12/20/2013Texas County Commissioners Vote For Illegal Speed Cameras
Denton County, Texas prepares to ignore state ban and allow a private company to install speed cameras.
Five years ago, the Texas state legislature cracked down on the cities of Rhome and Marble Falls when they allowed a for-profit company to issue speed camera tickets without the authority of the legislature. Before the programs could get off the ground, lawmakers acted and Governor Rick Perry (R) signed a law banning photo radar in the state. On Tuesday, Denton County Commissioners voted 3 to 1 to move forward on a speed camera program regardless of the law.
"A municipality may not implement or operate an automated traffic control system with respect to a highway under its jurisdiction," Transportation Code Section 542.2035 states. "The attorney general shall enforce this subsection."
Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) has already staked out a campaign platform highly skeptical of the use of red light cameras. He proposes to allow voters to decide whether such programs would continue by referendum. American Traffic Solutions (ATS) insists it has the right to issue photo radar tickets worth $150 each, beginning in school zones because the law prohibits "a municipality" not counties from having speed cameras.
"Texas law addresses speed cameras and prevents their use in cities, but not in counties," ATS wrote.
To bolster the sales pitch, ATS hired former state Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Phillips to reassure local government officials that the speed camera program is legal. Phillips is now a partner and lobbyist for Baker Botts. Local officials were most concerned about how much money could be generated.
"Let me ask you this," Commissioner Ron Marchant asked. "Since it is a civil (fine), the fine itself and any administrative fees do not go back into the coffers of the state of Texas -- they stay and remain in Denton County. Is that correct?"
ATS has recently begun a campaign to encourage counties to sign up for speed cameras while the state legislature is out of session. So far, no other county in the state has gone along with the plan.
"I don't want to be the canary in the coal mine," Commissioner Hugh Coleman said. "For us to rely on a legal contrivance -- to me, it makes me want to act with trepidation."
Others saw it as an opportunity to open a door to widespread speed camera use throughout the state.
"I have no reluctance at all of being the canary," Marchant said. "I recommend that if we do have some interest that we put some kind of ad hoc committee together to see the feasibility of it, to see exactly what the financial ramifications are... This basically cuts the state out of getting a piece of the pie."
The commissioners court voted to create a study committee that would report back for action on the proposed photo ticketing proposal.