State, local governments zero in on drivers to close budget gaps 

California has 30 million-plus motor vehicles and 24 million-plus licensed drivers. And like it or not, auto travel is fundamental to life as we Californians know it.

That is why motorists are captive cash cows. Politicians know we must drive to live and therefore assume that no matter how hard they hit us, we will pay up.

As state and local governments struggle to close budget deficits, they are hitting motorists ever harder with taxes, fees and fines, adding billions to the cost of using the public roadways. To wit:

Cities and some counties, responding to the oily promises of fast-talking salesmen for private collection firms, are allowing the companies to install and operate red-light cameras on the shaky premise that they improve traffic safety.

In fact, all but a tiny percentage of red-light-camera tickets involve rolling turns that do not present a serious danger to others.

As the cameras have multiplied, motorists have been fighting back and often find judges are sympathetic to their being hit with heavy fines, based on some out-of-state, private company employee’s snap decision.

Cities have found the cameras are not generating the big bucks the salesmen promised.

Charging motorists involved in crashes — or their insurers — for the services of fire departments is another scheme by private collection firms again promising cities and fire districts big money in return.

Sacramento is the latest city to fall for it, and like many others will charge only motorists who do not live in the city — taxation without representation, and a slap in the face of commuters and visitors.

The collection firms’ promises to vacuum up crash taxes from insurers, and not motorists, compound the wrongheadedness — as if additional insurance payouts will not be reflected in premiums down the line.

The state, meanwhile, has jacked up auto registration fees by $1.4 billion a year to cover budget deficits, and if Gov. Jerry Brown has his way, the higher fees, due to expire in June, will be extended for five years.

And the state has steadily increased traffic fines to stratospheric levels — nearly $1,000 for parking in a handicapped space, for example. A $5 billion statewide courthouse expansion project is being financed by boosts in fines, including parking tickets and other fees.

None of these hits on motorists pays for relieving the nation’s worst traffic congestion or fixing the nation’s second-roughest roadways.

But some legislators want to hit us even harder — for example, with a new bill that would boost traffic fines by $3 for spinal injury research or another that would allow local voters to raise car registration fees to ease local government budgets.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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Dan Walters

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