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Tuesday, Dec 18, 2018
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Heavy lobbying killed red-light camera bill

— An attempt to get rid of the cameras that catch red-light runners at Florida intersections died in the Legislature this year, as do most of the bills filed for the annual spring session.

And this particular measure died, in typical fashion for Tallahassee, after the company that provides most of the cameras in the state got involved.

Killing the cameras would have meant a major financial hit to the company and the cities and counties that use them: Across Florida, half of all money collected is paid to vendors who supply and maintain the systems, according to a state report.

State and local governments share the rest of the money. And from 2011 to 2013, red-light camera revenue from fines more than tripled statewide from $37.6 million to almost $119 million.

Nonetheless, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, held a joint news conference in early February with state Rep. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican, declaring war on the cameras. Brandes has long wanted to outlaw them, calling red-light fines a “backdoor tax increase.”

But shortly afterward, emails obtained through a public records request show Artiles was lobbied by red-light camera company American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz.

One email from its Tallahassee-based lobbyist said, “we need some changes,” including revisions that were personally vetted by the company's CEO. Those changes would preserve the cameras while making minor changes in how they're used.

Artiles told the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau he was trying to get the company to at least agree to some modifications in the way the cameras work.

But he gave up after realizing the Senate, despite Brandes' lead, had no appetite to tackle any changes, let alone a repeal.

In the end, no changes were made. And once again, Brandes was thwarted in his continuing effort to repeal the red-light camera program, passed by state lawmakers in 2010.

The death of this year's red-light camera legislation is one example of how public policy emerges — or doesn't — out of the 60-day “sausage making” process that is the state's annual legislative session.

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American Traffic Solutions, which provides cameras to 62 Florida cities and counties, has given $500 each to 15 sitting senators, according to online campaign finance records.

The company also ponied up at least $42,000 to political committees affiliated with current state senators, though none of them serve on that chamber's Transportation committee.

Brandes agreed he didn't have the votes, even on the Transportation committee he chairs. He couldn't get that panel to approve any of his own minor changes to red-light cameras.

Artiles said he worked relentlessly on the other side of the Capitol toward getting some sort of camera-related legislation out of the Legislature this session.

“A red-light camera repeal didn't pass not because a lobbyist told me what to do or not to do,” Artiles said.

“We can do whatever we want in the House, but if we don't have a dance card over there, nothing happens.”

The Florida League of Cities also lobbied against a repeal. Artiles shared a recent notice from the city of Hollywood.

It says the city “opposes any legislation that would threaten revenue streams, including elimination of red light camera programs.”

“This should be about safety, not about revenue,” Artiles said.

Brandes said he was aware that the company had reached out to Artiles.

“ATS wanted a long-term deal; in other words, 'We'll agree to a few changes but we don't want to fight this battle every year,'” he said. “I had no interest in that. I wanted a full repeal. You don't negotiate with vendors like that.”

Brandes added that he will “absolutely” press for a repeal next year.

Neither Artiles nor Brandes has received campaign contributions from American Traffic Solutions, records show.

The company has given a total of $292,000 to state-office candidates and political committees for the 2014 election, including $140,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $55,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

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After a public records request from Tribune/Scripps, the Florida House of Representatives released nearly 200 emails to and from Artiles' office in February and March.

On Feb. 27, five days before the start of the annual legislative session, American Traffic Solutions' lobbyist Ron LaFace Jr. wrote an email addressed to Artiles' personal email account.

By that point, it had been almost three weeks since Artiles and Brandes held their joint news conference on the fourth floor of the Capitol.

LaFace's email was forwarded to the personal Gmail account of Artiles' assistant, who later forwarded it to her official MyFloridaHouse.gov address, according to the message headers.

“Attached is our initial mark-up,” wrote LaFace, a partner at Capital City Consulting in Tallahassee, regarding a transportation bill that the camera language would be added to.

“The CEO is still reviewing some provisions so this is about 90% there, but I wanted to get this to you now so that you could look over where we need some changes.

“Let me know if you would like me to walk through the changes with you tomorrow or Monday,” LaFace added.

The company's draft contained no repeal language but instead suggested tweaks to the program, a document attached to the email shows.

One was posting signs at red-light camera intersections notifying drivers they were “photo-enforced.” Another was forbidding tickets where the driver stopped before turning right but didn't stop before the white line on the ground.

On March 11, LaFace again wrote to Artiles' personal email address, saying a subsequent draft of the bill “doesn't have the items listed in the document you brought last evening, is there another amendment version with those incorporated or do you want us to add the ones we can do?”

On March 17, regarding yet another rewrite, LaFace wrote that “this draft should incorporate all changes from your last version, our changes, and all the changes agreeable in the one pager you sent.”

There's no record of Artiles' responses, if any, but the 79-page transportation bill (HB 7005) eventually passed by the Legislature contains no mention of the red-light cameras. That measure awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

And by session's end, Brandes' original repeal bill (SB 144) had died in his committee.

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LaFace referred questions to Charles Territo, American Traffic Solutions' spokesman.

Territo also sent Artiles a series of email blasts called “Florida Red-Light Safety Camera Facts,” including one that said the state's law enforcement departments use camera footage “nearly 200 times each month” to investigate other crimes, such as hit-and-runs.

The Legislature approved the use of cameras statewide in 2010 to crack down on red-light runners and decrease collisions.

Violators must pay a $158 fine but don't get any points on their licenses.

Supporters say the cameras save lives and allow police to focus on serious crime.

Critics say the cameras are a way to shake down residents for more money through fines.

The cameras do make money for local governments. In 2012-13, St. Petersburg reported taking in $1.4 million in fines from its red-light cameras and Hillsborough County collected $1.3 million.

Overall revenue from red-light violations was at nearly $119 million for 2012-13, according to state records. Of that, $52 million went to the state treasury, nearly $10 million was deposited into state trust funds, and cities and counties kept $56 million.

American Traffic Solutions provides cameras to Pinellas County, except in Clearwater, where they're from RedFlex. Both companies are based in the Phoenix area.

Collier County no longer operates red-light cameras, having ended its contract with American Traffic Solutions last year.

Ten states currently prohibit “automated enforcement” such as red-light cameras or photo radar, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Tampa City Council last month voted to keep its red-light cameras at city intersections for another two years.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn committed to put a quarter of all fine money collected into road improvements.

Tampa's red light camera provider? Again, American Traffic S

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