Amendment 1 to Decide Fate of Many State Laws

Article excerpt

You'd never know from the low-key campaign for Constitutional Amendment No. 1 that the fate of hundreds of state laws is at stake.

On Tuesday, voters across the state will decide whether to validate a legislative practice that has been ruled unconstitutional. The practice: passing "special laws" tailored to one county or a small group of counties. This is the only statewide measure on the ballot.

Under Missouri's constitution, the state determines what powers counties have. Counties must seek permission from the Legislature if they want to raise taxes beyond statutory ceilings, restructure an office or take on a new duty.

Charter counties - those that have adopted home-rule charters - have more latitude. They can design their own governmental structures, but they still need legislative approval to levy new taxes.

By law, counties are grouped in classes based on wealth as gauged by property valuation. Counties in a class are supposed to be treated alike. As the state constitution says: "A law applicable to any county shall apply to all counties in the class to which such county belongs."

But the Legislature has long ignored that restriction, passing a crazy-quilt of laws based on requests from individual counties. Examples include the hotel tax for St. Charles County and the sales tax for the MetroLink light-rail line in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Last May, the Missouri Supreme Court decided the practice violated the constitution. In the case of Ellisville vs. St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners, the court threw out a state law setting up the St. Louis County Boundary Commission on the grounds that the law applied only to St. Louis County. That put hundreds of other special state laws in jeopardy.

To solve the problem, the Legislature proposed Amendment 1. It would do three things:

- Retroactively validate all special laws on the books.

- Remove the constitutional provision requiring that all counties in a class be treated the same.

- Set up a new class for charter counties. St. Louis County, St. Charles County and Jackson County are the only three now.

Sen. Wayne Goode, D-Normandy, sponsored the plan. He says: "The whole idea is to put us back to what we have been doing."

Goode says special laws are needed to meet counties' varying needs. For example, no county other than St. Louis County has more than 50 municipalities. So only St. Louis County needs a boundary commission to sort out turf fights, he says.

So long as special laws are based on rational distinctions, such as population, such laws should be allowed, Goode says. …