The revenue challenge

In this day and age of ever-expanding government that desires to cater to our every whim, it takes money to grease the wheels. Unfortunately for those in the government people aren’t naturally inclined to support higher taxes or fees, so they have created more and more methods of vacuuming money out of peoples’ wallets in order to enrich themselves. One extreme case in point was the subject of a recent Institute for Justice update – it seems the small community of Pagedale, Missouri has decided that fines need to be levied for egregious offenses such as having mismatched curtains or a grill in your front yard. It’s a technique reminiscent of the notorious old “speed trap” communities like New Rome, Ohio that ended when states outlawed the practice of deriving a high percentage of a municipality’s revenues from traffic tickets.

I bring this up at the risk of giving the city of Salisbury some bright ideas when the speed cameras and rain tax bring in less revenue than predicted, but it makes a larger point: there seems to be no limit on what governmental units will consider for a “sin tax.” As one example: while those who believe in liberty gained a small victory earlier this year when Wicomico County allowed its speed camera contract to expire, the city of Salisbury isn’t giving up on its $768,000 in annual revenue that they wrest from peoples’ pockets for the simple act of exceeding the posted speed limit, even if it is set too low for the conditions or is active at a time when kids are not going to or from school. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear about Salisbury lobbying the state to expand the allowable area for these ticket producers outside their current legal restriction of school and active construction work zones.

More traditional “sin taxes” such as those on cigarettes have been a staple for years, and are often promoted for a particular purpose. Even having the states raid the coffers of the tobacco companies themselves has done little to slake their thirst – this report points out the hypocrisy of states taking tobacco settlement money but spending it on almost everything but cessation. Next in line for this treatment is marijuana – my prediction is that our kids will live to see a day where it is freely available, taxed like tobacco, and has cessation programs like tobacco does now. (The only difference is that we don’t have large-scale marijuana producers to extort settlement money from as we do tobacco companies.)

Of course, I understand that government needs money to operate, and while I may disagree about the ins and outs of particular policy decisions I understand I have to pay some taxes and fees along the way. Having said that, though, I object to the backhanded way state and local governments are trying to enrich themselves, often with no input from the public or recorded vote. (One example from Maryland: thanks to a vote from legislators two years ago, our gas tax is now indexed to inflation. It goes up without a vote; however, proposals to return it to the old system never make it out of committee.)

If government is to be properly limited, that limitation shouldn’t just be on the spending end. Excessive means of tax and fee collection as well as civil forfeitures provide more methods to confiscate the fruits of our labor for little benefit – unless you’re a well-connected crony. If you think you’re working harder and harder but have less to show for it, you may be right, but the solution isn’t going to attained easily. There are too many interested in keeping things just the way they are, so you may soon end up paying for that hole in your window screen you didn’t have time to attend to last weekend.

About that TEA Party…

My “10 from 10” post this morning regarding the 9/12 Rally back in 2009 got me to pondering where the movement has gone in the intervening years.

If you’ve been a reader around here for a long time, you may recall that I covered a significant number of TEA Party-related groups that sprung up in the local area over the next couple years. Not only did we have the TEA Parties themselves that went on in both 2009 and 2010, but also groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Wicomico Society of Patriots. They went on for a couple of years but essentially died off from a lack of interest. (On the other hand, we still have the Worcester County TEA Party and 9-12 Delaware Patriots.)

Having been involved to a limited extent with the Wicomico groups, I can tell you that some of the players who remain active have gone “establishment” to the extent they remain active in the local Republican Party. Three of those most heavily involved have served on the Central Committee – unfortunately, that’s the only election where some of the TEA Party leaders have found success. While many in the area take TEA Party values to heart, they seem to vote for the names they know.

This erosion of the brand is also reflected on a national level. I used to write quite a bit about the TEA Party Patriots and expressed hope that the TEA Party Express would bring some of its star power to the region. In the last few years, though, the national movement has suffered from infighting as well as a concerted media effort to impugn the brand. I don’t hear nearly as much from the group these days, as their function has by and large been superseded by SuperPACs that fight for specific candidates or causes.

If you consider the high point of the TEA Party as the 2010 election, where the political landscape dramatically shifted in a more conservative direction in the wake of two consecutive leftward shifts as well as the adoption of an unpopular Obamacare entitlement program, then the nadir came two years later with Barack Obama’s re-election. A conspiracy theorist could point out that the 2010 election results put the Obama campaign on high alert, meaning they pulled out all the stops to ensure re-election with a little help from a compliant media. But one could counter by noting the movement wasn’t strong enough to topple frontrunner Mitt Romney and they shot themselves in the foot by staying home on Election Day. (As it was, though, Romney did get more votes than John McCain did in 2008.)

So while you can credit TEA Party principles for winning the day in 2014, the actual movement itself seems to be receding to a low tide. Since TEA is an acronym for “taxed enough already” it’s been pointed out by the Left that taxes really aren’t that bad, at least in comparison to the rates in place for administrations from Hoover to Carter. (This is a neat little chart to see the differences.) Ronald Reagan dropped rates twice: from 70% to 50% in 1982 and eventually down to 28% with the Tax Reform Act of 1986. It had been over 50 years since the top rate was less than 50%.

