Mo. Digital News
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Missouri Digital News
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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL162.PRB - Macks Creek and Hidden Taxes«MDNM»
The Supreme Court's recent hearing on the legislature's efforts to deal with the Macks Creek issue reminded me of the complicated history of the legislature's approach to hidden taxes and budgets.
Macks Creek no longer exists, but it has left a legacy that has lasted for decades.
Running through the Camden County town was U.S. 54 that carries heavy traffic of tourists driving to the restaurants and resorts of Lake of the Ozarks.
To finance the city's budget, the town set up a speed trap on U.S. 54 that brought in bundles of cash from traffic fines financing more than three-fourths of the city's entire budget.
A few weeks ago, a newspaper editor wrote me of his fears of that speed trap back when he was a journalism student. I shared his worries although somehow neither of us got a Macks Creek ticket.
That speed trap became so notorious that it finally got the legislature's attention with what was called the Macks Creek Law restricting how much of a city's budget could be financed by traffic fines.
I wondered at the time how many lawmakers felt a personal stake in the issue because of the large number who had driven through Macks Creek's speed trap to have dinner at Lake of the Ozarks at the end of the legislative day. Even the author of the Macks Creek amendment had gotten a Macks Creek traffic ticket.
Yet, passage of that law was a bit of a surprise to me because I've found legislators extremely responsive to the financial needs of their local communities. Many lawmakers have held local offices themselves and enjoy close relationships with their local officials.
That local perspective was demonstrated this year with the legislature's latest efforts to toughen the Macks Creek Law.
In the Senate, rural legislators demanded that rural, small towns be given a partial exemption from the tougher limits proposed on how much of a city's budget could be financed from traffic fines.
The rural senators argued that without significant revenue from traffic fines, their smaller towns would not have enough money to pay for law enforcement.
Why not just raise local taxes was the immediate question raised during the debate.
That's a question I've had for decades as I've watched legislative efforts for what amount to "hidden taxes" -- taxes disguised as something else like traffic fines to cover city police budgets.
Over the years I've seen a pile of extra court fees proposed to finance law libraries, retirement costs for government workers, court digital equipment and police equipment.
The legislature has given city after city authority to impose taxes on motel room rentals to finance local tourism.
Like the Macks Creek traffic fines that were designed to "tax" outsiders passing through the town, local residents do not pay the tourism tax since they already have homes in town.
The local tourism tax requires approval of the community voters, but that's not a big deal since those living in the community would not pay the tax.
But what about all the Missourians traveling to another town in their state and having to pay a tax that their local legislators had approved?
I've seen a similar pattern with hidden government spending.
A political science teacher once told me how the late Sen. Edward Kennedy used a hidden-spending approach to expand the federal government's social services system without budget increases opposed by the growing number of Republicans in Congress
Kennedy's approach was to impose expanded requirements on businesses to provide services traditionally delivered by government.
That has happened in Missouri with bills to award tax breaks to businesses that create new "quality jobs" which provide benefits like health care coverage for the employees.
It's a kind of hidden Obamacare, supported in the name of economic development that has enjoyed support from even some of the Missouri legislature's outspoken opponents of Obamacare and mandated health insurance.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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