Saturday, February 12, 2005

TX House Committee to debate red light cameras

Harris County state Rep. Gary Elkins' HB. 259, which would revoke cities' authority to issue civil citations to drivers for running red lights using cameras, will be debated in the Texas House Urban Affairs Committee on Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. I'll be there, all gussied up in my Sunday-go-to-meeting-clothes, to testify on behalf of ACLU of Texas.

The cities of Garland and Houston voted to pursue red light cameras last year despite an overwhelming vote in 2003 by the Texas' House of Representatives to disallow their use. After the idea died in the Texas House by a margin of 103-34, Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, inserted language into another, unrelated bill allowing "civil fines" for red-light violations (traffic violations are Class C criminal violations in Texas), without informing her colleagues of its true import. That made a lot of people angry, not the least of whom is Jim Keffer, the sponsor of the legislation she amended. Even though he supported red light cameras last time, he is now a joint author of Elkins' bill.

Like a lot of important issues regarding security and justice, whether cities should give tickets for red light running based on cameras isn't really a partisan issue. Here's an initial handicapping for Tuesday's vote: on its face it looks tight. Of the seven committee members, Chairman Talton, R-Pasadena, and Rep. Rodriguez, D-Austin, opposed red light cameras in 2003, while Houston reps Kevin Bailey (D) and Martha Wong (R) supported them. Democratic Rep. Jose Menendez was absent for last session's vote, but he is virulently against the bill, he says curtly, because the San Antonio police chief wants the cameras, and SA has a lot of traffic accidents.

That leaves two freshmen as swing votes: Houston Democrat Alma Allen, and Nacogdoches Republican Roy Blake, Jr.. Rep. Allen beat Ron Wilson in the Democratic primary last year; Wilson who opposed red light cameras. Blake's predecessor, Wayne Christian, who left his seat to run for Congress, also opposed them. If camera supporters can hold onto their base and pick off one of these freshmen, Elkins' bill may be in trouble. Certainly the vendors' lobbyists are out in force.

But hold on, there's another big wildcard at play here: Elkins, Keffer, and many others see Harper-Brown's amendment in 2003 as a sneaky approach that subverted the obvious and overwhelming will of the Texas House. It's quite possible that even Bailey and Wong, who supported cameras last session, might be convinced that they should allow the full House an opportunity to correct the institutional offense, regardless of their own position on the matter. Indeed, the bill has built early momentum precisely because so many members in the House took umbrage at being deceived. Elkins' co-sponsor list is impressive.
Many think that the institutional integrity concerns about pre-empting the will of 103 House members will be given a lot of weight. In that case, speculating (quite) optimistically, such an appeal to their better angels could result in a near-unanimous, 6-1 vote for HB 259, though as is common practice, the bill will likely be left pending at least a week after the public hearing.

If HB 259 has problems in committee, Rep. Carl Issett, R-Lubbock, has filed another bill, HB 665, which has been referred to the House Transportation Committee but not yet set for hearing. That bill outright bans red light cameras, whereas Elkins' bill just deletes Harper-Brown's permissive language. So the anti-camera crowd will get another shot at the brass ring in a different committee no matter what, plus Elkins and Co. can easily amend the provision to legislation passing through the House floor.

That all makes me hopeful that, at the end of the day, the Urban Affairs Committee won't stand in the legislation's way. Given its history, the issue deserves to be debated again by all 150 House members.

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