But that only considers income tax. Certainly as a 100-year body of work our current rates are on the low side, but back then we didn’t have the maddening plethora of taxes and fees we do now. Some are consumption-based taxes like sales tax on goods purchased or per gallon of gasoline, while others are considered some sort of “sin” tax like additional levies on cigarettes or alcohol, a combination that Marylanders endure to a larger extent than several of their neighbors. Even speed cameras could be regarded as a sort of “sin” tax, since supposedly the only ones who pay it are the ones who are speeding well above the posted limit. (Try as they might to convince us that it’s about safety, we all know they need the Benjamins. Why else would they have to install cameras in more and more dubious “school zones”?) Nor does that consider property tax, which tends to be the preferred vehicle for raising money for the public schools. In most states where districts have taxing authority, it’s not uncommon to see a school district seek three to four additional property tax levies a decade as they strive to raise funds for buildings and operations. (Maryland is different because counties pay for their portion of school funding from their general funds, so there are no ballot issues to deal with property taxes.) To make a long story short, we still consider ourselves taxed enough already.

As far as a formal movement goes, though, for the most part we are back to where we were around 2008. There is a lot of frustration with the direction of both parties, but this time rather than a movement without a leader people are going the route of a looking for a leader for what they consider their movement – hence, political outsiders Ben Carson and Donald Trump have been ahead of the Republican field for most of this campaign. (As further proof, the other side is still believed to be behind Hillary Clinton.) Carson is cast as the Godly, principled man who would quietly and reverently lead our nation in need of healing, while Trump comes across as the brash general who would kick butt and take names, restoring America to its top of the heap status.

Conversely, those who are conservative but came up through the standard political channels have fallen out of favor this cycle. In any other cycle, we would look at governors like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, or Bobby Jindal as frontrunners – instead, all three are out of the race. In terms of political resumes, the front-runners on both sides have even less to go on than Barack Obama did, and that’s saying something.

So it’s hard to tell where the TEA Party trail runs cold. I think a number of them have coalesced behind Donald Trump despite the fact The Donald is not a movement conservative. One recent rumor is that a Trump/Cruz ticket is in the works, which would perhaps appease the true believers. Trump’s success has belied the predictions of TEA Party leaders that he will be a flash in the pan.

But it appears the days of rallies like 9/12 are behind us. Such a pity.

A surprising voice speaks out

I have been a AAA member for many years, stretching back to my time in Ohio. Sure, they send me a lot of solicitations because I’m on their mailing list and quite honestly I can’t recall ever needing their services. But they may be key allies in one fight if we can nudge them over just a little bit more…

Dear Michael:

Enough is enough!  Many of Maryland’s speed camera programs are out of control. We’ve seen motorists in stationary vehicles get speeding tickets. Some jurisdictions have created “school zones” where there are no schools to operate speed cameras solely for profit. Baltimore City’s cameras were so riddled with problems that they were shut down. We need your help to stop the abuses of these poorly run programs and to put the focus back on safety – not making money.

ACT NOW  to help us get these programs fixed in 2014 by visiting the AAA Issues Action Center and sending a letter to your local Maryland legislators.  Tell them that they need to finish the job they left undone in 2013 and that you want fixing Maryland’s automated speed camera enforcement programs to be a priority of the 2014 General Assembly!  Help us protect you and all Maryland motorists from the abuses of the revenue-focused speed camera programs.

Lawmakers will be back in Annapolis on January 8.  Now is the time to tell your representatives that speed camera legislation reform must be a priority in 2014!

Thank you for your time and for being a valued voice with AAA. (All emphasis in original.)

They are so, so close to getting it, but they just can’t pull the trigger and say what really needs to be said – “we advocate a full repeal of this misguided law which isn’t about safety, but about revenue.” The word is not “reform,” it’s “repeal.”

If safety is really the issue, we should constantly hear about accidents between pedestrian school children and motorists throughout Maryland. Truth is, though, speed is rarely a factor in these accidents. This is from the Chicago Tribune:

The most common cause of the vehicle-pedestrian accidents was listed in police reports as drivers failing to yield, accounting for 4,284 of the 16,469 crashes over the five-year period that Chicago police reported to IDOT.

Only 117 of the crashes were attributed to driving over the speed limit, police reports show.

The city earlier this month completed initial testing of controversial speed cameras near two schools and two parks. (Chicago mayor Rahm) Emanuel’s administration is counting on raising at least $20 million from tickets issued to drivers by speed cameras to help balance the 2013 budget.

Emanuel has said he wants to protect children by setting up about 1,500 “safety zones” within one-eighth of a mile of schools and parks. Twelve safety zones were created last year and 50 more are scheduled this year, CDOT said.

But the relatively small number of speed-related crashes between vehicles and pedestrians raises questions about whether the streets around schools and parks are more dangerous for children than other locations and about the potential effectiveness of the speed camera technology to make streets safer where kids are present.

Even if you assume a portion of the sloppy reporting is because investigating police aren’t tabbing the speed of the driver, it’s unlikely that speed is the leading cause of these accidents. Apparently it would be better for that purpose to have a patrol car watching for drivers who are on their cell phones or otherwise being inattentive. But that’s just too hard, and it’s obvious Chicago is looking for the money, to the tune of $20 million.

