Will lawmakers finally put the brakes on red-light cameras?

While state lawmakers have tried to ban the red-light cameras before, previous attempts have failed. Now in the wake of the corruption scandal, Hunter believes she may have the votes to get her bill through this time around.

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A red-light camera on the corner of Belmont Ave.and Lake Shore Drive in 2017. File photo.

A red-light camera on the corner of Belmont Avenue and Lake Shore Drive in 2017.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD — Now that red-light cameras have gone from a bit part to major plotline in the sweeping federal investigations rocking Illinois politics, some legislators are hoping to write their final chapter.

“It’s clear that the red-light camera program has been sustained and expanded by corruption,” state Sen. Mattie Hunter said in a statement. “Traffic laws should be driven by safety, not bribery, shakedowns or the need to boost revenue.”

The Chicago Democrat has proposed a bill that would prohibit red-light cameras — a source of money for many local governments but a source of headaches for many motorists.

Hunter’s is one of two competing bills seeking to scrap the cameras.

While state lawmakers have tried to ban the red-light cameras before, previous attempts have failed.

Now in the wake of the corruption scandal, Hunter believes she may have the votes to get her bill through this time around.

State Sen. Mattie Hunter speakers during a 2013 hearing held by the House Human Services Subcommittee.

State Sen. Mattie Hunter during a 2013 hearing held by the House Human Services Subcommittee. File Photo.

M. Spencer Green/AP file

Just last week, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval pleaded guilty to corruption charges and admitted in court that he accepted bribes from a person prosecutors described as having an interest in a red-light camera company.

And that could help put Hunter’s bill in the fast lane.

“Eliminating the program is not going to strike at the heart of why we have corruption in Illinois, but there certainly is dissatisfaction in general with the idea of having red-light cameras,” said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. “And so I suspect it’s going to get more traction than the last time these bills were introduced.”

Red-light cameras have been a bane of many motorists in Illinois since cities and towns began implementing them.They were originally touted as a public safety tool.

But critics of the program contend that red-light cameras act more as a revenue generator for local governments.

The politically-connected Chicago red-light camera firm at the center of the Sandoval scandal —- SafeSpeed, LLC —has boasted on its website that it’s a “proud partner of over 30 Illinois municipalities.”

A spokesman for SafeSpeed said the Legislature should reform the red-light camera program, not end it.

“The legislature’s response to the news of Martin Sandoval’s corruption should not be to terminate red-light camera programs, which have been proven to save lives and increase public safety,” said Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for SafeSpeed. “Instead, SafeSpeed fully supports legislation that would reform the industry and ensure the highest levels of ethics by officials and businesses.”

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval leaving federal court Jan. 28, 2020, after pleading guilty to bribery and tax charges.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval leaving federal court after pleading guilty to bribery and tax charges. File photo.

Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times file

SafeSpeed has identified Omar Maani as the person who bribed Sandoval, but has since terminated Maani’s ownership interests in the company, alleging he acted on his own without the company’s approval.

“Mr. Maani’s alleged criminal activity was done without the Company’s authority; his alleged criminal actions violate every trust the Company placed in him, and contradict and undercut the company’s important work with local municipalities to promote traffic safety and save lives,” the company said in a statement.

If legislators do ban the cameras, cities and towns across Illinois could find themselves scrambling for replacement revenue.

“If you can’t use this program to try and make an extra buck, you know, then you will find another program,” Redfield said.

Hunter said her bill would preempt home-rule, meaning red-light cameras in municipalities such as Chicago would also be banned. While preemption of the state’s home-rule municipalities usually requires a three-fifths vote in the General Assembly, Hunter insists her bill would only need a simple majority in order to pass.

Since the red-light cameras were created by state statute, regulating them only requires a simple majority, a source said.

“Exactly how much pressure the mayor is going to put on folks from Chicago, I don’t know,” Hunter said.

A spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not respond to a request to comment.

Hunter’s bill would provide some exemptions for the cameras.

Hunter said she did not receive push back when she brought up the idea for the bill to the Democratic Senate leadership, but Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, won’t take a side yet.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need a full review of the red-light camera program in Illinois,” Harmon said in a statement. “I plan to talk to my colleagues to see how to best address this issue.”

Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, is leading an effort to pass a similar bill in the House, saying it will now be difficult for legislators to vote against his bill.

“Anybody who votes against this bill is going to have to explain themselves on the issue of SafeSpeed and Sandoval and corruption,” McSweeney said.

Rep. David McSweeney R-Barrington Hills, speaks to reporters at the State Capitol in 2018. File photo.

Rep. David McSweeney R-Barrington Hills, speaks to reporters at the State Capitol in 2018. File photo.

John O’Connor/AP

Unlike Hunter’s bill, McSweeney’s would exempt some home-rule municipalities such as Chicago from the red-light camera ban. McSweeney said he would prefer to not exempt any municipalities, but said he thinks he has to in order to get his bill passed.

On Wednesday, McSweeney’s bill was unanimously passed out of committee.But the Barrington Hills Republican has been down this road before.

In 2015, McSweeney sponsored a similar bill, and the House passed it. In the Senate, the bill was referred to the Transportation Committee and then the Assignments Committee, where it eventually died without a vote on the Senate floor.

At the time the chair of the Transportation Committee was Sandoval.

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