Red-light camera bill may be put on hold

ATLANTA - Legislation that would force Georgia cities to share with the state fines from motorists caught by red-light cameras probably will have to wait until next year.

A Senate committee shelved the bill this week, virtually dooming its chances to get through the General Assembly before lawmakers wrap up the 2007 session. The legislature is expected to adjourn on Friday.

The House passed a compromise bill last month that supporters held out as a way to save red-light cameras while satisfying opponents who argued that cities were using them as cash cows.

The original version of the measure would have abolished the cameras.

Instead, the compromise would allow local governments to keep only what it costs them to run the program, plus 25 percent. The rest of the fine money would go to the state.

"It's like a 25 percent return on your money," said Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, chairman of the House Motor Vehicles Committee, who helped steer the bill through the House. "I thought this was a fair compromise."

But Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, said it would be unfair to force cities willing to invest the money to install and maintain red-light cameras to give most of the fine revenue to the state.

"The state hasn't put a nickel into those cameras and was going to take 75 percent of it," said Douglas, whose motion in the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to table the bill carried unanimously.

The bill's supporters said the state would put the fine money to good use. Under the House bill, the state's share of the revenue would help fund a planned statewide trauma care network.

"Any county that has a trauma care center, like Gwinnett, certainly would have benefited from it," Rice said.

But Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, noted that the bill contained no legal requirement that the state's cut of the fine revenue go to trauma care, only language stating that was the intended purpose of the funds.

"Those monies would go to the general fund," she said. "(But) the money the cities get they can reinvest in more public safety equipment."

If the bill is not revived in the final two days of this year's session, there would be no changes to existing red-light camera programs in communities across the state.

But Rice said failure to act on the compromise measure would mean red-light cameras could be threatened again next year.

Some lawmakers, notably House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, remain concerned that some local governments see red-light cameras more as an income stream than a safety measure.

"This was a big thing with the speaker," Rice said. "You can bet it will come up again."