So it’s disappointing that AAA is taking such a milquetoast stance on this issue when speed camera manufacturers are spending thousands of dollars in Maryland to counter any anti-camera legislation, in order to protect their slice of the pie. Remember, a significant portion of the fine paid by drivers goes to the camera operator.

And that’s why, even well after school hours or even on days when school’s not in session and no children are anywhere in the immediate vicinity, the speed cameras continue to operate. The moment the potential revenue stream was legalized by the state was the moment we heard the “safety” gimmick as an excuse for yet another cash grab by desperate local governments. If you’re a AAA member, tell the group that reform isn’t enough – only repeal of the scamera law will do.


As you might know, one of the traditional items I do for my readers is compile the monoblogue Accountability Project, with this year’s version likely to come out next month. (I have to do some slight tweaking to the format, which may take a little more time.) But a few days back I received an item from the Maryland Campaign for Liberty regarding speed cameras, from which I excerpt:

We had no illusions that the Statists in Annapolis would seriously consider a pro-liberty proposal like getting rid of speed cameras throughout the state.

Why would we be satisfied with just accomplishing these three goals you might ask?

Because we were able to get politicians on the record.

And boy, did we get them on record.

Between now and the next legislative session we’ll be holding politicians accountable for their votes in committee.

Our job as activists is to connect the legislative season to the electoral season.

The goals they were alluding to were to have the speed camera bill introduced, get a hearing on it, and put it to a vote, which it received in committee. All three were accomplished, but to the surprise of many (including me) neither the House bill nor a Senate companion received a single committee vote – this despite the fact three of the bill’s co-sponsors (Delegates Jay Jacobs, Wayne Norman, and then-Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell) sit on that Environmental Matters Committee. Norman was excused from the vote, but O’Donnell and Jacobs voted in line to kill the bill. The same was true for Senator Nancy Jacobs, who did nothing to back the Senate version she co-sponsored, although that vote was likely a perfunctory formality because the Senate vote document notes the bill is “Dead in House.”

Still, one would think a sponsor would at least vote for his or her bill, so I wonder how that vote came about in committee.

I’ll cheerfully admit I don’t know the ins and outs of how these committees work when they sit down to vote, but I would venture to say I know more about the legislative process than 99% of Maryland residents because I study the votes. It’s sort of sad to consider that not all of the 2700 or so bills introduced in the 90 day session receive a committee vote, although Environmental Matters voted on about 85% of the bills they were assigned this year. Many of those were rejected in a similar manner.

And the Campaign for Liberty people make the same point:

Wouldn’t you think that at least a few Republicans would have voted the right way on such a no-brainer liberty bill?

Think again!

I make it my business to study bills and voting patterns, so I know that not all bills being considered in a committee are voted on in a unanimous manner. Take the three examples I’ll be using for the mAP from that same Environmental Matters Committee: HB44 failed on a 16-7 vote, HB106 (the Septic Bill repeal) failed 19-5, and HB252 (also sponsored by Delegate Smigiel) died in a 17-6 vote. I actually look for split votes, because unanimous votes generally show either broad support, a complete lack of guts, or a bill simply way too far out of the mainstream to even get a motion. HB251, in my opinion, fell into the second category.

So perhaps the Campaign for Liberty is correct in chastising those who didn’t vote to support the speed camera repeal, because there were several other votes where they were unafraid to stand in the minority. Hopefully next year their effort will gain steam, since the other side typical introduces bad bills several years in a row before legislators are cowed into approving them. Maybe the same is needed for good bills, too.

Speed camera repeals receive hearing date

You know ’em, you hate ’em. Those inaccurate revenue generators which were placed for dubious purposes of “safety,” speed cameras, will have their repeal discussed in hearings in both the Maryland Senate (February 20, 1 p.m. under Judicial Proceedings) and House of Delegates (March 5, 1 p.m. under Environmental Matters.) We’ll deal with the same committee chairs many of us dealt with Wednesday when the O’Malley gun infringement bill and repeal of last year’s septic bill were discussed, Senator Brian Frosh and Delegate Maggie McIntosh.

For all the complaints they receive regarding the ongoing political soap opera in Cecil County, it should be noted that the lead sponsors for SB785 and HB 251 are Senator E.J. Pipkin and Delegate Michael Smigiel, respectively. Other Senate co-sponsors are Richard Colburn and Nancy Jacobs, while a bipartisan group of 12 Delegates co-sponsors the House version. (It’s bipartisan due to Delegate Nathaniel Oaks of Baltimore City.)

One group happy to see these bills get to the hearing stage is the Maryland Liberty Caucus, and they’re targeting Delegate McIntosh’s district with literature to make sure the message gets across. I would imagine they will make an attempt to do the same with Senator Frosh’s district, although Montgomery County isn’t as well-known of a speed camera haven as Baltimore City is.

The part which interests me the most will be finding out who testifies at the hearings. Obviously the companies which operate the speed cameras will have representatives there since it’s their golden goose being threatened. The question to me is how much law enforcement backing these will get, because it makes their jobs easier – unless they have to clean up the accidents from people suddenly slowing down to avoid the fines. (Of course, then they write the citation for not maintaining assured clear distance.) Of course, the local jurisdictions will be testifying against the repeal bill as well because it’s a revenue stream they’d like to continue.

