St. Louis Post Dispatch
November 13, 2014
The Editorial Board
For a couple of years now, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann and the Rev. B.T. Rice, a north St. Louis County pastor, have journeyed to the Missouri Capitol together on a joint mission.
Mr. Ehlmann, a white Republican, and Rev. Rice, a black Democrat, have lobbied state lawmakers to fix the broken municipal court system in north St. Louis County that manifests itself in tiny police departments preying on the poor through traffic fines.
Before Ferguson became a hashtag, the two men worked to make it harder for the cities and villages along Interstate 70 to depend on revenue from speeding tickets to balance their books.
They had some modest success.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill that lowered the maximum amount of traffic revenue a city could rely on to balance its books from a ridiculously high 35 percent to a slightly less ridiculously high 30 percent. And it altered the definition of traffic revenue to make it harder for scofflaw cities to fudge up the source of revenue.
More must be done. The unrest following the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, and the increased scrutiny of the municipal police/court industry, has made that clear.
So a letter sent by Mr. Ehlmann to other elected officials in the St. Louis region this week should resonate as lawmakers begin thinking about their agenda for the legislative session that begins in January.
“We need to begin a discussion of legislation and efforts dealing with the events in Ferguson,” Mr. Ehlmann wrote, before laying out several areas of possible bipartisan agreement, including more work on the speed trap problem.
This is the sort of leadership that is going to be needed from a Legislature that all too often seems more interested in debating political wedge issues than solving real problems.
The 2015 legislative session must be different. The post-Ferguson landscape demands it.
Some of the problems made manifest this summer and fall in St. Louis will require local solutions. The U.S. Justice Department may impose some solutions. And the Ferguson Commission established by Gov. Jay Nixon has tremendous potential to change the course of this city’s history.
But the Legislature can make a lasting difference. It should help that both the incoming speaker of the House, Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, and the president pro tem of the Senate, Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, are from the St. Louis region.
They can set the Ferguson Agenda. They can push for changing state law in ways that will make a difference to the thousands of people living in poverty in north St. Louis County who are ill-served by divided and broken institutions.
We have had our share of disagreements with Mssrs. Diehl and Dempsey, and surely will have more, but there is plenty of room for agreement in some key areas in setting a Ferguson Agenda. Here are a few:
Progress starts and ends with better schools. Two of the districts in north St. Louis County, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, are unaccredited. They are struggling financially in part because lawmakers haven’t fixed the broken transfer law. All too often, legislative solutions related to the public schools fall apart because of political fights over untested reform solutions. There is room for compromise: Increase access to early childhood education, fix the transfer law so there is reasonable choice within the public school system that doesn’t bankrupt districts, and increase funding to distressed communities with concentrated poverty.
FIX A BROKEN MUNICIPAL SYSTEM
Keep reducing incentives for municipalities to use their police departments and courts as fundraising devices. The bill Mr. Ehlmann pushed last year originally dropped the percentage of revenue allowed in a city budget down to 20 percent. That’s a good place for it to be. Giving the state auditor more power to investigate would be good. Working with the Missouri Supreme Court to consolidate the municipal courts should be a top priority. Raising police department standards so smaller, less effective departments merge shouldn’t involve too much heavy lifting.
STOP TAX INCREMENT
FINANCE LAW ABUSE
There is a great irony in the city of Clayton approving tax abatement for a luxury residential development in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. It is symbolic of development patterns that have contributed over decades to the decline of certain pockets of St. Louis. There is nothing blighted about downtown Clayton, and yet the council used a broken state law to declare a few blocks as blighted, moving future tax revenue away from schools to pad a developer’s profits. Throughout St. Louis, municipalities for decades have used bad TIF laws to shift resources away from schools and poor neighborhoods. Most of the benefits have flowed to retail developers; few, if any, net new jobs have accrued to the region. It’s time to fix the law by strengthening the power of a regional TIF commission.
There’s more that could be done, but these ideas would be a good start for a Legislature that has proven to be solution-averse.
Perhaps there is serendipity in the recent election for St. Louis County executive, in which a Republican state representative, Rick Stream, claimed to be most in tune with the needs of African-Americans in North County. Were that really the case, he and other Republicans would have expanded Medicaid, and not made life more difficult for people on food stamps.
But those are big issues for another day. It’s time for Republican leaders to put their money where their mouths have been. Develop a serious bipartisan Ferguson Agenda. Make it the priority of the 2015 Missouri Legislature.