In the early days of the session, several key House Republicans assembled to announce their intention to take on what they lambasted as a tool of Big Brother and a monument to shady and secretive government action – photo traffic enforcement.
Despite the fanfare, the plan went nowhere.
Several lawmakers scrambled at the beginning of this year’s session to introduce legislation to eliminate or modify the 2008 law that created the statewide photo-enforcement system. On Jan 14, the chairmen of three House committees presented plans to put an end to the Department of Public Safety’s authority to monitor state freeways with sophisticated equipment designed to catch speeding motorists.
“My constituents are telling me that they find photo radar to be intrusive, they find it annoying and in many instances they find it to be actually dangerous,” said Rep. Sam Crump, chairman of the House Government Committee. “Arizona has a proud heritage of leaving its citizens alone.”
For the first two months of the year, lawmakers blasted the program as a naked attempt to strip citizens of money under a false pretense of public safety. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Andy Biggs upped the ante, urging citizens to ignore state photo-enforcement tickets and to mount court challenges if they are given the tickets in person by process servers.
“You get a notice of violation, don’t pay it,” he said. “It’s not a citation.”
Many state lawmakers, including the infuriated Republicans, had complained bitterly about the way the photo-enforcement system was created. The program was bundled into the hundreds of pages of the state’s budget passed in the waning hours of the 2008 session. There was no debate.
Then-Gov. Janet Napolitano pushed for the system to be implemented, saying it would make the state’s freeways safer and create a new source of revenue for the state.
The state contracted with RedFlex Traffic Systems in July 2008, promising the business a two-year deal to install up to 100 devices throughout the state. Individual violations cost $181.50, of which the company keeps $28.50. The contract caps company profits at $20 million a year.
The state keeps the rest of the ticket revenue. While the program initially was expected to provide $90 million in revenue during its first full year of operation, more recent estimates have fallen far below that figure.
It wasn’t long, though, before state lawmakers learned about the fine points of the contract. During a Jan. 22 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, legislators were concerned when they found out the state had entered into a deal that may not allow a painless withdrawal.
A legislative analyst said it was not clear whether the state would be required to reimburse RedFlex for work in progress if highway photo systems were forbidden. Biggs, on the other hand, said the contract could be terminated without penalty.
During the hearing, lawmakers were told by DPS that the camera systems collect and store streaming video. That revelation came moments after RedFlex lobbyists testified the systems merely collected still photographs of speeders.
“There is streaming video of all traffic,” said DPS Commander Tom Woodward, who told lawmakers the department has used the video recordings to assist investigations of hit-and-run accidents and other crimes.
Crump’s bill, H2106, was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It was later amended to make the photo enforcement ban effective in September 2010 to avoid a potential contract dispute, which helped the measure pass the House Appropriations Committee.
Although the bill survived two committee hearings and two trips through the House Rules Committee, it was never brought to a vote on the House floor. Crump said the bill died because House leadership wanted to avoid political fallout.
“I believe there were too many Republicans that didn’t want to be on the record having to vote for it or against it,” Crump said. “I told them I didn’t care if it passed or failed, I just wanted there to be a vote on it.”
Ultimately, at least seven bills affecting statewide photo enforcement were introduced in the House. At least another seven bills and two referendums were presented by members of the Senate. And in late June, the last opportunity to advance a ban died when a transportation omnibus bill carried by Biggs failed to receive a third read in the Senate.
Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu Republican who opposes photo enforcement, said the efforts to do away with the system were doomed because the Senate had decided against hearing non-budget bills until the final weeks of session. Many bills failed to get hearings in the last-minute push.
Still, Crump and Gould pledged to resurrect the legislation next session.