Just two years after state lawmakers passed a law that allowed the use of red light cameras on Florida streets, a House committee reversed course and approved a bill that would banish them.
The House Economic Affairs Committee narrowly approved HB 4011 by a 10-8 vote, underscoring just how divisive the public safety program is.
“I believe (cameras) save lives,” said Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. “But the problem is there’s something about being confronted after committing an act. When you’re in Indiana, or Illinois, and you visit our state, and two weeks later you get a surprise in the mail, that doesn’t change behavior. That makes you mad.”
The odds are long that the bill will get much further. It heads to House Appropriations next. Law enforcement agencies, who get paid a portion of the millions that are made from the cameras, oppose it. As do counties and cities that starved for revenues following the worst recession in memory.
But on Thursday at least, it was a victory for Rep. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, the initial sponsor of the bill. A nurse, Campbell said the vast majority of her constituents are seniors or are living in poverty, and a single ticket would burden them with a hardship they can’t afford. She disputes that cameras make streets safer, and alleges that many of them target low income areas.
“I know our community voted for us to be here,” Campbell told the 18 member committee. “The voters voted for you to come here. You have to be in anyone’s pockets. You have to be here for your citizens.”
Her appeal worked mostly with libertarian-leaning Republicans. Each of those in support of Campbell’s bill were Republicans.
“I’m not for growing government,” said the committee chair, Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. “So I haven’t like the proliferation of these cameras, especially when you’re profiteering from them.”
Of the nine who voted against the bill, six were Democrats.
“My wife got a violation and it changed her behavior,” said Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa. “That made me support cameras even more, because they really do save lives.”
Campbell’s campaign against the cameras is either a quixotic one, driven by a romantic urge to lift the afflicted in her Miami district, or a self-serving one. Or both.
But Campbell faces a credibility problem. She and her husband were slapped last year with $145,000 worth in liens and her family has come under increased scrutiny for mortgage and Medicaid fraud. When the Times/Herald asked her last week if she was sponsoring HB 4011 because her husband's Honda Odyssey minivan had racked up five violations since 2010, she said she only knew about one violation and doubted the video and photographic evidence that the other violations had happened.
Rather than objecting to a program that has cost her household, Campbell said she’s pushing for a camera ban because of her constituents, who she says want the cameras gone. Several of them called the Times/Herald this week to complain about the cameras after a story about her husband's violations was published.
Louis Toussaint was one of them. On Tuesday, he said he wanted to draw attention to the public unrest swirling about red light cameras in Miami.
"I heard a lot of people complaining about the cameras," said the 75-year-old. "There's a general protest."
When asked who was complaining, however, Toussaint hesitated.
"I don't know, not everybody."
Well, who exactly?
"I cannot say," he said. "I speak for myself."
Turns out, Toussaint acknowledged, he called on behalf of Campbell.
On the same day that Toussaint and others called the Times/Herald, Campbell’s legislative assistant, Nadine Charles, issued a news release stating the nature of Campbell’s campaign against the cameras.
“Several of her constituents have called and have come to her office to complain,” the release said, adding that Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, had joined in her fight against them.
Not all the members of the committee were impressed with Campbell’s case.
Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, asked her if she had any evidence that the cameras were placed in low income areas. Campbell explained that she has received many emailed complaints about the cameras, and that many people she met on the campaign trail criticized them.
Hooper stopped her and said that was only anecdotal evidence.
“I asked if you had any actual evidence but it’s obvious you don’t,” said Hooper, who later voted against the bill.
Trujillo said he’s been a long-time opponent of red light cameras, having sponsored a similar bill banning them in 2010. He said he doubts that red light cameras make intersections safer.
The two of them are sole sponsors of a bill that’s asking lawmakers to reverse the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, the bill many of whom passed in 2010 that allows the use of red-light cameras.
American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz. company led the charge in the legislation and now serves 70 jurisdictions in 20 Florida counties, including Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Of the $158 collected from every citation, the state takes $83. The remaining $75 is split between the city and the camera vendor. If a ticket is unpaid after 30 days, it can increase another $110.
Campbell and opponents say the cameras have one main purpose: to make money. One opponent said that was proven by the fact that Campbell’s bill was getting heard first not by a public safety committee, but an economic affairs committee.
To be sure, they make money. According to the Florida Department of Revenue, cities and counties made $51 million last year. Miami’s red light cameras produced $4.9 million, the most in the state.
Tampa's net revenues from the cameras totaled $2.3 million last year. Those are net revenues after the state's share and the city paid a $1 million fee to ATS. St. Petersburg collected $707,226 for its coffers.
But the claim that cameras make dangerous intersections safer is still up for debate.
A report last year of accidents compiled by the state from 73 different law enforcement agencies found that more than half of Florida agencies, 41, say accidents are less frequent at intersections using red-light camera technology.
Crashes were more frequent in 11 of the 73 jurisdictions while the rest saw no change or didn’t have enough information. Miami led the state in the number of violations, and reported a decline in crashes.
Crashes at intersections with red light cameras fell by nearly a third the year after Tampa officials installed the technology, police records show. Yet in St. Petersburg, city records show that rear-end wrecks at intersections with red light cameras spiked 44 percent between November 2011 and October 2012. Also, total crashes actually jumped 10 percent at intersections with cameras in the program's first year.