State House takes ‘first step’ toward shuttering red-light cameras — well, some of them
The bill’s sponsor said it’s time to red-light the cameras, given their role in the federal investigation rocking Illinois politics and the toll the devices take on drivers. Not surprisingly, suburban leaders who would lose their cameras if the bill becomes law are not happy.
SPRINGFIELD — State legislators tapped the brakes on red-light cameras on Wednesday, but the limited step toward elimination already has some suburban mayors seeing red.
The Illinois House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban a sliver of the hated traffic enforcement devices, applying to a fraction of the towns and villages that now use them.
The bill, which passed the House 84-4 and now goes to the state Senate, does not apply to Chicago or the other 216 home-rule municipalities across the state. It would eliminate just 15% of the 607 red-light cameras currently raising the ire of motorists and the revenue of scores of towns, according to a report by the conservative Illinois Policy Institute.
Not surprisingly, suburban leaders who would lose their cameras if the bill becomes law are not happy.
Krzysztof Wasowicz, mayor of southwest suburban Justice, called the lawmakers who passed the bill “a bunch of idiots” who are unfairly punishing non-home rule municipalities such as his.
“The program could be administered better, things could be tweaked, things could be worked out differently,” Wasowicz said. “So why do you want to throw the baby out with the bathwater?”
But the bill’s sponsor said it’s time to red-light the cameras, given their role in the federal investigation rocking Illinois politics and the toll the devices take on drivers.
“I think this is being used, from a revenue source, to hurt low-income people,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, the bill’s sponsor.
But North Riverside Village President Hubert Hermanek Jr. said the cameras are a key revenue generator for his village, helping to fund police and fire pensions.
Hermanek said without the cameras, the village may have to raise taxes or cut its budget.
“We don’t want to lay off people and cut services because of some rash decision by the House, Hermanek said.
Hermanek urged reforming the red-light camera program instead of ending it. He suggested that dividing up the revenues from the tickets with the state receiving a portion might make the cameras less lucrative for companies.
Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler said the cameras are about safety and prevent traffic accidents at dangerous intersections in his village.
“I think anybody who voted for this is more concerned about pandering to voters than the safety of residents,” Weppler said.
The federal investigation has given a renewed push to the drive to ban red-light cameras. In January, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, admitting in court that he accepted bribes from a person prosecutors described as having an interest in a red-light camera company.
Federal investigators have been asking some suburban officials about SafeSpeed, a politically connected red-light camera company that has boasted it’s a “proud partner of over 30 Illinois municipalities,” the Sun-Times has reported.
The firm’s co-CEO Nikki Zollar has denied the company enlisted payoffs or did anything wrong, and nobody from the business has been charged with a crime.
But while the bill to eliminate the cameras cleared its first hurdle Wednesday with overwhelming support from the House, some lawmakers criticized it for not going far enough.
Because it does not include home-rule towns — those that are allowed greater control over their governmental affairs either by size or by local referendum — it exempts Chicago and a number of the municipalities that were linked to the federal investigation.
State Rep. Grant Wehrli, R-Naperville, who voted in favor of the bill, said it was a “piecemeal” approach, and the state needed to move to ban red-light cameras everywhere.
“We all know the corruption that surrounds red-light cameras, so why not wait on this bill and actually run a bill that will ban them in their entirety,” Wehrli said.
McSweeney said he would prefer the state ban red-light cameras everywhere, but he called what the House passed Wednesday a “first step” towards a statewide ban.
A separate bill to ban the cameras has been introduced in the state Senate.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, has 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.
“It’s clear that the red-light camera program has been sustained and expanded by corruption,” Hunter said earlier this month. “Traffic laws should be driven by safety, not bribery, shakedowns or the need to boost revenue.”