Texas GOP Lawmakers Clash With Law Enforcement on Red Light Cameras

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On most issues, there is no bridge that's too far between Texas' Republican majority and law enforcement officers in the state. Whether it's the state's slow-to-change drug laws or special protections for peace officers, the Texas GOP loves to defer to its cops, positioning itself as the state's law-and-order party.

That's what made Tuesday's fight at the capitol over red light cameras so interesting. Local law enforcement overwhelmingly wants to keep the cameras. Many Republicans, led by Freedom Caucus court jester Jonathan Stickland, want them banned across the state, never to ruin another trip to the mailbox again.

The argument, at least as it broke down at the Texas House's Transportation Committee meeting Tuesday in Austin, is simple. To Stickland and other Republicans, the cameras circumvent due process, don't demonstrably save lives and exist primarily as a revenue generator for the departments that collect fines from those who get busted. Police departments around the state like the cameras because, in their minds, they prevent deadly T-bone collisions between cars running red lights and those passing through intersections legally, even if studies looking at the cameras' effectiveness are, at best, a mixed bag.

"You don't need to hear a study out of San Diego, you don't need to hear a study out of Washington, you need to hear a study out of what's going on in Texas," Leon Valley Police Chief Joseph Salvaggio said, pointing to studies cited by opponents of the cameras. "Our moderate to major injuries went down 50 percent, and I'll tell you, 'Do we still have a problem?' Yes. We had 82,000 still run red lights [in the first year of the program]. ... [The cameras] are helping us now. We had a 56 percent decrease in red light tickets in one year. They are working."

Stickland challenged Leon Valley's red light camera program specifically, taking issue with the San Antonio suburb's practice of charging those busted by red light cameras a $50 fee to appeal their tickets and another $50 fee to those who go on to lose their challenge.

"There's a financial incentive [for people] not to take a chance and just go ahead pay the fee, even if they are innocent," Stickland said.

Dallas currently has red light cameras at 44 intersections. If you, or someone driving your car, gets caught running the light at one of those intersections, you can expect a $75 citation in the mail. Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, who's railed against the city's cameras since joining the council in 2013, said earlier this month that he's exempting Stickland's bill from his usual complaints about state interference with local control.

"Officially I am against all forms of state interference and for the preservation of strong home-rule authority for cities. So, officially, boo," Kingston wrote on Facebook. "But I would point out that limited government theory calls for the use of the preemptive power of the higher level of government to protect the vulnerable and minorities from abuse by local government, and it's definitely the case that these tickets disproportionately burden low-income motorists. And of course the entire use of the cameras is a giant fraud. They do not make driving safer; they are only a revenue engine. So while, officially, boo, I might not quite remember to mention this bill when I'm making my lobbying calls."

While the Transportation Committee elected to leave the red light camera bill pending Tuesday, Stickland's effort has broad support from his legislative colleagues, with more than 100 of the House's 150 members having signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. 

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