12/14/2016Texas Legislature Becomes Red Light Camera Battleground
State lawmakers introduce bills to pull the plug on red light cameras in Texas.
The Texas legislature meets briefly before every two years, leaving no time to waste for activists seeking a major policy change. Red light camera opponents hope that they finally have what it takes to end the state's red light camera program when the 85th regular session opens next month in Austin.
"I am very encouraged that more legislators are joining our fight against the cameras," Campaign for Liberty's Texas spokesman Byron Schirmbeck told TheNewspaper. "This looks like our best year yet to pass a real ban, but I am concerned about the effect of some of the proposed bills."
The session lasts only a few months, so lawmakers have pre-filed several bills to address automated ticketing so that they are ready to go on January 10. Each proposal takes a unique approach, some with generous loopholes ensuring cameras would continue to be used for the foreseeable future.
State Senator Bob Hall (R-Canton), for instance, pre-filed Senate Bill 88, which appears to be a ban, but it allows existing contracts to be "grandfathered." Most cities with red light camera programs already signed fifteen or twenty-year contract extensions in response to a similar proposal in 2009. Hall's language also allows police officers to use "handheld" cameras, which is exactly the loophole that encouraged a resurgence of speed cameras in Ohio after state lawmakers claimed that they had "banned" the devices. Incoming state Representative Mark Keogh (R-The Woodlands) also introduced a grandfathered ban bill, but he added an mechanism that would fine municipalities that failed to comply.
State Senator Don Huffines (R-Dallas) championed a no compromises approach with Senate Bill 111, which would explicitly prohibit the state, subdivisions of the state, private companies and school districts from issuing any red light or speed camera tickets. Huffines crafted the measure carefully to ensure there would be no loopholes, an important consideration considering how many jurisdictions have defied state lawmakers in the past.
For example, Smith County Judge Joel Baker stands trial this week admitted his guilt Monday in signing a speed camera contract in violation of open meeting laws and a state ban on speed cameras. That law took effect in 2007 to head off the efforts of the cities of Rhone and Marble Falls and the Texas Department of Transportation to use photo radar on streets and highways.
This year, photo enforcement companies have been preparing to fight back against the expected attempt to ban red light cameras. Despite being rocked with a fraud investigation and multiple criminal convictions, Redflex Traffic Systems hired lobbyist Stephen W. Bruno to convince Austin officials to stick with automated ticketing. The Australian firm's prime competitor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), retained an army of nine registered lobbyists. ATS executives lavished $15,000 in campaign donations on state Representative Richard Wayne Smith, an outgoing member from Baytown, and $1900 on Justin A. Holland, an incoming state representative from Rockwall.
Photo enforcement lobbyists have had the upper hand since 2003 when they snuck one sentence into a bill dealing with commercial motor vehicle standards that had the effect of authorizing red light cameras. The House's subsequent attempts to repeal the language of then-state Representative Linda Harper-Brown (R-Irving) were blocked in every session by the state Senate.
It only emerged later that a red light camera equipment provider had given Harper-Brown and her husband a 2010 Mercedes E550 sedan worth $55,000. The Texas Ethics decision decided to fine the lawmaker $2000 in 2012.