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Holden's veto of popular crime fund bill surprises supporters

Friday, July 11, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In the five years Southeast Missouri lawmakers have worked to enact legislation to improve funding for local law enforcement, numerous arguments have been raised challenging their chosen method as a bad idea.

But Gov. Bob Holden's stated reason for vetoing the latest effort hasn't been one of them.

The governor on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have allowed counties to establish "crime reduction funds." The funds would have been supported by fees of up to $250 paid by defendants who received suspended sentences and probation in criminal cases. The proceeds would have been earmarked for various law enforcement initiatives, including equipment purchases and anti-narcotics efforts.

Holden said the bill would have violated the Missouri Constitution, which requires revenue from fines in criminal cases to go to education.

Jim Vermeersch, director of the Missouri Sheriff's Association, said an important step to improve law enforcement was thwarted as a result of the governor's action.

"What this does is prevent a lot of counties, especially rural counties down in the Bootheel, from collecting money from offenders and providing more effective law enforcement," Vermeersch said.

As to the governor's constitutional argument, Vermeersch disagrees.

"This is not a fine. A fine is mandated. This is voluntary. That's a big difference," Vermeersch said.

Under the bill, a defendant could refuse to pay into a crime fund, and a judge could not use that refusal as grounds for declining to grant a suspended sentence.

Funds until 1998

Most Southeast Missouri counties had such funds until 1998, when it was determined they had no authority to establish them. The fight to create that statutory authority has been ongoing ever since.

The Missouri Legislature approved a similar bill in 1999, but Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed it out of concern it would allow defendants with financial means to buy suspended sentences. Worries that the measure would create slush funds for sheriffs helped derail subsequent efforts.

Supporters addressed all of those concerns in this year's version by adding the provision making the payment optional, limiting how the money could be used and putting the revenue under the control of independent boards of trustees.

The measure passed 132-0 in the House of Representatives and 29-1 in the Senate. With those veto-proof margins, supporters hope to override the governor when lawmakers convene for their annual veto session in September.

House Majority Floor Leader Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said what bothers him is the governor appeared supportive of the bill and never raised the constitutional issue until the veto was done. Crowell noted that other laws require some defendants to pay fees that are earmarked for purposes other than education. Those efforts include court automation, spinal cord research and a prosecutors retirement fund. The latter was part of a bill Holden signed into law just last month.

"I do respect the governor's opinion on that, but I don't think his approach has been 100 percent consistent on the application of that standard," Crowell said.

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones noted that the bill started as legislation to enact a number of unrelated statutory changes sought by counties. The crime fund provision was added later.

"That was a good county bill," said Jones, who is also president of the Missouri Association of Counties.

The measure's main provision would have adjusted upward the amount of assessed valuation needed for a county to change classification.

Because property values are always rising, many third-class counties -- the state's smallest -- are approaching the artificially set amount at which they would become second-class counties. Second-class status would require mandatory changes in a county's government structure that some don't wish to make.

Other provisions of the bill would have allowed smaller counties to set speed limits on roads within their jurisdiction, given counties the authority to enact ordinances related to stormwater control and set minimum eligibility requirements for public administrator candidates.

The bill is SB 199.

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608


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