Continue Your Support of Good Local Government

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You have another chance to improve government and fight petty tyranny by supporting Senator Eric Schmitt’s latest bill to hold local government accountable.

Last year, Senator Schmitt became the champion of responsible local government with SB-5, a bill designed to end “taxation by citation” in local governments.

This year, Senator Schmitt is back to close a loophole that some cities are exploiting to suck more money out of residents who can least afford it. SB-572 applies caps to revenue raised through tyrannical enforcement of local ordinances and building codes, some of which written explicitly to generate revenue outside the state-permitted tax laws.

Before I post  my written statement to the Senate Committee, here are some of the things you can do to promote this bill

  1. Write your State Senator and Representative asking them to support SB-572. (Click here to look up your legislators)
  2. Promote the bill to your friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media
  3. Submit a witness form supporting SB-572 before the hearing on Wednesday, January 13. (Click here for witness form)

Here is my testimony:

WRITTEN TESTIMONY OF WILLIAM T. HENNESSY, A RESIDENT OF EUREKA, MISSOUIR, IN SUPPORT OF SB-572 TO THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON JOBS, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT, AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT GIVEN JANUARY 9, 2016

To the Committee:

I strongly support SB-572, and I urge the Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government committee, the Missouri Senate, and the Missouri House of Representatives to pass the bill. I urge Governor Nixon to sign it.

Governments exist to promote the safety, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of those they govern, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Everyone understands these simple truths, but we sometimes ignore them when thinking about local government. But history shows that tyranny can happen at any level of government. Let’s call this “petty tyranny.” Here are a few examples:

* In Hazelwood, Missouri, two schoolgirls were cited for selling Girl Scout cookies illegally from a stand they had constructed outside their home. These aspiring Bonnie Parkers were in violation of a city ordinance that bans the sale of commodities from people’s homes.

* In Burnsville, Minnesota, a man named Mitch Faber was charged with a building code violation and placed under arrest for failing to finish a siding project on his house, a project that had been stalled by financial troubles. After receiving an ultimatum from the city, Faber spent $12,000 on a stucco façade to cover up the partial work that had been done, only to be told by a city inspector that this was not good enough. This visit was followed up by another from the police, and Faber was taken into custody and charged with the heinous crime of remodeling his home in an unacceptable manner.

* In San Juan Capistrano, California, a town that was founded in the 1700s as a religious mission, Chuck and Stephanie Fromm were fined several hundred dollars for holding private Bible study meetings in their homes without a “conditional-use” permit. The statute that was applied prohibits religious organizations from holding services in residential neighborhoods.

* Washington, D.C. resident Patricia White has so far racked up fines totaling over $2,000 for not recycling her cat litter, which she makes at home from newspapers and junk mail. District of Columbia laws require that cat litter always be put in a recycling bin, even though Ms. White’s homemade variety is not really suitable for salvage. Employees of the Department of Public Works have discovered her violations of the rule while picking through the trash in the waste bins outside her apartment building, which is apparently something they are instructed to do at random locations throughout the city as a part of their regular duties.

* In New Orleans, volunteers from the Hope Church in Metairie, Louisiana, were stopped from handing out free water bottles with the church’s name and address imprinted on them during the most recent Mardi Gras celebration. The reason? It was because they did not have an occupational license and had not registered to pay sales tax. An agreement was subsequently negotiated that allowed the church to distribute free hand sanitizer outside of temporary porta-potties instead.

* Three young girls in Midway, Georgia, were busted by the police for selling lemonade from a homemade stand without first acquiring a business permit. In justifying the crackdown on the nefarious activities of these aspiring arch-criminals, the chief of police stated that “we were not aware of how the lemonade was made, who made the lemonade, and of what the lemonade was made.” Jack Webb as Joe Friday couldn’t have explained it more concisely.

The list of examples of petty tyranny could go on for  hours.

I understand the need for ordinances that promote safety, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But I also recognize that city governments are often seduced by the easy money from fines–taxation by citation, as Senator Eric Schmitt calls it. In our work in Ferguson and St. Louis County in 2014 and 2015, my friends and I discovered disturbing patterns of petty tyranny that drove a wedge between residents and the justice system. By treating citizens like ATMs for government, some cities in the area have built walls between government and people. People come to distrust all authority and determine to take back whatever they can. Petty tyranny kicks off an endless cycle of fines, resistance, and anger.

SB 5 was a major first step on the road to better government and freer people in Missouri. SB 572 is the logical and necessary next step on that journey.

I urge this committee to recommend SB 572 to the full Senate.

Sincerely,

William T. Hennessy

Thanks to Senator Schmitt for continuing his work for good government and against petty tyranny.

