Traffic camera curbing bill passes committee

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Traffic cameras monitor  vehicles Friday at the intersection of Camellia Boulevard and Settlers Trace Boulevard in Lafayette.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Traffic cameras monitor vehicles Friday at the intersection of Camellia Boulevard and Settlers Trace Boulevard in Lafayette.

A Louisiana House committee narrowly approved a bill Monday that would curb the use of traffic cameras despite impassioned protests from East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden and other cities’ leaders.

The proposal, House Bill 801, cleared the House Transportation Committee 8-7, setting up a showdown in the full House.

State Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part and chairwoman of the panel, broke the 7-7 tie with her “yes” vote.

“We will let you hear it on the floor,” St. Germain told colleagues moments after casting the deciding vote.

The bill would ban local governments from using traffic cameras to issue tickets on state highways, including those within city limits, unless motorists are traveling more than 10 miles per hour over the posted speed limit.

“We are here to stand up for the citizens,” said state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, a longtime critic of the cameras.

Arnold said he has worked for five years to put curbs on the cameras, which he calls a money grab that tramples on the rights of taxpayers.

“Traffic cameras are not about policing,” Arnold said on a related bill. “They are about fleecing.”

But Holden, a former state senator, said traffic cameras save lives, especially at dangerous intersections that have been the scene of horrific accidents.

“People have lost their loved ones,” he said.

The mayor also said the devices account for only about $2 million of annual revenue in a city-parish operating budget of about $300 million. “So this is not a money grab for us,” he told the committee.

Baker Police Chief Mike Knaps said the cameras allow for due process and that officers review alleged offenses on videos.

“This system works,” he said.

Dee Stanley, chief administrative officer for the city of Lafayette, also opposed the bill.

Stanley said a state highway runs near the University of Louisiana at Louisiana and several other schools and that motorists have ample warnings. “The majority of our citations are $25 citations,” he said.

Arnold’s proposal marks the fifth year that he has tried to abolish or restrict traffic cameras in various ways.

He noted that the bills are traditionally opposed by the Louisiana Municipal Association and police chiefs, among others.

A bill last year that would have banned the cameras unless approved by local voters failed by a wide margin in a different House committee.

Another proposal debated Monday, which would ban the issuance of traffic citations by mail, was set aside amid questions about costs.

Still another Arnold proposal, House Bill 859, which would lengthen the yellow light at intersections that have red light cameras by one second to give motorists more time to get through the intersection, also won narrow committee approval Monday.

Just enough colleagues got behind the highway measure, which is HB801.

“I mean, where is this going to stop at?” asked Rep. Steven Pylant, R-Crowville, a committee member who voted for Arnold’s bill.

“I just think boots on the ground is better for public safety,” said Pylant, a former sheriff in Franklin Parish.

The legislation would exempt school speed zones from the traffic camera restrictions.

Arnold emphasized that the bill would apply only to state highways, not roads like Airline Highway, which is U.S. 61, and Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge, which is U.S. 190.

In an interview after the meeting, Holden downplayed the distinction.

“We can’t abdicate our responsibility that people are protected,” he said. “Whether it is U. S. or state or local, we have a role to play.”

Voting FOR House Bill 801 (8): State Reps. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax, Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings, Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek, H. Bernard LeBas, D-Ville Platte, Chris Leopold, R-Port Sulphur, Steven Pylant, R-Crowville, Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, and Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part.

Voting AGAINST limiting traffic cameras (7): State Reps. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, A.B. Franklin, D-Lake Charles, Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, Dalton Honore, D-Baton Rouge, Frankie Howard, R-Many, Sherman Mack, R-Albany, and Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport.