Debate over red-light cameras heats up in Tallahassee

Red-light cameras are an issue that just won’t disappear for lawmakers.

Two years ago, they passed a bill that legalized their use on Florida streets. Now, like last year, a bill is making its way through the Legislature that would eliminate them. On Thursday, a House committee narrowly approved a bill banning them by a 10-8 vote.

“The fact that it was such a close vote shows how divided the Legislature is on this issue,” said Casey Cook, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, which supports the cameras. “Every year we fight this bill, and every year it seems to come back.”

The sponsor of this year’s bill is Rep. Daphne Campbell, a Miami Democrat with credibility issues.

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 Herald/Times asked her last week whether she was sponsoring HB 4011 because her husband’s Honda Odyssey minivan had racked up five red-light violations since 2010, she said she knew about only one violation and doubted the video and photographic evidence that the other violations had happened.

Campbell says she is pushing for a camera ban not because she objects to a program that has cost her household, but because she’s doing her best to represent her constituents. She says they want the cameras gone. Several of them called the Herald/Times this week to complain about the cameras after a story about her husband’s violations was published.

Louis Toussaint was one of them. 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, Toussaint hesitated.

“I don’t know, not everybody.”

Well, who exactly?

“I cannot say,” he said. “I speak for myself.”

It turned out, Toussaint acknowledged, that he had called on behalf of Campbell.

But Campbell said she wasn’t having people make phone calls.

“Lies. I haven’t told anyone to call,” Campbell said. “I’m too busy.”

Campbell did enlist the support of another lawmaker, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. Unlike Campbell, no cars were registered at Trujillo’s address that had racked up red-light camera violations.

Trujillo said he has been a long-time opponent of red-light cameras, having sponsored a similar bill to ban them in 2010. He said he does not think red-light cameras make intersections safer.

So far, there is no similar bill in the Senate.

Not all lawmakers share Campbell’s beliefs.

Campbell told the House Economic Affairs Committee that she believed the cameras are placed in low-income areas and have become an extra burden on the poor and elderly. Campbell said evidence showing the cameras make streets safer is questionable and that the cameras are popular only because they make money for the state and local governments.

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, asked her whether she had any evidence that the cameras were placed in low-income areas. Campbell explained that she has received many email 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.

Campbell and opponents argue that the cameras have one primary purpose: to make money.

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, the fine can increase by $110.

According to the Florida Department of Revenue, cities and counties collected $46.1 million while the state collected $51 million the last year. Miami’s red-light cameras produced more than $9 million in fines, the most in the state.

The claim that cameras make dangerous intersections safer is still up for debate.

A report last year of accidents compiled by the state from data provided by 73 Florida law enforcement agencies found that more than half of the 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 the number of crashes.

Crashes at intersections with red-light cameras fell by almost a third during 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, the total number of crashes jumped 10 percent at intersections with cameras in the program’s first year.