AUSTIN — Texas House members green-lighted legislation Tuesday night that would require cities to phase out the use of red light cameras to issue traffic tickets over the next few years.
Republican Rep. Jonathan Stickland won preliminary House approval of his bill by a 108-35 vote. The House could give the bill final approval as soon as Wednesday and send it to the Senate for debate, where senators could take up Sen. Bob Hall’s companion measure, approved by a committee, that bans such devices as of this September.
The cameras are used to take photos of drivers who run red lights, who are then fined $75 per violation. Legislators have tried for years to ban them, and Gov. Greg Abbott in September encouraged them to do so because he said they’re expensive and could contribute to drivers being rear-ended.
Stickland’s measure had already earned the backing of more than 100 of the House’s 150 members before Tuesday’s vote.
In his four terms as a House member representing Bedford, Stickland had previously not passed a bill he filed as the primary author. He’s mostly been known most as a bomb thrower, a small-government libertarian infamous for killing others’ bills.
But traffic systems like this have proven unpopular in many cities, where locally elected officials in a handful of municipalities have already banned the continued usage of red light cameras.
Stickland initially told colleagues they were about to end what he considers an unconstitutional practice in that recipients of the tickets lack the right to confront their accusers.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment — seven years,” Stickland said. “But the people of Texas have been waiting a longer time.”
The bill would prohibit cities from operating “a photographic traffic signal system” or issuing civil or criminal fines based on a “recorded image,” and repeal state laws that allow for these systems.
The state will lose $22 million to $28 million in revenue supporting trauma services through August 2021, depending on when the change takes effect. But Rep. John Zerwas, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said any loss would be covered by separate adjustments in state traffic fines and other driving-related fees.
Cities accustomed to receiving half of the revenue from violations also would be hit, the bill’s fiscal note states. In the 12 months through August 2018, for instance, Irving collected more than $993,000 in revenue after covering program expenses. Plano and Garland netted $2.4 million and $513,000, respectively, the note says.
In proposing an amendment to the bill, Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, warned that Texas cities are at risk of losing more than $70 million in revenue unless existing contracts with security companies are allowed to continue until they expire. Members voted in favor of amendments to preserve contracts that are in place as of Tuesday, though Stickland warned that doing so would ensure that no red-light cameras get shut down any time soon.
Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, urged members to vote against Stickland’s bill, saying that lives have been saved thanks to cities installing the camera systems. Stickland countered that the systems drive up rear-end collisions due to drivers suddenly braking.
Outlawing red-light cameras is popular with voters, who loathe the fines that turn up in the mail, and among mostly Republican lawmakers who say the cameras are unconstitutional. The Texas Supreme Court is mulling this question and could issue a ruling by June.
Other states have banned or restricted the use of red-light or speed-enforcement cameras, while some prohibit such enforcement measures on state highways but allow them on local roads. A handful of Texas cities, including Arlington and Richardson, have quit using the devices, or, like DeSoto, decided against installing them.
Others say the cameras improve public safety. At a March Senate committee hearing, city or police officials from Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso and other communities opposed the measure from Hall, R-Edgewood.
Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman said this year that the cameras improve the city’s walkability and drive down deadly accidents. Claiming they don’t further public safety, Kleinman said, “is like being a climate denier.”