But if it were really about safety, there would be a physical police presence at a work site or school zone. Not only could they actually witness the speed of a car, they could also check for erratic driving and other offenses. All a speed camera does is track someone for speeding, at least in theory, even hours after school has let out or during school holidays when no children are present. (To me that’s proof it’s all about the Benjamins, or in the case of these cameras, the pair of Jacksons.)

And while I doubt the repeal would pass, the record will be clear as to who stands for the people and who stands for Big Brother. And it would be fun to watch the city crews remove all the cameras they installed – it would be something worth recording with a camera for the ages.

But you wouldn’t have to pay $40.

Odds and ends number 67

It’s very funny that I had a slowdown in newsworthy items around the holidays, so much so that I didn’t figure on doing an O&E post until perhaps mid-month. But over the last two days – bang! And here you are: bloggy snippets of goodness I felt were worth covering but not to the extent of a full post, just for a paragraph to three.

I’m going to start by promoting an event I plan on attending. Here’s what the Wicomico Society of Patriots has to say about their upcoming meeting January 15. The speaker will be Carroll County Commissioner and leading liberty advocate Richard Rothschild:

Who should attend?  Anyone who intends to continue to live and work on the Eastern Shore.  Elected officials will be in attendance.  This legislation impacts all of us, regardless of political orientation or affiliation, and all are invited to attend, listen, and question.  Two short videos will precede Commissioner Rothschild’s presentation to be followed by a question and answer session.  Mark your calendars now; you do not want to miss this meeting.  Alert your family, friends and neighbors. (Emphasis in original.)

Well, I’m alerting my neighbors and anyone else who stops by here. This will be a joint meeting of both the Worcester and Wicomico Society of Patriots, and will be held Tuesday, January 15 at 6 p.m. at Mister Paul’s Legacy Restaurant (1801 N. Salisbury Boulevard in Salisbury), a very nice facility familiar to those who follow liberty locally.

The SB236 law is perhaps the most heinous assault on property rights the state has ever produced in the name of Chesapeake Bay. In return for addressing a tiny percentage of the nitrogen problem in the Chesapeake, thousands of rural landowners could have their properties rendered worthless. So far Wicomico County has not submitted a map to the state, which in theory prevents certain subdivisions from being built at the present time.

A more damning check on progress is the national economy, but that’s a different subject. One potentially negative effect was discussed by Herman Cain in a recent commentary and it bears repeating, See if we haven’t heard this refrain in Maryland a time or two:

Democrats do not understand business very well. They don’t understand that when you pass a law that imposes new costs on businesses, those businesses will do what they can to mitigate the effects of those costs. When you make it more costly to hire people, there will not be as many people hired.

The fact that these real-world impacts are now being announced, as if no one anticipated them, is both entertaining and highly disturbing. We are being governed by people who don’t understand the impacts of their policies, people who think they can simply mandate anything and it will happen with no unintended consequences. I hope their ignorance doesn’t cost you your job.

You can say what you will about his support for the FairTax and the (unsubstantiated) allegations which derailed his run for President, but Herman Cain has common sense a-plenty about the effects of government regulation on the economy. The language of “mitigating costs” has real-world effects: cuts in hours and smaller paychecks for many millions of families whose breadwinners labor in a number of service industries, particularly food service. They may need to take a second (or third) job to make ends meet, and who knows how many out there are hiring?

And don’t dare rush from second job to third job either, at least in Maryland. A recent appeal from the Maryland Liberty PAC has these memorable lines:

Every speed camera in Maryland is an ATM machine for Martin O’Malley and his cronies in Annapolis.

Instead of cutting out wasteful spending to make ends meet like our families do, O’Malley invents new schemes to rob us of every penny we earn.

If you don’t think that’s true, consider that I personally witnessed the mobile speed cameras in operation during schools’ winter break on at least two occasions. I thought the idea was to make schools safer during the school year. (Yet they balk at allowing teachers to have guns.)

Of course, a couple years ago I told you how one local municipality was bending the rules, so those of you who read here know that speed cameras are truly a scam to fatten both county coffers and those of the operators who expect this to be a big business going forward. Rather than “reform and revisiting the speed camera law,” the Maryland Liberty PAC has the grand idea of having the speed camera law repealed. I fully support that effort.

I’m not as passionate, though, about one blogger’s call on Delegate Don Dwyer to resign now after being charged in the wake of a boating accident last summer. Certainly Dwyer has serious charges against him, but I would rather wait until his day in court has come and his fate is determined. Perhaps this was a “‘one-time occurrence’ which will not affect his performance in Annapolis.” (Oh wait, that was when Delegate Kumar Barve was arrested for DWI in 2007.)

The hypocrisy angle has been played up gleefully on the left, and if Dwyer is convicted I may change my mind. But the facts in the case seem to suggest the other boater was perhaps more at fault for the accident which left five children and Dwyer injured, so I think caution is in order.

Less cautious is the group Accuracy in Media, which released a statement that sees the acquisition of Al Gore’s little-watched Current TV by Al Jazeera as “an unacceptable danger to American citizens by further adding to the potential for home-grown Jihadists inspired by Al Jazeera’s inflammatory programming.” They also note that Time Warner Cable is dropping the channel.

