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Red-light cameras: A tax we can live with?

I've had a rethink about red-light cameras.

It's not that I no longer believe they hit us with a sneaky, undeclared tax.

No, that is just what they do. That's why I'm warming up to them.

Because if there's no other reason to admire our state lawmakers, you have to admit they can sniff out revenue like truffle pigs.

Not only that, they manage to spend all of the money they find — trust funds, federal stimulus bucks — while avoiding the charge that they raise taxes.

So, county commissioners in an election year should take note: Red-light cameras are genius.

You raise revenue, but disguise your intentions by playing up themes that most tax-hating voters are suckers for — personal responsibility (only lawbreakers pay), increased law enforcement presence and public safety, even though experts disagree whether cameras really prevent serious accidents. (As someone whose household has received two tickets from the city of Brooksville, and drives more carefully because of it, I tend think they do.)

Lawmakers passed a bill that protects the legally dubious practice of fining the owners of cars without proof that they were driving.

It standardizes the fine at $158 and mollifies a potentially large bloc of voters — those nabbed for slowly rolling through a right turn on red — by condoning the practice, even though it is forbidden elsewhere in state law.

And, naturally, the state claimed a big chunk of the revenue, $70 for most tickets. Local officials should be able to offset this loss, said Brooksville police Chief George Turner, because the state had previously resisted allowing cameras on their highways, and now — surprise, surprise — is all for it.

No doubt, it's kind of a scam. On this point I agree, maybe for the first time ever, with Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who blasted the bill in the Legislature.

And it's a scam that takes us one step closer to police rule.

But it's a scam that the county, like Brooksville before it, needs to get in on because with the new state law, it seems likely that cameras will become as widely accepted as toll booths on turnpikes. And Hernando is already going down the police state route, or at least the not-much-else-besides-police route.

County budget director George Zoettlein has sent out his preliminary ideas for dealing with a projected $8.3 million shortfall in the coming year's budget. Basically, programs that join people together in constructive activity and potentially keep kids out of trouble are due to get nailed; everything that clamps down on the kids after they do get in trouble gets off relatively easy.

All of the constitutional officers, including the clerk of court and the sheriff — whose department now consumes $32 million a year — will be asked to cut $2.2 million.

Libraries, as well as parks and recreation, which each have budgets roughly one-tenth the size of the Sheriff's Office, will lose $1 million each. We're likely to lose THE Bus and all of the federal money that comes with it. The Little Rock Cannery — which I still think is worth funding, darn it — is toast.

How did we get into this mess? Because property values collapsed, of course, but also because of the tax-cutting fever spread by people like the local Republicans' demagogue-in-chief, Blaise Ingoglia.

Look, the county's property tax rate has dropped nearly 30 percent since 2000. The homestead exemption has climbed from $25,000 per year to $50,000 — and $100,000 for low-income seniors — in a county where the average home is appraised for tax purposes at $131,000. The total amount of county property taxes we pay has fallen from $66.4 million in 2007 to an estimated $46 million for the coming budget year.

So when someone says red-light cameras are just another tax, I say: I know, isn't it great?

Red-light cameras: A tax we can live with? 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 9:59am]
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