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House red-light cameras bill rolls through committee stop

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State Rep. Bryan Avila faced pointed scrutiny in the House Transportation & Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday, as he played shepherd to a bill that would circumscribe the way cities and local governments can use controversial devices to detect traffic infractions known as red-light cameras.

HB 7071 sought to limit the amount of infraction-based revenue cities get to spend on matters unrelated to public safety — many have referred to the cameras as “cash cows” for municipalities — require citations to be sent via certified rather than first-class mail, force local governments that have not submitted annual reports on how cameras have affected safety to suspend operations until they have done so, and stop cities from citing drivers turning right on red.

That last component was undone by an amendment sponsored by state Rep. George Moraitis, who joined other dissenting legislators in decrying onerous regulations foisted upon cities.

“I think we’re going the right direction but I think maybe the original bill is just too far,” said Moraitis, the Broward delegation’s sole Republican. Former Gulfport Mayor Kathleen Peters –– who instituted her hometown’s red-light camera program back in 2010 — was on the same page as Moraitis, raising concerns about unfunded mandates and a perceived disregard for home rule inscribed in the bill.

Paul Henry of the civil liberarian group Liberty First, for one, disagreed with the amendment’s adoption and supported passage of a thoroughgoing version of the legislation. He has long been an opponent of the cameras.

“These right-turn-on-red violations are insignificant,” said Henry, a retired police officer, speaking to the need for narrowly defined violations. He went on to point to the patchwork manner in which infractions are enforced, citing differences in the length of lights as well as speed limits for right turns among cities. “Uniform traffic control is supposed to be uniform.”

Henry also sounded a familiar note for critics of the programs: “It’s not about safety, it’s about money.”

Peters bristled at such arguments, as did ranking Democrat Hazelle Rogers, who emphasized pedestrian and cyclist safety.

“Our roadways have changed,” debated Rogers. “We have more bikeways, bike paths and stopping helps to ensure that no one is in those paths. There are not enough police or eyes to catch jaywalkers, but in lieu of that I support enforcement of stopping on red lights with the cameras.”

Avila and Henry were in agreement on the necessity of sending citations via certified mail due to unintended consequences like innocent drivers losing their licenses or getting caught up in legal red tape over a minor infraction, due to missing a notice in the mail.

They were bolstered by testimony by former House Speaker H. Lee Moffitt, who spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of The AAA Auto Club Group. He cited the high proportion of drivers who are on vacation or otherwise out of town on Florida roads, who risk major fines for noncompliance with a citation they never saw.

The bill was ultimately approved as amended by Moraitis, with Democratic state Reps. Rodgers, Richard Stark and Victor Torres voting “No,” along with Peters, a Republican.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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