While the punch line has generally involved Al Gore, the fact that he’s walking away with $100 million in what can be termed oil money has no lack of irony. And to think, he could have taken Glenn Beck’s money instead.

Yet there’s another side of the Al Jazeera issue not being mentioned:

The hearings, (Accuracy in Media head Cliff) Kincaid said, should also examine the fact that 30 public television stations around the U.S. are already airing Al Jazeera in violation of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.

Florida broadcaster Jerry Kenney uncovered this aspect of the scandal and filed an FCC complaint over it. He discovered that Al Jazeera and other foreign propaganda channels are being provided to public television stations through the MHz Networks division of the Virginia-based Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation.

This is a list of stations affiliated with the MHz Networks – notice many of them are in large cities with a significant Islamic population.

But the government’s lack of oversight doesn’t stop there. In a new study, the Center for Immigration Studies criticized the federal government for not enforcing visa laws:

Report author David North, a CIS fellow and respected immigration policy researcher, comments, “It is incredible that after the would-be Wall Street bomber, the Times Square bomber, and the two 9/11 pilots were all found to have student visas, the Department of Homeland Security makes so little effort to pursue corrupt visa mills, flight schools not authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration, and needless language schools. National security requires the enforcement of our immigration laws.”

Interesting tidbit: very little taxpayer money goes to this agency, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP.) They make most of their money on a $200 fee would-be students pay. But the SEVP apparently doesn’t care whether the student is going to an elite university or diploma mill set up to give foreign students a reason to come to the country – as long as they collect the fees it seems like they’re happy campers. Sounds like a typical governmental agency.

Another typical government move was pointed out by a group you’re going to be hearing more about in a couple weeks. The Coalition to Reduce Spending called the recent fiscal cliff agreement the product of a “can-kicking Congress.” CRS head Jonathan Bydlak also noted:

The longer Congress continues to act fiscally irresponsible, the longer the American people will have to wait for the return of a healthy and prosperous economy.

He’s precisely right on that assertion. And the reason you’ll hear more from the group: Bydlak is also the January 15 “Ten Question Tuesday” guest, and that plug is a good point to bring this post to a close.

Speed cameras – a revenue-extracting scam

Since I can’t keep my comments to five minutes and the Fruitland City Council member I’m watching right now is basically feeding us a line of bullshit, here is the REAL truth: it’s all about the Benjamins.

First of all, these cameras aren’t necessarily accurate. Secondly, they are rife for abuse as “school zones” magically expand to areas well beyond the posted zones.

But the scenarios presented seem to ignore some other realities.

To start, let’s assume the cameras are vehicle-mounted. How much cost will it be to send out a deputy to fetch the vehicle and bring it back to the home base? Someone in Fruitland has to do this, but the county will have a much larger area to cover. Meanwhile, static cameras are subject to vandalism.

Secondly, the target is certain to be a moving target. Right now it’s 12 miles per hour over, in school zones during certain time periods. But once the camel’s nose under the tent it’s certain that the usage will be expanded, the allowable overage will be reduced, and the fine will be increased – particularly when revenues fall short of expectations.

Normally I agree with Mike Lewis, but he’s wrong on this one. Hopefully the County Council resists the temptation to allow Big Brother a little larger slice of our life.

Final thoughts: Yes, our County Council was gutless and rolled over. But here’s the question that should be paramount:

If the concept of safety in school zones is so important, why aren’t deputies and officers enforcing the law there on a daily basis despite the fact the county gets nothing from those fines? Since they don’t currently make this a part of their daily routine, it seems to me that placing a camera there now, when a financial incentive is being dangled in front of them, shows the real reason they’re backing it.

Odds and ends number 27

I’m going to start out with the political but quickly swerve away. I know there’s a lot of talk about fees vs. taxes here in Maryland that I’ll cover more in depth tomorrow.

But there’s other items percolating out there.

You know my feelings on the ‘scameras’ that I expressed in the fight we had over them in Wicomico County. Oftentimes communities abuse the privilege they are given by the state, and I’m looking for Salisbury to do the same thing once they install theirs.

My blogging friend Bob McCarty documents another case of ‘scamera’ abuse regarding red-light cameras in Arizona, which got an innocent man sent to jail. As is normally the case, we have to follow the Benjamins here.

Isn’t that the usual role of government in this day and age – taking your money?

Okay, my political rant is over for the time being. Let’s look at sports.

As I write this I’m watching an Orioles spring training game. But there is another event going on which has drawn interest, and that’s the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Just for fun, several Red Maryland contributors and friends got together to hold their own bracket challenge, and it proved I’m a better baseball fan than basketball prognosticator. Out of 13 entries I’m sitting in 10th and, as is often the case when someone is to blame the Butler did it. Since I picked Florida to win it all their loss ended my chances of winning. I can finish no higher than 5th or lower than 11th.

But at least I’m ahead of a couple people, including Brian Griffiths, who created the group. (Update: I finished 10th of 13.)

Finally, as many dedicated readers know I had a weekend of local rock post yesterday and skipped Friday Night Videos on my most recent Friday. After some thought, I’ve come to a decision that I’m boxing myself in by holding political videos back until Friday; anymore they deserve the same kind of feedback and comment as press releases and news items because they’re replacing these more traditional items. If I see something worth commenting on I think the video needs to be placed up right away.

