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Bill seeks more limits on ‘speed traps’

Two dozen years ago, many Missouri motorists had unkind things to say about Macks Creek, a small, southwest Camden County town known for its ability to raise money by issuing tickets for speeding and other traffic violations.

So state lawmakers, in 1995, required any Missouri community that made more than 45 percent of its income from tickets to turn the excess in to the state Revenue Department, for all tickets issued on federal or state highways.

Later, the income ceiling was cut to 35 percent.

And now state Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey wants to make the ceiling only 20 percent.

“This subject was first addressed in 1995, and has been revisited by the General Assembly on numerous occasions, as we continue to try to get a handle on this subject problem,” Dempsey, R-St. Charles, told the Senate’s Transportation Committee on Wednesday afternoon. “It began with Macks Creek.

“But, even with numerous changes in the law, we’re seeing more and more political subdivisions throughout the state beginning to, and continuing to, run speed traps — not for safety purposes, but exclusively for revenue enhancement, at the expense of our citizens.”

Gary Elmstead, St. Charles, told the committee that he and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann regularly drive together for meetings in downtown St. Louis — about 20 miles away.

“During those travels, we encounter law enforcement along the I-70 corridor, frequently,” Elmstead reported.

“It’s gotten so frequent, and there are so many vehicles now on the highway that it’s almost become a hazard on the interstate.”

Without naming them, Elmstead cited three St. Louis County towns where traffic fines provide 40, 48 and 50 percent of the total revenues.

Concerned how the St. Louis area’s image might be affected by some of those towns, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association sent a letter supporting Dempsey’s proposal.

Dempsey said his bill makes several changes to current state law, including “adding counties to the mix of cities, towns and villages, reducing the acceptable percentage of total fines and court costs for traffic violations to 20 percent, before the additional revenue goes to the Missouri Department of Revenue.”

If lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon agree, the new law also “includes all highways and streets within that jurisdiction, not just state and federal highways,” Dempsey said, “adding red-light cameras and automated speed-enforcement systems under the definition of traffic violations; and penalizing the political subdivision’s municipal court from enforcing any violations, if the excess (money) is not turned over to the state, or the reporting requirement is not met.”

The excess money would be used to help distribute state aid to Missouri’s 521 public school districts.

Richard Sheets, the Missouri Municipal League’s deputy director, questioned the proposal’s expanding to cover tickets issued on all streets within a town.

“I can, somewhat, understand the ‘state interest’ in the use of those state highways,” Sheets told the committee. “But expanding it to municipal (streets and) highways — I can tell you there is oversight from city councils when citizens feel those streets are being used excessively” just to raise money.

Sheets said Missouri cities don’t have “a major concern” about dropping the ceiling to 20 percent, “if you keep it on the state highways,” and not expanding it to the municipal streets.

Elmstead said the lawmakers should pass the bill because it “allows for safety rather than revenue enhancement.”

The committee still must endorse the measure before the full Senate can debate it.

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