LEGISLATURE MAKING CITY TRAFFIC FINES UNAFFORDABLE AND UNCOLLECTABLE
The League issued the following press release on April 12:
AUSTIN – The Texas Legislature is considering bills to raise the amount the state adds to every municipal traffic ticket by $25, to a total of $107.
The State of Texas currently adds $82 to every traffic fine collected by cities, which amounted to $235 million in 2010. S.B. 726 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), scheduled for consideration in the Texas Senate today, would add $10 to municipal traffic fines. In the House, H.B. 258 by Rep. Naomi Gonzalez (D-El Paso), which would add another $15 to each ticket has been approved by the Ways and Means Committee.
“This is a deceptive way for legislators to pay for expanding state government. Legislators are turning police officers into tax collectors because they are afraid to vote for a tax increase,” said Texas Municipal League Executive Director Bennett Sandlin.
Since 2002, the state tax on every municipal traffic violation has more than doubled, rising from $40 to $82. Regardless of the amount a city is able to collect on a traffic violation, the state gets $82 before the city gets any fine money.
“In a state with about 15 million licensed drivers, there are more than six million traffic tickets issued each year. The state is making minor traffic infractions unaffordable for many drivers and uncollectable for cities,” Sandlin said.
The Legislative Budget Board estimates that if S.B. 726 passes, only 65 percent of traffic fines will be paid. Some cities have seen collection rates drop below 50-percent as states fees have soared.
“When someone gets a $250 ticket for not signaling a turn, it isn’t about crime and punishment; it’s about taxation without accountability. Legislators don’t want people to know they are raising taxes so they make cities collect it for them,” Sandlin said. “It’s time for legislators to draw the line on these out of control fees and oppose any further increases in this state money grab.”
One of the legislators mentioned in the above release was highly displeased with it, and he issued a “counter” press release. The legislator claimed to respond to “the misleading statements” made by the Texas Municipal League:
In a statement released by TML yesterday, the organization stated that if signed into law, S.B. 726 will add a $10 fee to every traffic fine collected by cities. In fact, the fee only applies to those convicted of a traffic violation, which are generally classified as Class C level misdemeanor offenses. Pedestrian and parking violations will be exempt.
The revenue, which is expected to generate about $77.5 million for the 2012-2013 biennium, will be used for indigent defense, which is constitutionally mandated as a part of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001, as well as for legal aid services.
For TML to disregard the needs of veterans, victims of domestic abuse, and senior citizens is inexcusable…The Judicial Access and Improvement Account isn't paying for some new program or an expansion of government as they convey, it is providing much needed revenue for indigent defense, which is required by the constitution.
Nothing in the League’s press release appeared misleading. In fact, League staff strives to ensure that anything we print is accurate. Much of the League’s effort is spent opposing legislation that would be detrimental to cities, and that makes some legislators unhappy. But the membership has, pursuant to a comprehensive legislative policy development process, directed League staff to do just that.
The allegation that the League is disregarding the needs of veterans, victims of domestic abuse, and senior citizens, is disingenuous and patently false. As a matter of fact, we wholeheartedly believe that the Senator is doing a noble job of protecting those groups, and that there are many other worthy programs in need of funding. The issue is: how to pay for them?
Many city officials contend that state court costs adversely impact municipal courts in two ways. First, the state’s court costs are complicated to administer. While cities can keep a small percentage of the costs as an administrative fee, that amount is probably not sufficient to reimburse the cities for the bookkeeping and administrative problems connected with this function. More importantly, when setting an appropriate fine for an offense, a judge must consider the fact that the defendant will also be paying state court costs. As a result, municipal fine revenue is often much lower than it would otherwise be, because the judge has considered the state court costs when setting a defendant’s total fine.
The bottom line is that cities can’t raise court fines fast enough to satisfy the state’s ever-growing appetite for revenue, while simultaneously maintaining the amount retained by cities.
(Editor’s note: Just before this edition went to print, S.B. 726 made it to the Senate floor with the bare minimum of necessary votes. Word is getting out, and city officials who are opposed to new court fees should notify their representative.)