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Legislators want to boost fines to help budget

TALLAHASSEE — Caught running a red light? You'll pay $208.

Speeding 25 mph over the limit? Get ready to cough up $258.

And if you pay a fine late? Tack on $16.

Florida legislators have vowed in their special budget-cutting session not to impose new taxes on working people. But they are relying more than ever on lawbreaking motorists to make ends meet.

Desperate for cash, lawmakers will impose a new charge of $10 on all traffic infractions ranging from driving with an expired tag to running a stop sign. The state also is eliminating an 18 percent discount available to scofflaws who go to traffic school and taking away the right of judges to waive fines, regardless of whether the judge makes a finding of guilt. Little by little, it adds up to a lot.

The new money, $63-million next year, includes a redirection of court filing fees from the state treasury to the courts. The money is eagerly sought by judges, prosecutors and public defenders and will be directed to the state court system to help stave off employee layoffs.

Supporters say the higher fees help a financially strapped branch of government and may deter dangerous driving, too.

"There's an epidemic of red-light runners and excessive speeding," says Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who manages state spending on justice programs, noting that the fines have not been raised in years. "The time has come to ask, 'How do we crack down on that?' "

But the higher fees have stoked a debate over whether cash-strapped motorists can afford the higher fees, and whether the punishment fits the crime.

Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, predicted police officers will issue warnings rather than slap wayward motorists with fines they can't afford.

"We'll probably collect less money," Baker said. "An officer looks at a person and says, 'I don't want to write this person a $300 ticket.' I've heard that from individual officers. They make a judgment call."

In some areas, fines and fees will be even higher because counties and cities have the option of imposing additional charges.

Under state law, drivers who don't pay fines for noncriminal traffic violations face suspension of their license. A new law allows motorists to perform community service in lieu of payment. But some legislators predict the higher fines will largely go uncollected.

"People can't pay that," said Sen. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat.

Electra Bustle, executive director of the agency that oversees the Florida Highway Patrol, agreed that at some point, the state will reach a "tipping point" where the fines are too high, but "there might be more warnings than citations."

But she said that hasn't happened yet. And she cited cases such as the one a few days ago in Sebring, in which a 6-month-old baby was killed and four others seriously injured when a motorist ran a red light on U.S. 27 in Highlands County.

Sen. Crist said the higher traffic fines serve an important purpose: to insulate the court system from budget cuts in hard economic times, when the demands on civil and criminal justice typically increase. Not only are lawmakers creating a new pool of money, but they are creating three new budget accounts, known as trust funds, to ensure that money from fines is steered to the court system.

"Are the fines too high now? I don't think so," said Circuit Judge Belvin Perry in Orlando, who chairs a statewide Trial Court Budget Commission. "You're trying to do the best you can to fund the third branch of government. In times of crisis, you come up with the best solutions you can."

Aside from traffic fines, both chambers generally agree on the size of the cut in total state spending: $989-million in the House, which passed its plan Thursday, and $967-million in the Senate, which votes today.

Some differences remain and the two chambers will iron them out over the weekend. The key ones:

• The state Transportation Trust Fund. The House takes $200-million from the fund. The Senate takes nothing.

• The Budget Stabilization Fund. The House plan takes $600-million, leaving just $72-million in this savings account of last resort. The Senate plan would take just $200-million.

• The Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund. The Senate calls for a $700-million transfer from the fund, which has just $1.1-billion left in it to fund services for children and seniors.

The House plan would take $400-million from the Chiles fund, but could take $600-million more to reimburse the budget stabilization fund. Both chambers seek to transfer the Chiles money in June and would reimburse the fund with federal bailout money expected from Congress.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

It'll cost you

Hoping to raise $63-million more to run the state's court system, the Legislature has proposed new traffic fines:

Old fineNew fine
Running red light$198$208
Speeding (6-9 mph)$98$108
Speeding (10-14 mph)$173$183
Speeding (20-29 mph)$223$258
Other moving violation$133$143

Source: Florida Senate

Legislators want to boost fines to help budget 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 5:31pm]
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