JEFFERSON CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment could impose a $7 fee on each civil action to fund retirement for county sheriffs.
The House Pensions Committee held a public hearing on HJR 136 on Wednesday. The resolution proposes charging a $7 fee for filing a civil case for the first time in the state. The money from those fees would go into the sheriff’s pension fund. If passed by the legislature, Missouri residents would vote on the measure in November.
“The duties of our sheriffs are very broad, very important to our state … and they are the first to be sued, the first to take all the punches if anything happens,” said resolution sponsor Rep. Barry Hovis. R-Cape Girardeau.
The fee is expected to generate up to $2.2 million per year through fiscal 2024. The resolution would also add a provision allowing lawmakers to increase the fee if $7 isn’t enough.
The proposal follows a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court last year in which judges struck down a similar rule. Since 1983, the state has levied a $3 surcharge on each criminal trial in a district court, but in 2021 judges declared the charges brought as an unconstitutional burden on access to the courts.
The case came after two Kansas City drivers accused of speeding in 2017 challenged the charges. The Supreme Court finally ruled that the fees charged by the court “must be reasonable in relation to the costs of the administration of justice”.
Hovis said his proposal would amend the constitution to allow a fee to offset funds lost by the Supreme Court ruling.
The court’s move put the sheriff’s pension fund in “an untenable position unless we find a new source of funding,” he said. “I think that’s something we need to look at to replace what they’ve lost in this most recent judgement.”
Contrary to the order, Scott Walterbach, President of the Missouri Creditors Bar, Inc., agreed with the Supreme Court’s finding that the fees should reflect the costs of the court’s work.
“We agree that law enforcement and their retirement is a good thing,” Walterbach said. “We are primarily concerned with the origin of the funds.”
Walterbach argued that even small increases in court fees could discourage individuals from filing lawsuits and affect the resolution of court cases. He also pointed out that the fees are often not returned by the judgment debtor – meaning the “winners” of the case will still end up paying the costs.
Court fees vary by county and can range from $30 to more than $100 per filing. For example, a divorce in Boone County can cost up to $162.50 in fees.
Several committee members wondered why the sheriff’s fund should not simply be added to the Missouri Local Government Employees’ Pension Scheme (LAGERS), a pension scheme for many local government employees. Some questioned whether the combination of the programs would save administrative costs and increase income for the sheriff’s pension fund.
“It just seems like an easier solution would be to just have them part of the system that’s already in place,” said Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington.
But supporters of the measure said that even if the sheriff’s fund eventually becomes part of LAGERS, there will still be a funding shortfall of about $2 million.
“We’ve got a roughly $2 million hole in here one way or another,” said Chuck Hatfield, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Retirement System. “Of course there are different ways to do that. I don’t think mathematically that combining it with other people will close your funding gap.”
Representatives also asked whether the sheriff’s fund receives income from employee contributions or investments. Hatfield said there have been discussions about this, but there have been no employee contributions to the program since the court fee system was introduced in the 1980s.
He said the resolution’s goal was to urge the public to “continue with the process that we’ve had since the ’80s.”