Gazette Editorial Board
City leaders in Iowa who have tied their budgets to cash-raising schemes fashioned by the ill-advised uses of automated cameras reportedly are now pressuring state legislators to change Iowa law to conform to these ill-fated practices.
Legislators should resist the pressure and protect Iowa motor vehicle owners from what are, in essence, unevenly applied new forms of personal property taxes disguised as public-safety measures.
The public policy debate stems from expanded local uses of digital cameras that read license plate numbers off the (mostly rear) bumpers of vehicles. New software, supplied to cities by for-profit vendors, are then used to match those plate numbers against those contained in license plate databases. In Iowa, the database used by cities is maintained by the Iowa Department of
The present legislative controversy arises in response to the IDOT’s recently proposed rules governing the placement of automated camera traffic law enforcement devices on state highways — placements that would require, among other things, some demonstrated link to credible public safety purposes. That public purpose requirement has city leaders up in arms. It has alarmed the special interests that control the camera technologies and benefit from lease arrangements made with cities, often paid for with civil penalty
Although characterized by some city officials as too stringent, the IDOT’s new rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect citizens by correcting deep flaws in the practices now employed by a growing number of local jurisdictions. Cities unevenly impose civil penalties on the owners of some, but certainly not all, motor vehicles for alleged acts of speeding, wrongful entries into intersections and errant right-turns-on-red-lights.
Fundamental unfairness is caused by the cities’ wrongful and misplaced use of the IDOT’s incomplete license plate database. As a result, more than 3,000 government vehicles, including, at least until recently, the governor’s own motor pool, are exempted from traffic law enforcement by these devices because various agency leaders obtained permission to have their license plate numbers disguised within IDOT’s database.
Further, agreements such as the International Registration Plan allow semis owned by Big Trucking to have owners’ license plates only on the front fenders of their vehicles. However, most of the camera systems in Iowa communities are designed to take photographs of the back license plates of vehicles.
As a result, the owners of tens of thousands of trucks and commercial vehicles are, de facto, exempted from payment of these civil
The new traffic law enforcement practices have also unjustly enriched the owners and controllers of the camera equipment and technology patents.
What a strange moment for our cities to choose to press for expanded statutory authority to impose such an imperfect type of personal property taxation, one based on the use of invasive new industry-driven, citizen-tracking technologies. Just at the moment in our nation’s history when citizens’ souls are spinning from news that their emails and voice mails are routinely tracked by their own federal government agencies. Just a few weeks after it has become clear that our nation’s foremost retailers, corporations like Target, are unable to keep digitalized copies of sensitive personal economic information from the hands of offshore hackers.
The public safety benefits of these lucrative civil penalty schemes are, at best, unproven. And, even if arguably beneficial, that these new local tax regimes exempt thousands of government officials and the owners of the biggest rigs that rumble over our streets and highways creates a sense of unfairness that cannot be explained or erased.
Enough already. When asked by local public officials to amend Iowa’s Code to allow them to enact and enforce this form of personal property taxes, state legislators should just say “No.”
l James C. Larew, an Iowa City attorney, served as then-Gov. Chet Culver’s chief legal counsel in 2007. Comments: James.Larew@LarewLawOffice.com