The union for state troopers came out publicly against the controversial red-light camera enforcement bill Wednesday – on the same day that a leading backer of the bill acknowledged that he’s “running out of time” line in his so-far unsuccessful effort to line up enough support to bring it to a vote in the state House of Representatives.
Andrew Matthews, president of the union that represents 1,027 state police troopers, sergeants and master sergeants, said, “Our concern has always been: Are we replacing law enforcement with cameras? There’s always the question of whether a mechanical device is reliable – I know there are studies on both sides. Our position is that a police officer, using discretion, is a key element to provide in public safety. … Each side has their views; One could argue that by putting red light cameras intersections, people will know the cameras are there and they’ll slow down … but also, one could argue that it’s about generating revenue” for cities and towns collecting fines for violations.
Proponents insist the bill is “not about the money,” but about traffic safety and saving lives.
Matthews’ statement, in an interview at the State Capitol Wednesday afternoon, aligned the troopers with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Connecticut NAACP against the bill. The measure has been cut back by proponents, in a final effort to salvage it – as its support has waned despite lobbying by the red-light camera industry and vocal backing from several big cities’ mayors and lawmakers, as well as citizen safety advocates.
Bills to allow red-light camera enforcement in Connecticut have failed every year they have been introduced in the Connecticut legislature – but this legislative session, officials and citizens from New Haven and a few other cities pushed harder than ever before, and they found a public ally in Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. However, criticism and skepticism about camera enforcement have failed to dissipate.
And so, on Wednesday night, state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said that after two days of counting votes in favor of a new, scaled-back version of the red light bill, he wasn’t where Democratic House leaders said he needed be.
“I am not up to the full amount necessary to call the bill at this point,” Lemar said in an interview in the second-floor lobby outside the hall of the House. “Today was a key day to try and get to the number that we needed to call the bill” for a debate and a vote in the House. “We’re running out of time,” he said.
Lemar had said Monday that Wednesday would be his make-or-break day, but when it arrived he held back from pronouncing the bill dead. “It’s alive – nothing’s dead until the end of the session – but it’s struggling to find the necessary support to get it called [for a vote] in the House right now.”
Lemar said he needs to line up 90 votes in the 151-member House – where 76 votes are a majority – before leaders would consider bringing it out for what would likely be many hours of debate with an uncertain result.
The 90-vote goal would allow for lawmakers who might not be present for the debate, or whose support might be “soft” and vulnerable to switches during the House debate, Lemar said. Without lining up that many votes to begin with, the risk is that the debate might waste most of one of the few days remaining until legislative adjournment next Wednesday, May 9. Many other bills might not get acted on because of that. “We’re not going to be able to sacrifice good bills” for the sake of debating the red–light enforcement bill, he said.
“We’ve tried to address so many concerns that people have raised over the last number of years. I think we came up with an amendment that did all of that,” Lemar said, referring to the scaled-back version of the bill that cuts from 19 down to seven the number of cities and towns that could decide to use the cameras . “Yet there are still people who have serious problems with the use of this technology.”
Even if he is able to convince House leaders that he has 90 votes for the bill, Lemar said it still “would take a long time” for the debate and vote to play out. “I’ve heard form numerous colleagues that they planned on filibustering this for as long as they possibly could – people with real concerns who planned on spending four, five, six hours debating merits of the program. I know good bills might die in that process. I know it’d be a really tight vote at the end of the day. And, ultimately, I have a couple of days to figure out whether it’s worth doing or not.”
Although the bill has not surfaced in official proceedings lately, it has been the subject of some intense discussions in Capitol hallways and on cellphones by lobbyists on both sides of the issue.
Mayor John DeStefano of New Haven, the city whose officials have advocated the hardest to use the traffic enforcement cameras, stood outside the hall of the House early Wednesday night, talking with a few legislators and others, in an unusual nighttime Capitol appearance. He said he’d had the night free and came up to talk to his local lawmakers. He said he was not on a lobbying mission for the camera bill. “That wasn’t specifically why I came up here. I just thought I’d talk to everybody, touch base.”
