Above objections from local police chiefs and city and county officials, Florida lawmakers are advancing legislation to outlaw red-light cameras statewide.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argues the devices -- which capture infractions and later result in sometimes costly tickets for motorists -- have "essentially no safety benefit" and he said they serve to do little more than line local governments' pockets with extra revenue.
"It’s a backdoor tax increase on citizens who often can't afford to pay it, and you’re making intersections less safe," Brandes said.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed: "I don’t like the cash-register they’ve become either."
Brandes' bill (SB 168) to ban red-light cameras and prohibit local governments from using them got its first approval by a Senate committee Thursday morning, with Democrats opposed.
In the House, the effort is a little more bipartisan, with Reps. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, pushing HB 4027 together. They have a press conference scheduled for this afternoon to discuss their proposal. It received its first favorable vote two weeks ago, also with some Democratic opposition.
The state legalized red-light cameras in 2010.
But a growing number of municipalities -- including North Miami Beach and, recently, Gulfport near Tampa -- have voted to turn off their cameras or have stopped using the devices altogether in the face of public backlash, lawsuits and court rulings that found the devices could violate constitutional rights.
Last year, the Florida Supreme Court declined to take up an appeals court's ruling on a lawsuit challenging how the city of Hollywood used red-light tickets to enforce traffic laws in Broward County. The court said the city's outside private vendor had, "for all practical purposes," the power to decide which motorists were ticketed, when the city bears that responsibility.
Responding to Brandes' desire to outlaw the devices statewide, Democrats on the Senate Transportation Committee objected Thursday to what they called "an expansion of pre-emption" by the state and they questioned the validity of state data that Brandes presented to demonstrate proven increases in accidents because of the devices.
"It’s working in Orange County. We’ve seen people alter their behavior once they get a citation for running a red light," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said "I personally think they work," citing his own experience getting a ticket, which he said deterred future infractions.
But he said cities should have the power to decide for themselves. That is what cities want, too.
The Florida League of Cities isn't weighing in on whether using the cameras is good or bad. The group does "support the ability of cities to use that tool" as a public-safety measure, said Scott Dudley, the league's legislative director.
In regards to Brandes calling it a hidden tax, Dudley countered: "It’s a hidden tax that can be easily avoided by not running a red light."
He said the larger traffic safety problem is cellphones and distracted driving.
"That’s really what the Legislature should be looking at," Dudley said.
Brandes ended the hearing with an emotional appeal, blasting the "cold-hearted" devices that don't have the capacity for leeway in doling out punishment, as police officers and sheriff's deputies have.
"It’s the cold, calculated nature of this I find most objectionable," Brandes said. "They don’t offer us the human side of law enforcement. They’re completely and utterly machine-driven."
His bill has two more committee stops before it could reach the Senate floor. Artiles and Jacobs' bill has one more committee to clear in the House.
The proposed law wouldn’t take effect until 2019 to allow time for municipalities’ contracts with vendors to expire, Brandes said.