In the meantime, I’ve begun to pile up a number of good local music videos. With cellular phone and iPod technology coming to the point where the output is quite acceptable for public usage, I think there’s enough out there to make Friday Night Videos become what the original television series was – all music, all the time. Obviously this site will remain political but we’re getting to the time of year when other things like Shorebird of the Week and local bands get their share of pixels.

But I can use a little help in that regard. If you’re a local band member or supporter reading this and want a little exposure for your video, just send me a link. Ideally FNV would run about 30 minutes, which works out to 6 or 8 videos per week. I KNOW there are more than 6 or 8 talented bands around here playing more than 6 or 8 shows a week (not to mention a pretty sizeable backlog of stuff.)

So look for those changes, which may actually make my life a little easier too.

Adding to the agenda

Counting comments by members and the public and a scheduled work session, there were fifteen items on the agenda for last night’s County Council meeting. But much of the discussion from the two dozen or so members of the public who attended had to do with an item not mentioned – the prospect of an elected school board.

I’m not planning to do a blow-by-blow report on each upcoming County Council meeting as my work and personal schedules probably wouldn’t allow me to attend them all. But last night’s was an exception because I wanted to see just how amenable the new Council will be to this idea; meanwhile, another item piqued my interest for the work session.

I’ve found it intriguing just how little Council disagrees on most issues they face, even before the split went to 6-1 Republican. In fact, out of the nine resolutions which were voted on last night only one had any sort of opposition. As it turned out, the East Side Mens Club only received its property tax exemption for this fiscal year – their original proposal of forgiveness for fiscal years 2009 through 2011 was rejected because County Council President Gail Bartkovich thought it a poor precedent and most agreed – only Bob Caldwell and Stevie Prettyman objected to the deletion of the 2009 and 2010 tax abatement while Joe Holloway abstained.

Otherwise, most of the discussion centered around a contract for food services at the county jail, and that was mostly technical questions about paying for new equipment should one side or the other back out of the deal.

A new proposal which may be quite contentious is the county’s effort to exempt one- and two-family residential dwellings from new provisions in the International Building Code and International Residential Code requiring fire sprinklers. The legislation will have a hearing on February 1st, with Bartkovich stating this should be discussed at an evening meeting to promote more public input.

The fun part of the Council session came in public comments, where a series of speakers pleaded with County Council to get moving on adopting an alternative to the currently appointed school board.

Leading off the parade was local political activist Matt Trenka, who stated, “I would like to see some leadership” on the issue. It was the “obvious answer” to the lack of responsibility he perceived from our current appointed body.

Joe Collins followed up with a detailed analysis of the various methods other counties use to select their school boards – while most Maryland counties have fully elected school boards, Caroline and Harford counties employ a “hybrid” of elected and appointed members. He also pointed out an alternative similar to that Joe Ollinger unsuccessfully campaigned on, where the County Executive selects the board with the advice and consent of County Council.

Kay Gibson, another frequent commentor at County Council meetings, chimed in that she “had very little say” on the school board as currently comprised because she has little effect on the Governor’s race. She, too, favored an elected board of education.

The question was “what is best for the children of the county?” suggested local GOP Chair Dave Parker when he spoke. Why should it be up to the Central Committee to do the job of sending the applicants they prefer up to Annapolis?

G.A. Harrison echoed these other speakers and urged the County Council to consider this quickly since the 2011 General Assembly session is about to start and bills introduced late have to go through the Rules Committee.

Perhaps the most cautionary proponent of change was Marc Kilmer, who asked us to keep in mind the purpose of a school board and noted that elected school boards don’t always create positive change – some of the country’s worst schools are saddled with poorly-performing, partisan school boards.

On the other hand, there was one voice who made clear her opposition to the concept. Mary Ashanti, head of the local NAACP, fretted that certain groups and economic classes would be disenfranchised and that an elected school board “would never have the balance” of party and racial makeup to be successful. The NAACP is against the idea, she added.

Personally, I don’t care if those elected are black, white, male, female, or polka-dot – I just want the best people elected. That was part of my statement before the Council, where I also told Ashanti that “good people can disagree.”

I have my own ideas for a proposed school board, which I’m going to save for a later date. (It’ll come in handy as I anticipate perhaps a minor break in the action on this end.)

In their comments, four members of County Council spoke at least somewhat favorably toward the idea, with Joe Holloway clearly stating “I would like to see us move ahead” on this process. He asked how people would feel if the County Council itself was appointed in a similar manner, an analogy Bob Caldwell liked. Also agreeing were newly elected at-large members Bob Culver and Matt Holloway, who added that “he hadn’t seen a good argument against” the concept.

After this discussion, Council President Bartkovich promised the idea will be on the agenda. For me it’s a case of “trust but verify” and we’ll see when that happens.

The second part of the meeting was a Council work session dealing with two subjects: a presentation by the county’s auditors and a measure legally known as Legislative Bill 2010-12. That bill would be enacting legislation to bring speed cameras to county roads. As you should be aware I’ve visited this subject here on a previous occasion or two and I spent a good portion of my public comment speaking about how Fruitland abuses their privilege.

Well, the folks from RedSpeed and both Sheriff Mike Lewis and his deputy Gary Baker tag-teamed the County Council trying to convince us that “we can use 21st century technology…to protect our children” as Lewis said during the presentation.

