La. House panel rejects red-light camera bill

Issue would have been put on ballot

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax, debates Thursday with Tom Ed McHugh, executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association, over legislation that would require a popular vote before local governments can continue using cameras to enforce traffic laws.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax, debates Thursday with Tom Ed McHugh, executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association, over legislation that would require a popular vote before local governments can continue using cameras to enforce traffic laws.

A bill that would ban traffic cameras unless they are approved by local voters failed Thursday in a Louisiana House committee after some heated exchanges.

The vote was five in favor and 10 opposed despite pleas from state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans and sponsor of the plan.

“Let the people decide,” Arnold said. “Let your constituents make that decision.”

Opponents said it makes more sense to leave the issue to local government officials, which in some cases have opted to remove the cameras.

“Let those people decide what is in their best interest,” said former Baton Rouge Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh, who is executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association.

The hearing took place in the state House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee, which was a change of venues from previous years when similar bills died.

It also included a lengthy exchange about the meaning of democracy that involved McHugh and, near the end, featured Arnold saying he knew his proposal would die because of the number of former local officials on the committee.

The measure, House Bill 217, would ban local governments from operating the red light and other cameras to generate fines unless they are approved by a majority of voters.

Cameras in operation now could remain so until July 1, 2014.

The Metro Council earlier this year decided to keep traffic light cameras used to enforce red light violations in East Baton Rouge Parish until at least Dec. 31.

Arnold said numerous studies show that red light cameras spark problems, including an increase in rear-end and other crashes.

He said the cameras are mostly a money grab by local governments.

“We have been sold a bill of goods,” Arnold said.

But Dee Stanley, chief administrative officer for the city of Lafayette, said officials there recently extended and expanded a five-year contract for cameras another five years after thoroughly vetting the issue.

Stanley said the research show that crashes have decreased in areas covered by the cameras, including alcohol-related accidents.

“For us it is a matter of home rule,” Stanley said. “We have had a positive experience with this program.”

McHugh said some areas have eliminated the cameras, including Jefferson Parish.

He said whether the cameras are used should be left to local government officials. “Those folks are as conscious of the problems that occur at the local level as you are,” McHugh said.

McHugh’s comments sparked some pointed questions from state Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax and a backer of the bill.

Brown asked McHugh why he would oppose Arnold’s bill if he backs democracy.

McHugh replied that Brown and other lawmakers regularly act on behalf of their constituents through their votes. “You are an elected representative of your people,” he said.

After several back and forth on the merits of the legislation, McHugh said, “I’m being argumentative. That’s the first time I’ve done that at this table in 13 years.”

In Baton Rouge the Metro Council voted 8-1 in February to continue the cameras until the end of the year instead of going along with Mayor-President Kip Holden’s request to renew a contract with American Traffic Solutions, or ATS, for another five years.

The Holden administration has praised the program.

The cameras have generated $8.4 million since 2008. ATS takes 35 percent of red light traffic fines to cover its costs.

Stanley said the cameras generate about $1 million per year in Lafayette, which is used to bolster traffic enforcement.

Arnold cited news accounts that Plaquemines Parish authorities want to place traffic cameras on La. 23 and in some neighborhoods.

He said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a former proponent of the cameras, has done an about face and now opposes them.

“The trend right now is a lot of states are getting away from these cameras,” Arnold said.

Voting YES on requiring local voters to approve traffic light cameras (5): State Reps. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans; Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans; Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax; Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville and Thomas Willmott, R-Kenner.

Voting NO for HB217 (10): State Reps. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge; Johnny Berthelot, R-Gonzales; Robert Billiot, D-Waggaman; Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans; Roy Burrell, D-Shreveport; Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur; Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge; Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport; Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro and Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula.