TALLAHASSEE — The legislative debate Friday about red light cameras pitted public safety against an Orwellian nightmare.
But in the end, Florida is poised to expand the use of the controversial monitoring devices for one reason: money.
The legislation won approval in the House and is expected to pass the Senate next week. It lets localities install cameras at intersections and charges a $158 civil fine to motorists who run a red light.
With a $3.2 billion deficit, lawmakers made sure the state would get a good chunk of the money.
State budget writers are already crafting plans to spend the first year's $39 million and expect another $122 million next year.
"This is nothing more than a revenue grab on the citizens that we represent," said state Rep. Rob Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican, who led the opposition in debate.
The sponsor, Speaker Pro Tem Ron Reagan, named his legislation after Mark Wandall, who died in a wreck caused by a red light runner. The Bradenton Republican labeled the issue a public safety matter, even though research is inconclusive as to whether it reduces wrecks and saves lives.
For the past five years, the issue failed to make it this far. But the questionable legality of the cameras pushed it to the forefront.
A Miami-Dade judge in February declared Aventura's red light cameras illegal, leaving the status of similar efforts in 50 other Florida localities in doubt.
The 77-33 vote — with unilateral Democratic support — also helped end an internal squabble among House Republican lawmakers who were divided about the philosophical implications.
Schenck, who sponsored a competing bill that banned local red light cameras, prodded his fellow conservatives to vote against the legislation if they believe in "less government and more freedom."
"If you vote for this today, you'll never ever be able to say that phrase again," he said. "This is the biggest intrusion of government into our lives."
Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Tampa Republican, disagreed. "This bill saves lives by creating a 24/7 sentinel to watch our intersections," he said. "They help change bad behavior without the expenditure of limited law enforcement resources."
St. Petersburg and Oldsmar have agreed to install them. Kenneth City, South Pasadena, Temple Terrace, Hillsborough County, Port Richey and Brooksville already have them.
The measure makes it a civil infraction that wouldn't put points on driving records and doesn't factor into auto insurance rates, much in the same fashion as a parking ticket.
It also prohibits cameras from issuing tickets for rolling right turns at red lights if done in a "careful and prudent manner" — thus incidentally condoning illegal behavior.
For those caught by a police officer, running a red light remains a moving violation, and the legislation increases the fine from the current $125 to $158.
The fine doesn't include additional court costs of up to $98.
On city and county roads, the state gets $70 and the local government gets $75, with another $10 going to trauma centers.
The fine increased in a late amendment to give an additional $3 per ticket to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.
Tickets from cameras on state roads send the state $100 and gives localities $45, with the medical distributions remaining the same.