Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Session Ends Without Passing Camera Reform

Lawmakers argued until late into the night over the wording of speed camera reform bills, but the session ended without coming to a final a vote.

Bills sponsored by Senator Brochin and Malone were discussed in both Houses.  Brochin's original bill had been severely curtailed in the Senate, removing a requirement that citation images allow for the verification of recorded speeds.  The house committee had essentially replaced Brochin's language with new wording which would also have grandfathered in all existing "bounty system" contracts.  The bills did also contained some positive new provisions, including requiring the assignment of an "ombudsman" by speed camera programs to handle complaints, as well as some additional rules regarding signage and warning periods for cameras, and a clarification that "school zone" speed cameras were to be placed only around K-12 schools (as opposed to colleges or adult education centers).

A committee had been assigned including Senators Brochin and Malone to hammer out the differences between the two houses, agreeing to only grandfather in contracts in place as of April 9, 2013 (rather than October when the bill would have gone into effect) and clarifying that extensions could not be added.   Both the House and Senate had already rejected language which would have addressed the issue of accuracy by requiring secondary evidence or speed (which had been part of Brochin's bill had before being amended by the Senate), or requiring hardware to be testing to a nationally accepted standard.  As such the bill did not truly address the accuracy issues which prompted the calls for reform legislation in the first place.  The bill's proponents claimed it would have committed to ending the "bounty system", however it did so in a way that would have left dozens of existing contingent fee contracts in place which might have gone on for years to come.

Current law contains a provision stating:
"If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid."

The language of the legislation as it was approved by the House would have amended this to :
"If a contractor IN ANY MANNER operates a speed monitoring system OR ADMINISTERS OR PROCESSES CITATIONS GENERATED BY A SPEED MONITORING SYSTEM on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent ON A PER–TICKET BASIS on the number of citations issued or paid." (emphasis added)
This change would have closed a loophole exploited by many local governments which was allowed contractors to be paid per ticket so long as the word "operate" was not used to describe what the contractor did (though language to grandfather in existing arrangements was also included in the bill.  However the addition of the words "on a per-ticket basis" apparently would likely have been treated as an "and".  The Maryland Drivers Alliance had noted that this might have legalized other types of contingent fee arrangements which were based on the number of tickets but not strictly stated as "per ticket", such as payments for each batch of 100 tickets or a percentage of monthly fines collected (both of which are essentially still paying on ticket volume but not specifically a fixed amount per ticket).  The "on a per-ticket basis" clause was not in the current law or the original language of Brochin's bill, and its unknown whether that was the intent of the authors of the house bill language.  Both Delegate Malone and Senator Brochin replied that this was being looked at, but it is unclear whether anything in the compromise amendment considered in the final hours would have addressed this potential new loophole.

Ultimately a filibuster led by senator Pipkin, who believed the bill was too weak and who had supported repeal legislation, prevented the bill from reaching the senate floor.

Meanwhile, Governor O'Malley is preparing to sign a highly controversial gas tax increase into law which he and the leadership of the general assembly had no trouble getting through the legislature with ten days to spare.

See additional coverage:On the Baltimore Sun
TheNewsPaper.com (includes an accounting of recent campaign contributions by photo enforcement companies)