Sunday, April 19, 2009

Call it “The Taxpayers Strike Back.”

Legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly this month to implement statewide speed cameras has sparked plans for a popular referendum that could make Maryland the first state to put the issue of automated enforcement to voters.

The statewide campaign would mirror a similar effort under way in Arizona as well as in cities and towns ranging from Cincinnati to Batavia, Ill., to kill the implementation of traffic cameras, which opponents say are an infringement of privacy rights.



Organizers of the Maryland effort say they have assembled a broad coalition of residents to support the petition and that they wish to tap public resentment against the additional fees and fines during tough economic times.

“Its a pretty bipartisan approach. We have Democrats supporting us, Republicans, older people, younger people, just folks who think it’s wrong to have another tax on driving,” said Daniel Zubairi of Bethesda, a former Republican congressional candidate and creator of Maryland for Responsible Enforcement.

Lawmakers on April 10 passed a bill that would allow the implementation of speed cameras in highway work zones and within a half mile of schools across the state. The act would tack a $40 citation on drivers who speed at least 12 miles per hour over the posted limit in camera-monitored zones.

Opponents say the act violates due-process rights because the accuser is a machine, not a police officer, and that the law is a “cash-grab” for cash-strapped local governments.

“It’s nothing more than an unfair, hidden tax against citizens, and as taxpayers we have a right to be heard on this issue,” Mr. Zubairi said.

To have his petition considered for the 2010 ballot, Mr. Zubairi will have to collect by midnight June 30 a minimum number of signatures that is equal to 3 percent of votes cast for governor in the previous election - or in the case of the 2006 election, about 53,000 votes. A third of the signatures must be collected by June 1.

Justin Shuy, a petition organizer, says the response to the effort has been overwhelmingly positive, and that so far more than 1,000 people have expressed interest in signing the petition.

“It’s us versus a machine. That kind of dilemma reaches across all spectrums of the voting public,” he said.

Republican lawmakers opposed to speed cameras say the power of a referendum is a good option for the legislature’s minority party in order to keep the actions of the majority in check.

“Its a great thing to have and it’s something we ought to use more often,” said state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, Frederick Republican. “It’s nice to know that the folks have the final say.”

Arizona activists for several months have been collecting signatures to put speed cameras to a statewide vote, but the signatures are not due until early next year, meaning Maryland could be the first state to authorize a referendum.

Voters in Cincinnati opted to ban red-light cameras after a 2008 state Supreme Court decision ruled the cameras were legal. The most recent case in which voters rejected speed cameras was in the town of Sulphur, La., where 86 percent of 22,000 voters on April 4 decided against photo enforcement.

Activists in Chillicothe, Ohio, announced on April 2 that they had collected enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November.

Richard Diamond, editor of theNewspaper.com, an online journal of state and local motor vehicle laws, said he is not aware of any case in which traffic cameras have survived a referendum.

“There are more initiative petitions circulating right now than ever,” said Mr. Diamond, a one-time spokesman for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican. “More citizens have had opportunity to vote on the question of photo radar at the ballot box.”

The last successful referendum drive in Maryland was in 2006, when voters decided to reverse an early-voting law. But a Maryland Appeals Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, making the petition unnecessary.

In 2001, voters successfully reversed a law that gave affirmative-action protection to gay employees.

The biggest challenge will be legal. Jared Demarinis, director of candidacy at the state Board of Elections, said it is advised that groups aim to have at least 30 percent more signatures than are required because of the likelihood many will be ruled invalid. Current law requires each signature to exactly match the name on voter-registration files.

“Just the way the laws are, 20 [percent] to 30 percent are thrown out every time,” Mr. Demarinis said.

In 2008, a successful petition over a Montgomery County law that gave broad protections to transgender individuals was thrown out in county court because of a dispute over the number of signatures collected.

Organizers say they understand the challenges and aim to have at least 100,000 signatures just to be safe.

“Its a system that’s definitely not designed to help you,” Mr. Shuy said. “We hope to be on the safe side, and so 100,000 signatures will be our goal.”

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