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Police question ticket proposal by state to add large surcharge

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
City officials announced that new parking fees along East Carson Street will be used to pay for a heightened police presence in the area.

Top police officials in Western Pennsylvania said they think officers might balk at writing some traffic tickets if state lawmakers approve a plan to add a $100 surcharge to boost transportation funding.

The cost of a ticket for one of the least serious driving infractions would nearly triple to almost $300.

“I don't think we should be doing this on the backs of people getting stopped. Fines and costs are already high enough,” said North Huntingdon police Chief Andrew Lisiecki.

Dozens of legislators and business leaders flanked Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery County, last week when he proposed adding the $100 surcharge to all traffic tickets. He would quadruple to $100 the minimum fine for “failure to obey traffic control devices,” a catch-all infraction that is among the least punitive in the state because it doesn't add points to a motorist's driving record.

Police officials expressed concern about the proposed increases as being excessive and said they could result in cops issuing fewer citations and more warnings — a prospect that could eat away at Rafferty's revenue figures.

Rafferty said the ticket proposals would generate $101 million for Pennsylvania's glaring transportation needs in the first year, part of a plan to eventually increase annual funding by $2.5 billion. His office refused to release data it used to produce its revenue projections. A staffer said the numbers are based on the state's five-year history of collections from traffic violations.

“There's a little bit of guesswork involved” in the projections, said Sharon Ward, president of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, adding that the higher costs figure to act as a deterrent that leads “police to write fewer citations and people to violate the law less.”

Rafferty's plan would increase the overall cost of a “failure to obey” conviction to at least $287, thanks to the surcharge, fine increase and other fees. Infractions such as running a red light or stop sign would go up to at least $212, including the $100 surcharge.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Scott Schubert, who oversees the bureau's traffic division, predicted police, including him, might issue fewer citations.

“We all want better roads, but our goal isn't to make money off people. When we issue a citation or a warning, we're trying to improve highway safety and change motorists' behavior, not generate revenue. This seems excessive,” said Schubert. “I may truly think about the additional cost. A lot of people are living paycheck-to-paycheck. I might be more inclined to try to change people's behavior by talking with them,” he said.

“The senator does not believe they are excessive,” said Nate Spade, spokesman for the Senate Transportation Committee that Rafferty chairs. Spade would not speculate on whether the surcharge or fine hike could reduce the number of citations issues or money collected.

Whitehall police Chief Donald Dolfi, president of the Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, questioned the wisdom of “a law that was enacted to protect the public and out of everything the actual fine is one of the lowest things you have to pay.”

John Bowman, spokesman for the Wisconsin-based National Motorists Association, called the proposal “heavy-handed.”

Spade said, “Our office will always listen to the concerns of law enforcement. They have not reached out to us to express concern, to my knowledge.”

Spade said the “reception has been very positive. The general consensus is that we have not been investing the dollars necessary to have a modern transportation system that is a needed component for job growth and public safety.”

In February, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed boosting the state's $7 billion annual transportation budget by up to $1.8 billion more by removing the cap on the oil company franchise tax gas wholesalers pay. The Shaler Republican said he didn't want to directly increase driver-related fees because he didn't want to overburden residents.

Many legislators panned the plan as not ambitious enough.

During a stop last week in Robinson, Corbett called Rafferty's plan a “starting point,” adding, “We have to be very cautious about continuing to add to the burden of taxpayers.”

Sen. John Wozniak, D-Johnstown, told the Trib last week that it won't be easy to pass despite support from some Democrats, including him.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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