Kansas City officials held high hopes that red-light cameras standing watch over intersections around the city could start issuing tickets again this summer.
They just wanted the green light from Missouri lawmakers.
But as time runs short on the 2014 legislative session, opposition to red-light cameras digs in.
Chances of passing a bill before the legislature adjourns Friday look slimmer by the hour.
“I just don’t know if there is enough time to get the bill done,” said Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a northeast Missouri Republican who sponsored the bill. “There’s just not much time left, and I don’t know if we could get past a filibuster.”
In the end, a fix sought by Kansas City and other municipalities appears doomed by lawmakers unsettled by the way the cameras can track the comings and goings of citizens. In an ironic twist, the legislative inaction might tempt those cities to monitor cars, and their drivers, ever more closely.
The measure passed the House earlier this year. The Missouri Senate took up legislation Monday that would provide the legal framework for red-light cameras to operate around the state. Yet lawmakers say the bill is stalled.
Court rulings have nixed programs around the state where camera-generated tickets didn’t assign points to a driver’s record. The proposed law change would have granted a special exemption for points-free moving violations for red-light camera cases.
Kansas City, which didn’t assign points, suspended enforcement of its program in November 2013. But while the city no longer issues citations, the cameras remain on and flash when someone runs a red light.
The legislation would grant special exemption for points-free moving violations for red-light camera cases. It also establishes requirements that cities would have to meet before they could install cameras and mandates cities to launch public awareness campaigns at least 60 days before issuing citations.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, said he’d much rather simply ban red-light cameras outright. But that position is a nonstarter.
“I would support a ban on red-light cameras if a ban vote would come to a vote,” he said. “But I do not believe that there is the will on behalf of the Republican leadership … to advance a ban. So you have to start dealing with political realities.”
Holsman spoke in support of establishing regulations of red-light cameras out of concern that inaction will lead to a proliferation around the state. He speculated that some cities might experiment with facial-recognition software.
“If this bill dies, which it looks like it might, then cities are going to be left to their own devices,” he said.
Higher-powered cameras could conceivably not just catch the license plate of a car running a red light but also offer the resolution to identify the driver. In that scenario, they could prove a source of court-OK’d tickets that come with points on a driver’s record.
“The consequences of doing nothing could be greater than taking the regulations that we have,” Holsman said. “We don’t want to have a camera on every single intersection in every single municipality in the state. We don’t want our government to be all-knowing and all-seeing.”
Without the state stepping in and establishing rules to govern red-light cameras, “this summer the cities that have put their red-light cameras on hold will start assessing points,” Munzlinger said. “I just think that’s wrong.”
Assigning points and taking photos of drivers’ faces are exactly what Kansas City will have to do to restart its red-light cameras if the legislature takes no action, said City Manager Troy Schulte in a letter to Mayor Sly James and the City Council in late March.
Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he would prefer not to go down that path.
“It would be a shame to be in a situation that would require points to be issued for red-light camera violations, since the current $100 fines have been so effective in changing driver behavior,” Sharp said.
Red-light cameras aren’t popular, Sharp said, but they work.
“They’ve significantly reduced injury accidents,” he said. “They’ve significantly reduced fatalities. They’ve proven they change behavior and made our streets safer.”
The cameras have also netted Kansas City — after it pays the vendor who installs and operates the cameras — about $600,000 a year.
Sen. Brad Lager, a Savannah Republican, counts himself among red-light cameras’ biggest critics. But he believes if the legislature isn’t willing to pass an outright ban, it should do nothing.
Red-light cameras are “less about safety. They’re more about revenue generation for the cities,” Lager said.
Refusing to put red-light cameras into state law would create legal uncertainties for cities contemplating installing them, Lager said. That would cause most cities, he believes, to pass on red-light cameras.
“This is about creating a Big Brother state, and in my opinion, that’s horrible,” Lager said during Senate debate. “Stopping these things is just defending liberty and freedom.”
Sharp said he is still holding out hope that lawmakers will give Kansas City the chance to restart its red-light camera program.
“This is a situation where the General Assembly has a responsibility to act.”