The Complicated Politics of Red Light Cameras

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland's ejection from a House Transportation Committee hearing aside, activists devoted to purging Texas of red light cameras say they aren't thrilled with the bills under consideration this session.

 Ben Schumin

A group of Republican lawmakers has been trying for 10 years to unplug every red light camera in Texas. Yet some of the activists most focused on banning them aren't thrilled with the proposals on the table this session.

The complicated politics of red light cameras are likely to draw more attention as the Texas House launches an investigation into possible tampering with witness registrations related to a House Transportation Committee hearing Thursday night.

Red light camera bills were on the agenda when state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, ordered state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, out of the hearing after accusing Stickland of registering witnesses who were not in Austin as supporters of the Bedford Republican's House Bill 142 to ban the cameras. The committee didn’t hold a hearing on Stickland’s bill, but ultimately held one on a similar measure, House Bill 1131 from state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston.

A day after the hearing, the video was not posted online, a departure from long-standing Capitol practice. Those familiar with the House registration system said that between Elkins’ and Stickland’s bills, more than 50 people had registered in favor of measures to get rid of the cameras, used in many cities to capture photos of red-light runners so they can be fined.

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Such support was nowhere to be found two weeks earlier, when the Senate Transportation Committee was hearing Senate Bill 714, a red light camera ban from state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, similar to those proposed in the House. At that hearing, no one testified in favor of Hall’s bill. Twelve people testified against it, most representatives of various local police departments who argued that the cameras reduce car accidents.

Byron Schirmbeck, state coordinator with the Texas Campaign for Liberty and a long-time red light camera critic, was among several activists who testified “on” the bill to express support for banning red light cameras in general but not Hall’s proposal specifically.

“I think it’s a good start,” Schirmbeck told the committee. “I don’t think it goes far enough.”

Schirmbeck and other activists argue that cities employ red light cameras largely as moneymakers, and they raise civil liberty concerns about the collection of the images and videos. Schirmbeck said his concern with Hall’s bill focused on its so-called grandfather clause that would allow cities with existing red light camera contracts to continue those arrangements until the contracts expire. Both Stickland’s and Elkins’ bills in the House have similar clauses.

Activists fear that if Gov. Greg Abbott signs a red light camera ban that includes a grandfather clause, many Texas cities would hurriedly extend their contracts before the bill becomes law, ensuring that their red light camera systems could continue operating for decades. Some Texas cities did just that in 2009, when the Legislature appeared poised to pass a ban on the cameras.

“In the guise of a so-called ban, I don’t know how these guys are going to explain it to their constituents that years from now people will still be getting red light camera tickets,” Schirmbeck said in a phone interview Friday. “The last thing we want to do is have people testify for a bill that would make things worse.”

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Both Hall and Elkins argue activists are being unrealistic.

“We cannot pass a law that retroactively forces any entity to eliminate a contract that exists,” Hall said.

Elkins agreed: “What they want is unconstitutional.”

Stickland did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday.

While the Senate committee hearing was dominated by those opposed to Hall’s bill, it still managed to pass out of the Senate on a vote of 23-7.

In the House, both Elkins’ and Stickland’s bills were scheduled for transportation committee hearings Thursday. The committee convened at 8 a.m. but met less than two hours before House members had to go to the floor. The committee didn’t convene again until that evening.

Such an erratic schedule is typical for a committee hearing in the middle of the legislative session. Often, people who register as witnesses at the beginning of the hearing have left by the time the committee actually brings up the relevant bill.

Elkins said his staff was confused by the witness registration statistics they saw on the bills during the day.

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“My chief of staff called me on the floor, said ‘Gary something doesn’t seem right. There’s only 16 registered for your bill and 53 registered for Stickland’s bill and it’s basically the same bill,’” Elkins said. Oddly, both bills were drawing the same registrations against them, 33.

“I didn’t think anything about it until the events happened last night at the hearing,” Elkins said.

After Pickett had Stickland ejected from the hearing, Elkins’ bill drew only one person who testified in favor of it, Elkins said. That person had talked to him about the bill earlier.

“I have no idea who the other people were who registered to testify for the bill,” Elkins said. “I didn’t know how they heard about the bill or anything.”

About a dozen people testified against the bill. Pickett left it pending and did not say when he might put it up for a vote.

After the hearing, Pickett said he told state Rep. John Kuempel, the Seguin Republican who chairs the House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics, that he had concerns about the “integrity” of the entire hearing. Kuempel said he was launching an investigation.

“No individual member is targeted by the investigation at this time,” Kuempel said Friday. “The committee’s goal is to ensure that witness information provided to members and to the public is accurate and reliable.”

A list of the witnesses who registered for Thursday’s committee hearing was not made publicly available Friday. Neither was the video of the hearing, with House officials citing the investigation.

Elkins said he is hopeful that his bill can still move forward.

“I am going to be aggressively working the committee next week to see if I can get the votes and then it will be up to Chairman Pickett to see if he will allow the vote,” Elkins said. “I do hope we get to debate that issue on the house floor.”

Yet Schirmbeck said activists remain wary of where things stand now.

“As far as us, the anti-camera activists, if we don’t get a real ban bill out of the legislature this session, we’re just going back to the work we have been doing and taking them out one city at a time,” he said.