34 to 0: Good Ideas Are Hard to Fight

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I was scared. Not afraid to say it.

And some friends turned hostile. They had good reasons. And I was probably a little cavalier. And I talked way too long.

But last September I wanted to start something that would help real people in our neighborhood while advancing liberty and upsetting abusive government. Sure, I’d rather upset the federal government in Washington, but my arms are little short to box with Harry Reid. St. Louis County’s municipalities, on the other hand, lie within our reach.

So I took a swing.

Thank you to all of you who joined the fight against abusive municipal courts. Thank you to my friends who disagreed with the fight but stayed on the sidelines. Thank you to frequent adversaries who put aside differences and helped out.

Special thanks to Auditor Tom Schweich for his early leadership in launching the Municipal Court Project to audit cities suspected of abusing the Macks Creek Law that capped municipal revenue from traffic tickets to 30 percent of the city’s revenue.

Most of all, thank you, Senator Eric Schmitt. Despite the risks, you took this fight into the Missouri State Senate. You forged alliances with frequent adversaries and risked some friendships with great conservative Senators around the state.

In the end, your vision and leadership prevailed. On Thursday, the Missouri Senate voted 34 to 0 to pass your bill reducing the Macks Creek cap to 10 percent from 30 percent.

Even the New York Times couldn’t help but notice that the right ideas bring together old adversaries. I didn’t do much on this issue–far less than many people whose names you’ll never hear. But I admit I take a little pride in helping Senator Schmitt’s victory.

Do the Speed-Trap Mayors Want You To Drive Dangerously?

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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.

Here’s What’s Happening on the Muni Courts Front

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He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

— The Declaration of Independence

Back in August, I asked for your help in pushing for municipal court reform.

Cities that abuse their police and courts destroy liberty:

Together, these offenses against liberty and decency rise to the level offenses against which we rebelled in the 18th century.

Auditor Schweich’s Municipal Courts Project

In November, State Auditor Tom Schweich announced the Municipal Courts Project. The Auditor will audit 10 municipalities suspected of violating state limits on fines from traffic tickets. Missouri law requires cities to forfeit to the state revenues from traffic tickets that exceed 30 percent of total revenue.

The law does not prevent cities from enforcing traffic laws for safety. The intends to limit financial incentives for cities to write lots of tickets. I had the honor to stand with Republicans–Auditor Schweich and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann–and Democrats–State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal and State Rep Scott Sifton–as Auditor Schweich announced the project.

Senator Schmitt Steps Up

Today, I had the pleasure to meet with State Senator Eric Schmitt to learn about his efforts to further crack down on the courts. Senator Schmitt has pre-filed legislation for the next general assembly that would reduce the traffic revenue limit to 10 percent from 30 percent. Senator Schmitt and I discussed further legislation, such as:

  • additional penalties for city official who knowingly fail to forfeit excess funds
  • requiring that municipal courts be open to the public
  • prohibiting cities from barring families and children from municipal courts
  • prohibiting cities form locking out defendants before their case is called
  • forcing cities to include all fines, fees, and warrants to the ticket revenue
  • limiting cities’ power to jail people over non-criminal traffic violations (with exceptions for flagrant violations of the court system)

I also recommended as witnesses several people who contacted me about their experiences with municipal courts. And I learned that friend of liberty, State Rep. Paul Curtman, will handle the bill in the House.

Action

Please write your State Representative and State Senator to let them know you support Senator Schmitt’s municipal courts reform. He expects strong opposition from the Municipal League–sort of union for city managers and consultants. This being a bipartisan issue with a strong liberty theme, opponents risk marginalizing themselves.

And say “Thanks” to Tom Schweich (moaudit@auditor.mo.gov) and Eric Schmitt(eschmitt@senate.mo.gov) for stepping up on behalf of people who need a voice in government.

 

 

Missouri’s Crap Sandwich Servers

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I have a question for State Senator Eric Schmitt: Who says that St. Louis’s 18 million square feet of vacant warehouse space isn’t good enough for Chinese goods?

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I heard Senator Schmidt on KMOX a couple of weeks ago.  He scoffed at the Show-Me Institute’s analysis of available warehouse space for China Hub saying that to use existing space would be like building F-16s in the Wright Brothers’ hangar.

He was not asked—and he did not offer—any evidence for his flippant comment.  Nor did he take phone calls from the public. 

According to this report, the Midwest China Hub Commission flatly contradicts Senator Schmitt’s assertion, saying existing warehouse space is adequate.

Senator, the comment box is open and awaiting your reply. If you don’t have time to write a response here, I hope you’ll have time to talk to people about it on September 6 when the Special Session opens.