Now, I have no doubt that having a very attractive brunette on the sales force could turn some heads in a male-dominated arena like the Sheriff’s office. (Since I was sitting diagonally behind Lewis, I couldn’t help but to notice that during the preceding auditor’s report this lady either quietly conversed with Mike on some subject or checked her Facebook page with her mobile phone. I doubt she and I will be Facebook friends after this post!)

But I think Mike was sold a little bit of a bill of goods by the RedSpeed team. If Sheriff Lewis has an issue with the state not returning any of the money collected when a ticket is written for any traffic offense, that’s a problem he should take up with the state instead of having Big Brother looking over our shoulder. As I noted back in July, this is a process ripe for abuse.

In fact, the RedSpeed team admitted that “they’re not sending anyone to court (to collect) $15, nor do they have any idea what sort of revenue we could expect. (The state mandates a fine of $40 for an offense, which means the company and county would have a $15/$25 split, respectively.) One problem they faced was that there was no applicable contract to review, as the company used Fruitland’s contract as a template for their presentation to Council. Meanwhile, no one could answer the question about the time and effort required for, say, a deputy to drive out and fetch a vehicle daily because to do otherwise could incite vandalism.

Another concern expressed by County Council was that this would be a backhanded way of funding LEOPS, as Fruitland apparently does. While Lewis protested that “what you decide to do with the money is entirely up to you,” it’s obvious that Council saw Fruitland’s example and the declining revenue they’re getting.

If RedSpeed and the county do come to an agreement, it would likely be a 2-year term with up to three automatic renewals.

And while it was alluded to that the city of Salisbury may follow Fruitland’s lead and adopt speed cameras, I have a number of objections to not just the concept but to the practice. Of course I think we should drive safely and be careful around school zones, but while Lewis cited the number of accidents which had occurred over the last decade in these areas, I had no context of whether they actually involved excessive speed – more likely the cause was inattention. That’s not solved with a speed camera, and seeing the warning sign could lead to even more accidents like those which happen at intersections with red-light cameras.

Yet my biggest fear is that, as the county or municipality begins to get used to a revenue stream from scofflaws, these amounts will start to fall short of expectations for both the local government and for RedSpeed. (Also, there will eventually be market saturation as more and more localities get the cameras.) Naturally, both entities will put pressure on the state to:

  • expand the area where speed cameras can be used from school and work zones to anywhere along a roadway;
  • increase the fine from $40 to $50 or more, and;
  • reduce the leeway speed from 12 mph over the limit to 10, 8, 6, etc. Pretty soon they’ll be nailing you for one mile per hour over – and I know from experience my speedometer varies by a couple miles per hour from posted radar sites. So it’s hard to know just how accurate the cameras would be and if they’ll be properly calibrated.

I think I know how the Council will be receiving this legislation when it comes to a vote, but I’m not going to tip my hand on which members are leaning toward approval and which ones oppose. I’ll keep my poker face on for that because, frankly, I don’t want Mike Lewis or RedSpeed to know.

I’m very disappointed that a Sheriff who is sworn to uphold the law in a nation founded on the rule of law can embrace a technology which presumes guilt rather than innocence. The system is flawed in that they can only provide a photograph of a car’s license plate and make the owner liable, even if he or she wasn’t driving. To get out of the ticket, the owner has to narc on the actual driver if he or she knows. That’s some example to set – anyone else see the Orwellian aspect here?

They’re not called “scameras” for nothing. Let’s stop Big Brother in his tracks.

The video speed trap: an investigation (part 2)

In part 1 yesterday, I detailed how the city of Fruitland came to acquire its video speed recording equipment through changes in state law and the ordinance enacted to allow the city to secure a contract with the equipment vendors.

Here is what they received:

This silver Ford Escape with Illinois tags contains the equipment. It was spotted parked in a small grove of trees along N. Division Street in Fruitland. The photo was taken by a person who wishes to remain anonymous.

In the second picture, the required warning sign is shown along with the Escape’s location that day. Hang on because that’s important.

The picture is looking south along North Division Street in Fruitland, north of the intersection with Cedar Lane - the directional sign for the roundabout is visible in the background. It appears the warning sign is well off the travel lanes. The photo taker wishes to remain anonymous.

According to the Maryland State Highway Administration’s “School Zone Automated Speed Enforcement Information” pamphlet, a school zone is designated by the SHA as follows:

SHA defines a “School Zone” as a segment of highway located within a School Area that is:

  1. Routinely used by pupils for access to or egress from school buildings or grounds,
  2. Established by official action, and
  3. Designated by appropriate signs.

I emphasized “and” because that’s the important factor.

Yesterday I did a little bit of field investigation regarding the two schools in Fruitland, Fruitland Intermediate on West Main Street and Fruitland Primary on North Division Street. The posted school zones are as follows:

Fruitland Intermediate: along West Main Street from a point just west of the intersection with Business U.S. Route 13 to the corner of Moore Street.

Fruitland Primary: along North Division Street from a crosswalk just north of Anderson Street to the corner of Elizabeth Street.

In both cases, there are signs which denote the speed limits as “photo enforced.”

However, the location of this speed camera was well outside the posted school zone!

