Our View: Traffic fines should not be covert taxes

Unwilling (in the case of most Republicans) or unable (in the case of most Democrats) to approve new taxes, state lawmakers are squeezing people to raise revenues in less obvious ways.

We're talking about soaring traffic fines that have nothing to do with making our roadways safer, but everything to do with generating revenue.

Traffic enforcement should not be used as another way to tax the public.

Three years ago, it would have cost $371 if you were caught by a red light camera failing to make a complete stop before turning into an intersection. That same violation today costs $470, a 37 percent increase.

Is that violation 37 percent more egregious or are state and local governments and other publicly financed enterprises that support themselves with these fines just more desperate?

It seems to us that desperation is the answer.

We aren't justifying unsafe driving, and have long been concerned about poor driving habits. But traffic fines shouldn't be an alternative to government operating more efficiently.

Largely because of surcharges tacked on by state lawmakers, traffic fines have skyrocketed.

Merced police Lt. Andre Matthews said that traffic fines are set by the state each year. He said that while Merced gets a percentage of the money, it can be spent only on traffic safety programs.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg was refreshingly honest about why fines have risen so sharply. Increasing traffic penalties has been "one of the patches that we've relied upon to avoid deeper cuts," he told The Sacramento Bee.

Extortionate traffic fines have nothing to do with public safety or deterrence. Rather, they are about raising revenues.

Attempts to roll back penalties have been consistently rebuffed. Budget-strapped cities, counties, special districts and other needy recipients of traffic fine proceeds make an effective lobby.

There is an individual and societal cost to extortionate traffic fines. Those on the economic edge are made more desperate. Respect for government and the justice system declines.

Traffic fines should be set to fit the crime, not based on whether state or local governments need to add money to their budgets during tough economic times.

(This editorial originated with our sister newspaper The Fresno Bee.)