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Panel puts brakes on red-light bill

ATLANTA - Legislative supporters of red-light cameras won a narrow victory Wednesday when a House committee defeated a bill that would have cut in half the fines imposed on motorists caught in the act.

The House Transportation Committee voted 12-11 against reducing the penalty from $70 to $35 per offense, a change the bill's backers were pushing as a way to discourage local governments from using the fines as a revenue stream.

Before the vote, Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, held out an alternative bill already approved by the Motor Vehicles Committee as a better way to achieve that goal.

The second measure would keep the fine at $70. Cities and counties would get 25 percent of the revenue beyond their costs to install and operate the cameras.

The other 75 percent would go to a proposed state fund being established to improve trauma care in Georgia.

"It's a much more comprehensive approach to managing red-light cameras,'' said Rice, who chairs the Motor Vehicles panel. "In my estimation, this bill will kill red-light cameras.''

Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, sponsor of the bill reducing the fine, said officials in some cities have installed red-light cameras more as a moneymaker than to improve safety on their streets.

In an extreme example, he cited Marietta, which takes in $2.2 million a year from cameras at just two intersections.

"If we're improving public safety, we shouldn't be looking at the revenue stream,'' he said.

Loudermilk and several members of the Transportation Committee also raised concerns that red-light cameras represent an intrusion into privacy rights by the government, something conservative lawmakers should oppose.

"This is sort of a gut-check bill,'' said Rep. Mark Hatfield, R-Waycross. "Are we going to continue taxing people who are in the unfortunate position of being caught on camera, or are we not going to allow our government to be used that way?''

But House Majority Whip Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, said essentially imposing a tax on a lawbreaking motorist does not conflict with conservative philosophy.

"When you know you're going to run a red light and get a ticket, it's kind of a voluntary tax,'' he said.

Rice acknowledged that local governments use fines from red-light cameras to boost their revenues. But he said they're primarily intended to make the streets safer.

"Accident rates go down ... particularly accidents where there's high injury,'' he said.

Rice also suggested that lowering the fine would encourage drivers to run red lights, something they already do with alarming frequency.

"If you lived in my section of Gwinnett County, you would understand that people run these lights simply to get an edge on traffic,'' he said.

The bill that passed Rice's committee still awaits action by the House Rules Committee before it can reach the floor for a vote.

It picked up a huge boost recently when Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, appeared before the panel to endorse it.

Richardson was particularly enthusiastic about steering most of the fine money toward trauma care.

"I think it's a great concept,'' he said.