Tuesday , February 10, 2009
By Joshua Rhett Miller
Drivers across the country, beware — a heftier fine could be coming to a dashboard near you. Faced with rising deficits and dwindling revenues, many states and local municipalities are turning to increased traffic and parking fines to fill their coffers.
In California, the cost of a "fix-it ticket" nearly tripled on Jan. 1, meaning that drivers in the Golden State can pay up to $100 for having a broken headlight — an infraction that didn't even garner a citation years ago. A bill approved by the state Legislature raised fix-it fines to $25 from $10 and hiked surcharges on regular traffic tickets by $35. Parking tickets and court costs to attend traffic school also increased, by $3 and $25 respectively.
Motorists in Pensacola, Fla., saw fines for parking in front of a fire hydrant or in a fire lane skyrocket from $10 to $100 — a 900 percent increase — after the city's Downtown Improvement Board reportedly unanimously approved the hike earlier this month. Statewide, speeding fines also increased by $10 this month, along with an increase of an additional $25 for exceeding the speed limit by 15 to 29 miles per hour.
And in the Boston suburb of Malden, Mass., Police Chief Kenneth Coye urged officers to bring in revenue for the cash-strapped suburb by writing at least one parking or traffic ticket per shift.
"We need to increase enforcement in areas that create revenue … write 'ONE TAG A DAY,'" Coye told officers in a memo obtained by the Boston Herald.
Coye said tickets are crucial to maintaining quality of life, the Herald reported. He did not return several requests for comment from FOXNews.com.
According to a study in this month's Journal of Law and Economics, local governments like Malden use traffic citations to bridge budget shortfalls. Researchers Thomas Garrett and Gary Wagner examined revenue and traffic citation data from 1990 to 2003 in 96 counties in North Carolina, and they discovered that the number of citations issued increases in years that follow a drop in revenue.
They got the idea for the study when Garrett, assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, got an exorbitant ticket for speeding in Pennsylvania.
Garrett likened traffic violations to a "hidden tax," like hotel occupancy taxes, that can easily be passed on to to out-of-state tourists.
"When times are tough, it's often harder to increase revenue through traditional means like increasing sales and property taxes," Garrett said. "And traffic tickets certainly fit that bill."
Critics complain that whereas property taxes are proportionally tied to property values, motorist fines are flat taxes that have a harder impact on lower-income drivers; the laborer going 80 mph in a 12-year-old Kia pays the same fine as the trust-fund heir going 80 in his brand-new Ferrari.
But the tickets generate needed municipal income, and that's why they're on the rise. Wagner, a professor at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, said there is a "significant correlation" between revenue and the number of citations.
"We don't know that someone's actually been told to go out and issue tickets for revenue, but if police are incentivized to step up enforcement, that naturally results in more tickets," Wagner told FOXNews.com. "More tickets were issued when revenues declined."
The study, "Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror: Local Fiscal Conditions and the Issuance of Traffic Tickets," also found no significant drop in tickets when revenues rebounded.
Wagner and Garrett said there's no reason to believe the findings don't apply elsewhere.
"The incentives aren't just in North Carolina, it could apply anywhere," Garrett said. "The results pretty much speak for themselves."
Bonnie Sesolak, development director of the National Motorists Association, said the study backs years of anecdotal evidence.
"It's been no secret that municipalities have always tried to fill their coffers from traffic citations," she said. "Once that money starts flowing in, it's really hard to cut it off."
While recognizing the need for traffic enforcement, Sesolak said the increased focus on issuing citations could spread officers thin in some areas.
"They're making lawbreakers out of people who normally aren't," she said. "Their manpower could be better spent in other areas."
And the trend could further disenfranchise low-income drivers who receive the same fine as drivers in higher salary brackets, she said.
"If they can't afford to pay their fine, they're still going to get to work to feed their families," Sesolak said. "They're going to drive regardless."
Barbara Anderson, executive director of Massachusetts' Citizens for Limited Taxation, said she found Police Chief Coye's memo "disturbing" and questioned why local police officers hadn't been issuing tickets with proper discretion all along.
"It's disturbing when you come to realize that laws many of us try to obey are not being upheld in any predictable way," Anderson said. "So then you ask, who does get picked on? What makes the decision when you're going to enforce the law?"
The American Trucking Associations, which represents more than 37,000 members, said its drivers back efforts to enforce traffic laws. "But legitimate law enforcement reasons, not revenue needs, should determine the nature and extent of those efforts," a statement from ATA read.
Meanwhile, Dennis Slocumb, vice president of the International Union of Police Associations, said he was unaware of any "concerted effort" by law enforcement officers to write more tickets during tough financial times.
"The IUPA remains opposed to any type of ticket quotas that might be considered by state or municipal employees as an effort to increase public revenue," a statement by Slocumb read.
Moving violations aside, more than a dozen states are considering giving police officers the authority to pull over motorists solely for not wearing their seatbelts. The states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — must pass a bill with the governor's approval by June 30 to be eligible for millions in federal money, the Associated Press reported.
Ohio, which is facing a projected $7.3 billion budget deficit over the next two years, would receive $26.8 million if it enacts primary seat-belt enforcement laws to match those of 26 states and the District of Columbia, according to the AP.
"If there's a time to be more cautious, our results suggest that time is now," Wagner said. "But the smart thing is, if you want to keep your money, you should always obey traffic laws."