the ACLU. While this isn't the first time St. Louis Tea Party Coalition and the ACLU have worked together on an issue, the fact we both see the same problem should tell you the problem is real.
The opposition to the bill came mostly from small town mayors who don't want to lose revenue. They've become addicted to the fees from tickets and failure-to-appear warrants (typically $600). The other opposition came from my State Senator, Bill Schatz who questioned whether SB 5 would give drivers a green light to tool around like maniacs.
We Need the Money
First, let's look at the revenue argument put forth by the mayors with support from the Municipal League, sort of a union of small town mayors and city managers. These mayors argue that without ticket revenue, they may have to disband their police departments.
Clearly, these mayors are not interested in safety. If safety, rather than revenue, were the concern, engineers could devise roads to force people to drive slower. Several European cities have designed streets that force slow, attentive driving and eliminated speed limits and stop signs. The result is slower speed, fewer accidents, and faster throughput. In other words, you get where you're going in less time.
If cities like St. Ann, Edmundon, and Bel Ridge followed the safe streets example, their ticket revenue would dry up faster than pony keg at an Irish wake. And, if safety were their concern, they'd do it. But safety is not their concern. Money is.
We know, for instance, that municipalities that install red-light cameras soon shave time off the yellow lights to generate more revenue. These cities don't care about safety. They care about money and they're willing to endanger drivers and passengers to get more money.
CD Baby's founder Derek Sivers described the problem. If your company is in business to solve a problem instead of just treating the symptoms, the money will dry up. So companies--and cities--have an incentive to keep the problem around so they can fix it for a fee.
Senate Bill 5 seeks to lower the cap on traffic revenue to 10 percent of a city's revenue from 30 percent. Cities would still be able to write all the tickets they wanted. They just wouldn't profit from the practice. The tickets would promote safety. Excess revenue would go to fund Missouri's schools. (I would rather the money went into the highway fund, but that's for a later blog.)
So mayors don't want drivers to slow down or to stop at red lights. They want drivers to break the law so their cities can generate revenue. They want to keep the problem around so their police and courts can keep profiting from it. And that's just wrong.
We Need the Deterrent
Now, to Senator Schatz's point that speed traps and heavy fines deter bad driving. They don't.
Senator Schatz's asked the ACLU Director of Advocacy and Policy, Sarah Rossi, what she would recommend as an effective deterrent to speeding if not fines.
I have to respond to Senator Schatz with a question: if St. Ann's ticket revenue went from $500,000 to $3.5 million in six years, what makes you think fines do a damn bit of good at all?
They don't. And the idea of "taxation by citation," as Senator Schmitt calls it, should enrage citizens. The practice of maintaining a police department primarily to ticket to citizens is appalling. And it supports a level of government that's inappropriately large.
In the city of Greendale in North St. Louis County, for instance, government is the town's only industry at $3.5 million a year for 1,800 citizens. Vinita Park, Missouri, whose mayor McGee testified, is a town less than two square miles, but on any given day Vinita Park has over 200 people on a traffic ticket payment plan. By definition, people who need a loan to pay a speeding ticket are not wealthy, so McGee's government is living off the backs of the poor.
Support Senate Bill 5
If you oppose taxation by citation, please write your state representative and senator, asking him or her to support Eric Schmitt's SB5. The last thing we should expect from local government is to condition people to cow to government overlords.
And slow down. Without speeders and stop-runners, the small towns would have to muster up the courage to ask citizens for a tax increase or muster up the humility to reduce the size of government.
Now, check out Senator Schmitt's interview with McGraw Milhaven on KTRS.