Asked about Matthews’ statement earlier in the day that the troopers were against the camera bill, DeStefano said, “I stand at street corners in New Haven and just see cars barrel through red lights, and I’ve had people killed in New Haven, and I just don’t have enough cops. We have more urgent things to do. This would be a great tool.”
He added: “Frankly, the idea that we have the resources to do this [with police personnel] is just not accurate. And, you know, I’m not saying everybody in the state should do it. … In New Haven, it’s not just me – it’s lot of the community that thinks it’s pretty important. And we don’t want to do it at every intersection. … So many states do do it, … why not make the city safer for pedestrians and other motorists?”
As part of the final effort to salvage the bill, the Connecticut Livable Streets Campaign, led by officials and citizens in New Haven, issued a press release Wednesday night, as follows: “We have been advocating for the use of red light safety cameras to make Connecticut’s busy intersections safer for nearly 10 years,” said Connecticut Livable Streets Campaign steering committee member Kirsten Bechtel, MD. “The amendment language that has been offered represents a reasonable compromise. One that addresses civil liberty concerns, gives car owners several affirmative defenses against receiving tickets, and limits vendors to flat fee contracts. This is a good bill and it’s time to finally pass this important legislation so that Connecticut’s cities and towns have the option to use this proven life saving technology.”
The scaled-back, amended version of the camera bill includes a few other changes besides reducing the number of municipalities that could participate down to seven.
It also would give the state commissioner of transportation the power to evaluate the proposals of municipalities that seek to use the cameras, to be sure that they comply with the rules set up in the bill. The bill does not name the towns and cities eligible to apply to set up local camera-enforcement programs – but, based on population guidelines in the bill, legislators who have been involved in planning the bill behind the scenes say that the seven probably would be: New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford, Hamden, East Hartford, Manchester and Norwalk.
Norwalk was not among the cities whose officials had pushed visibly at the Capitol – in letters, and at press conferences – for permission to use the cameras.
But Norwalk was, in effect, written into the amended version that was unveiled on Monday night, after a month or so of behind-the-scenes discussions. The amended version of the bill says cities and towns in three population categories could participate: three with populations over 120,000 (which legislators say would be Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven); three with populations from 47,000 to 60,000, (which lawmakers say would be East Hartford, Manchester and Hamden, based on discussions so far); and, “not more than one municipality with a population of more than eighty thousand but less than eighty-six thousand,” as worded in the new bill.
Norwalk’s population, according to the latest census, is listed as 85,603.
Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia said in a telephone interview Wednesday that he had received a phone call several weeks ago from House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, a fellow Norwalk Republican, asking him about the bill and whether it could be of use to the city. “He asked my opinion,” Moccia recalled, and he said that he told Cafero that “my opinion is I think they are necessary to help us” to help quell a problem of speeders and distracted drivers.
Cafero is a partner in the law firm of Brown Rudnick, which has a lobbying subsidiary that represents clients in the nation’s capital and in several states, including Connecticut. Cafero has said he has no financial interest in the lobbying subsidiary and nothing to do with its operations, and that it does not influence his decisions. This year, the Brown Rudnick government relations division is one of three lobbying firms in Connecticut representing Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions, one of the red-light camera vendors pushing the bill.
American Traffic Solutions so far this year has spent $39,513 in its 2012 lobbying effort. Two other camera vendors have spent another $37,667 between them so far this year for lobbying in Connecticut.
One of the camera bill’s recent problems was criticism by the Connecticut NAACP, which said concentrating the municipally-run enforcement cameras in big cities, as the bill proposes, would unfairly target poor people and members of racial minorities. The ACLU has said the bill encroaches on citizens’ privacy and due process of law.
Fines under the bill would be $50 per violation plus a $15 administrative fee.