Featured, Gold Dome, Peter Blake, Politics, Transportation

Prohibition on red light cameras comes to screeching halt

Every free-thinking Colorado resident loved the bill to ban red-light cameras and automated radar speed traps. It had everything going for it — except lobbyists.

And that’s why it was emasculated Monday in a committee room full of hostile uniformed police officers and sent to the House Appropriations Committee, otherwise known as death’s door.

Senate Bill 181, already passed by the Senate, was sponsored in the House by none other than Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, making an all too rare foray into libertarian territory. He assigned it to the State Affairs Committee, whose Democratic members are supposed to be his pet poodles, killing bills he wants dead and moving along the measure he likes. To give it an extra boost he even had a Republican co-sponsor.

But Ferrandino is term limited and the session ends next week. There’s little or nothing he can do to punish straying Democrats, like assigning them, or their bills, to committees they don’t like.

Thus, after testimony ended, State Affairs chair Su Ryden, D-Aurora, drew a deep breath and moved to strike the abolitionist paragraphs and replace them with a weasely amendment. It calls for a “study” of photo-only traffic enforcement by the state Department of Transportation. This kick-the-can-down-the-road proposal passed, 6-5, with one Democrat joining the four Republicans against the move.

icon_op_edSince studies cost money, the bill had to be sent to Appropriations. When it met Wednesday noon, Ferrandino and proponents of the original bill urged it be moved to the floor, where there was a possibility of restoring the original language. But that motion failed and a move to kill the bill passed 8-5.

Ferrandino had predicted CDOT will come up with just another study showing that red-light cameras don’t, in fact, increase public safety. So the death of the study-only version was no loss.

In promoting the bill earlier, Ferrandino suggested to the committee that photo-only traffic enforcement measures were mostly about raising municipal revenues, not public safety.

Co-sponsoring Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Windsor, noted that this type of law enforcement, where you only learn of your alleged offense by mail weeks afterward, violates “the right to due process and the right to confront one’s accusers.”

In the bill’s corner was Denver Auditor Dennis Gallagher, who claimed to be “neutral” but sounded against. He testified that the city police department had not shown “the specific public safety impact” of either the photo radar or photo red-light programs.

Coordinating the opposition was the Colorado Municipal League, which insists that the radar programs are a matter of “local control” and shouldn’t be regulated by the legislature. Ferrandino rebutted that argument by noting that it was the legislature that had authorized the programs in the first place and was now simply trying to retract the authority.

Lobbyists representing Denver, Aurora, Bicycle Colorado and a leading provider of red-light camera equipment — American Traffic Solutions — led the opposition. But they pushed law enforcement forward to do most of the talking.

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey maintained that the city’s four red-light cameras prevented 35 accidents a year. But he also admitted if he got a ticket in the mail he’d fight it “on due process grounds.”

He didn’t discuss the various panel trucks that take pictures of Denver speeders, who in due course get a ticket in the mail.

Most of the testimony was provided by uniformed officers from various jurisdictions who maintained the programs were for safety, not revenue. The fiercest was John Jackson, police chief in Greenwood Village, who called bill sponsors Ferrandino and Humphrey “merchants of doubt and fear.”

Claims that the programs were mere revenue machines were “preposterous,” Jackson maintained. “Injury accidents will skyrocket” if the bill passes, he said. “If you ban us from using this technology, people will die.”

Police felt so at home in the committee that they joined legislators at their table when they recessed to discuss a complicated parliamentary maneuver.

But one witness, Diana Goldberg of Sungate Kids, did admit to a financial interest in the photo enforcement program. She said her anti-child abuse group and five other nonprofits in the 18th Judicial District depended on revenues from the programs for their success.

After the committee adjourned, Ferrandino conceded he wished the bill had moved faster through the process and not reached the House so late in the session, when his influence was waning.

A recent Denver Post story said Hickenlooper is reluctant to announce his position on the bill, telling reporters he hadn’t read the Senate-passed version. But the story also noted that while Denver mayor in 2010, he outlined plans to raise fines from red-light cameras to help close a budget gap.

Co-sponsor Humphrey said at the Appropriations meeting he understood the governor did not in fact want the bill on his desk.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told Ferrandino “the Republican minority is here for you.” But that was not enough, and the speaker was rolled by his own party.

Gardner said he had noted all the police officers in the hall before Monday’s State Affairs meeting and wondered why they were so much more interested in the red-light bill than in the public safety issues raised by legalized marijuana.

The Republicans challenging Hickenlooper this fall could use red-light cameras as a campaign issue — unless they too are more swayed by municipal revenues than due process and civil rights.

Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at pblake0705@comcast.net You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.

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