La. House panel puts brakes on speed traps

Fueled by anger over speeding tickets, a Louisiana House panel approved a bill Monday that would require municipalities that collect more than 50 percent of their revenue from the citations to label themselves as a “speed trap” and pay for a blinking highway sign that says just that.

“Revenue-based law enforcement is the wrong way to go in this state,” said state Rep. Steven E. Pylant, R-Delhi, sponsor of House Bill 961.

“I am opposed to them writing tickets to fund a town,” said Pylant, a former sheriff. “It’s a disgrace to our state to do this.”

The House Transportation Committee agreed. It approved Pylant’s proposal, 9-3, sending the measure to the full House for a vote.

Pylant said his plan is not aimed at any specific community, but lawmakers cited Krotz Springs and Washington, both in St. Landry Parish, and Woodworth in Rapides Parish in their complaints.

“Is this just about Krotz Springs?” asked state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs. “Just about everybody I know has gotten a ticket there.”

The executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association, Ronnie C. Harris, opposed HB961.

He told the committee that, while he understands the concerns of lawmakers, Pylant’s bill would be the wrong way to go.

He said that, in a survey done years ago, only 15 of 303 municipalities that responded said they derived more than 50 percent of their revenue from speeding tickets.

“We have a couple of bad actors,” Harris said. “But I am not going to sacrifice that over law enforcement.”

The list that Harris referred to was compiled by former Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot at the request of the Legislature in 2007.

While Krotz Springs was absent, both Washington and Woodworth were among those towns where fines and forfeitures accounted for over 50 percent of their revenue — 51 percent and 61 percent respectively — in the legislative audit.

The village of Baskin, in Franklin Parish, topped the list at 87 percent.

Others included Robeline in Natchitoches Parish, 86 percent; Lillie in Union Parish, 86 percent; Georgetown in Grant Parish, 85 percent; and Dodson in Winn Parish, 79 percent.

The same legislative auditor’s list included Port Barre, 46 percent; Livonia, 41 percent; and Golden Meadow, 24 percent.

State Rep. Frankie Howard, R-Many, said Monday the “speed trap” signs in HB961 should be 16 feet by 24 feet.

“I want to thank you for bringing this bill,” Howard, another former sheriff, told Pylant.

Exactly what the signs would look like is unclear.

The measure says they are to include blinking lights and be posted at the entry to the community.

Municipalities that fail to erect them would see revenue from the speeding tickets redirected to the state treasury.

State Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, criticized HB961.

Norton said motorists who speed “have made a decision to drive faster than they should.”

Pylant replied, “That’s what this sign will do. It will slow people down.”

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, said while he understood Pylant’s sentiments, he was concerned the sign would impose a stigma on the community. Landry is a former commander of the Louisiana State Police.

The Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police also opposed the bill.

Harris, of the Louisiana Municipal Association, asked for time for his group to work with communities that rely on citations for a large share of operating money. “I think we should give a helping hand to our communities rather than beating them down,” he said.

The town of Washington, which is just north of Opelousas, also faces legislative fire from another direction.

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said he is preparing a bill that would post a sign that says “Slow Down Speed Trap Area Highway” on a section of Interstate 49 from 1.5 miles north of Washington to 1.5 miles south of it.

Seabuagh said town officials routinely nab motorists traveling two or three miles over the speed limit, then mail them pre-printed forms charging $165 in court charges.

He said he has been barraged by complaints from constituents, many of whom received tickets on that stretch of I-49 between Alexandria and Lafayette.