JEFFERSON CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment could tack a $7 fee to every civil case filing to fund retirement for county sheriffs.
The House Pensions Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on HJR 136. The resolution proposes charging a fee of $7 for the initial filing of any civil case in the state. The money garnered from these fees would be deposited into the sheriff’s retirement fund. If passed by the legislature, the measure would be voted on by Missouri residents in November.
“The duties that our sheriffs do are very encompassing, very important for our state … and they’re the first ones to get sued, the first one to take all the hits when stuff is happening,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Barry Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau.
The fee is projected to garner up to $2.2 million a year by fiscal 2024. The resolution would also add a provision allowing legislators to raise the fee if $7 is not enough.
The proposal follows a decision last year by the Missouri Supreme Court, in which judges struck down a similar arrangement. Since 1983, the state had been charging a $3 surcharge on every circuit court criminal case, but in 2021, the judges declared the charge placed as an unconstitutional burden on access to the courts.
The case had been raised after two Kansas City drivers, charged with speeding tickets in 2017, contested the fees. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that fees charged by the court must be “reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice.”
Hovis said his proposal would amend the constitution to allow for a fee and make up for funds lost by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The court’s move placed the sheriff’s retirement fund in “an untenable position, unless we find a new funding source,” he said. “I think this is something we need to look at to replace what they’ve lost in this recent ruling.”
In opposition to the resolution, Scott Walterbach, president of the Missouri Creditors Bar, Inc., agreed with the Supreme Court’s determination that fees should reflect the costs of court functioning.
“We agree that law enforcement and their retirement is a worthy cause,” Walterbach said. “We’re primarily concerned with the source of funds.”
Walterbach argued that even small increases in court fees could discourage individuals from filing cases and affect how lawsuits get settled. He also noted that fees are often not paid back by the judgment debtor — meaning the case “winners” will still end up shouldering the cost.
Court fees vary among counties and can range from $30 to more than $100 per filing. A divorce in Boone County, for example, 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 Retirement System (LAGERS), a pension system for many local government workers. Some asked whether combining the programs would save on administrative costs and increase revenue for the sheriff’s retirement fund.
“It just seems like that would be an easier fix, just to have them part of the system that’s already there,” said Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington.
But proponents of the measure said that even if the sheriff’s fund ultimately becomes part of LAGERS, there will still be a funding shortfall of about $2 million.
“We’ve got a hole here of about $2 million, one way or another,” said Chuck Hatfield, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Retirement System. “There are various ways to address that, of course. I don’t think, mathematically, that just combining them with other people is going to solve your funding hole.”
Representatives also asked about whether the sheriff’s fund gathers any revenue from employee contribution or investment. Hatfield said there have been discussions about it, but there have not been employee contributions to the program since the court fee system was established in the 1980s.
He said the objective of the resolution is to ask the public to “continue the process we’ve had in place since the ‘80s.”