February 13, 2014

$72,000 fine for $4 violation provokes a Senate inquiry

A $72,000 state fine that stemmed from a violation that cheated the state out of less than $4 was too much for one state lawmaker.

A $72,000 state fine that stemmed from a violation that cheated the state out of less than $4 was too much for one state lawmaker.

The fine was handed down by the Department of Revenue because the Missouri resident was using untaxed diesel fuel to drive on a highway when the fuel was meant for farm use. With a grant from the Federal Highway Administration, the department checks diesel vehicle fuel tanks for untaxed fuel, and fines violators.

But the details on how long the department has received the grant – and how much money it gets – are fuzzy.

And Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, is so concerned that he’s holding an investigative hearing next week and has introduced a bill to curtail the program.

“If someone (assessed this fine) and they’re doing it just to go home and have some bragging rights … that’s totally wrong,” Parson said Wednesday at a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting.

Parson said it looks like the department began receiving the grant in 2009, and the amount has increased since then. He isn’t completely sure, however, and acting Director of Revenue John Mollenkamp told the Post-Dispatch he didn’t know.

In an email, department spokeswoman Michelle Gleba said the department has received more than $275,000 in motor fuel grants since 2011. It was unclear how much was for this particular inspection program.

State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said she did not have access to information about the grant.

In response to Parson’s concerns, Mollenkamp said his department would stop looking for violations and only respond to law enforcement complaints until the matter is sorted out.

Parson’s distaste for this topic first surfaced last month during a supplemental budget presentation when an allocation of more than $130,000 from a federal grant for overtime and training in the fuel inspection program was brought up.

Between the state and the federal government, diesel vehicle owners are taxed about 41 cents per gallon. The taxes do not apply for fuel only used on a farm. That fuel is marked with colored dye. Inspectors look for colored diesel in vehicles they can prove have traversed roads.

Parson believes pulling over vehicles to check for colored diesel – or searching parked vehicles – is intrusion that lacks probable cause.

For example, what would happen if an inspector pulled over a truck and saw a marijuana joint sitting on the seat, Committee Chairman Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, asked. There was no probable cause to pull the person over in the first place.

There also are concerns that inspectors are going onto people’s land to check vehicle fuel, and that they are profiling by selecting vehicles they think use diesel.

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, said he’s heard that inspectors go to livestock sale barns to test vehicle tanks that aren’t locked.

“When you go on private property, you’re talking about the fundamental rights of every person,” Parson said. “If we get into profiling … I want to know how many (inspectors) go to Macy’s and urban areas pulling samples as opposed to rural areas.”

Parson’s bill, introduced last week, would ban the vehicle inspections unless the individual is holding the fuel for wholesale or retail sale and is situated in certain places, such as an inspection site. Agents would only be allowed to do these inspections if they have a reasonable suspicion that a violation has occurred.

Parson has asked the department for the number and amount of fines issued, but he said the department won’t provide them. Mollenkamp told Parson he likely could get an aggregate number for the senator.

Mollenkamp also came under heat when Parson asked where the fines were distributed. Mollenkamp thought the money went to the motor fuel fund, but Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said that goes against the state constitution.

“All fines, civil penalties and forfeitures go to the school fund under the Missouri Constitution,” Schaefer said.

The committee asked Mollenkamp to figure out where the money went and report back.

Parson hopes to have a better understanding of this grant and the unanswered questions associated with it after the investigative hearing next week.

Parson’s bill is SB842.

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