I’m sure Fruitland may argue that this stretch of road falls within the 1/2 mile radius allowed for school zone enforcement, and being that Fruitland Primary is just down the street they would be correct. However, the SHA guide notes:

The Maryland Annotated Code (TR § 21-803.1) allows School Zones to be established within a one-half mile radius of any school. However, this does not mean that all roads within a one-half mile radius of a school are considered School Zones. The SHA, or the local authority having jurisdiction over the road, must officially establish a School Zone and designate it with the appropriate signs before it becomes a School Zone.

School zones should not be established solely for the purpose of installing speed cameras. Similarly, all school zones do not automatically qualify for speed cameras. Speed camera deployments should be based on a traffic safety study. (Emphasis in original.)

My photo source informed me that, not only were the pictures taken outside the school zone but during a period when the kids are out of school! There’s no question that school safety was less of a factor in this case than fund generation.

The only “out” is whether this was an active work zone for construction at the time, since the ordinance as written was for a “speed monitoring system in each school zone and work zone.” Perhaps a test case is in order, depending on where one of the nearly 100 scofflaws was photographed and at what time. The local law clearly states that these cameras are only for school zones and work zones and the road appears to be fully open, without any orange construction barrels or other signage associated with a construction zone.

But this also points out the importance of monitoring local government. A group like Americans for Prosperity would normally be all over this item, but it slipped through the cracks. Certainly I made the case to Wicomico County officials that I was dead-set against the speed camera idea after SB277 passed last year, but the city of Fruitland obviously didn’t get a similar message.

There is one other remedy, though, and that is through the ballot box. Last week the city of Fruitland began soliciting candidates for its municipal elections this October. As it so happens, three of those who voted in favor of adopting speed cameras will be on the ballot, and it certainly gives pro-freedom candidates a chance to win office.

The filing deadline is September 6th, so if you don’t appreciate the City Council pulling one over on the motorists in Fruitland in the effort to squeeze a little extra revenue out of them, here is your opportunity to make a change. The election occurs October 4, 2010.

The video speed trap: an investigation (part 1)

According to a published report, the city of Fruitland has lightened the wallets of unsuspecting area drivers to the tune of nearly $4,000 by using speed cameras in school zones – even when school isn’t in session.

Late last year, a bill passed in the 2009 General Assembly session allowed local counties and municipalities to begin collecting revenue from people speeding through school zones. If you’re caught doing 12 m.p.h. or more over the posted speed limit, you get a citation in the mail which costs you $40. Sure, you can fight this in court, but unlike in criminal cases you’re presumed guilty until you can prove either the plates were stolen or someone else was driving the car – in that case, the fine accrues to them. The phrase in the law, “(a)djudication of liability shall be based on a preponderance of evidence” is one best known for civil court.

The measure itself has an interesting history – it lost in third reading 23-24 but was resurrected by a rare motion to reconsider the third reading by Senator Ulysses Currie (D – Prince George’s). Four Senators (all Democrats) changed their votes to pass the bill 27-20 – local Senators Colburn and Stoltzfus voted no. Subsequently, the House passed the bill 94-41, with local Delegates Cane, Conway, Elmore, and Mathias voting yes while Eckardt and Haddaway properly voted against adoption.

With the prospect of an October change in the law, some jurisdictions chomped at the bit thinking about this “free” revenue stream. The city of Fruitland was no different, convening a special meeting September 15, 2009 as a demonstration of the camera equipment. (Note that Councilmen Carey, Lokey, and Ortiz were “extremely interested.”)

Needless to say on November 10, 2009, after a brief public hearing, all four Fruitland council members voted in favor of adopting the ordinance allowing speed cameras in school zones. In February, the contract with RedSpeed and Brekford Corporation to operate them was finalized and operation began March 23rd. Noted their release:

The State of Maryland’s significant expansion and implementation of speed control systems throughout the state is estimated to generate $65.3 million in new photo ticket revenues by 2014 and an estimated $9.8 million opportunity for private sector companies servicing the public safety landscape. (Emphasis mine.)

RedSpeed bills itself as, “a leading provider of turnkey traffic enforcement solutions,” while Brekford specializes in “upfitting” law enforcement vehicles. In this case, a garden-variety Ford Escape SUV has the camera equipment installed within. I’ll have more on the vehicle in part 2.

Unfortunately, it appears we’re stuck with these cameras for the time being, and they may be spreading across county lines because Princess Anne is considering them for school zones in their community. An initial effort to bring the law to referendum last year fell short of the required number of signatures and died. With majority Democrats in charge of the General Assembly (and that estimated $65.3 million at stake) it’s doubtful any other rollback can be done on the state level. One website devotes itself to the abuses of speed cameras in Maryland, with each offense being more proof that communities are in it for the Benjamins.

Of course, some may ask why it’s such a big deal – if you don’t want a ticket then don’t speed.

The problem with this approach of fundraising is similar to that of “sin” taxes. Revenue rarely meets expectations, so having this camel’s nose under the tent is going to lead to expanded use of speed and red-light cameras in the name of safety. And while this purportedly frees up police officers to combat other crime, in truth they’ll mostly be running a different manner of traffic enforcement.

In part 2 I’ll describe the situation on the ground in Fruitland and possibility for abuse.