Let’s acknowledge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s speeding ticket maneuver for what it is: a money grab. Albany is short of cash and it “loses” some $58 million a year because local courts plead down speeding charges – whose fines would go to the state – to lesser offenses, whose fines stay in the municipality.
The towns and villages want to keep that money. The state lusts after it and it is proposing a change that could be unworkable.
To get Albany’s hands on some of that money, Cuomo has proposed to impose an $80 surcharge on the types of traffic violations drivers are allowed to plead down to a parking ticket. The municipality would keep the fine money, while Albany would take the surcharge.
In addition – and this is where the municipalities blanch – he wants anyone caught going more than 20 mph over the speed limit to face a mandatory point-bearing violation, one that could cause the speeder’s insurance premium to rise and whose fine would enrich Albany.
The first proposal, while costly to speeders, should be of no concern to municipalities. And, while even drivers might grumble, most would rather pay the extra money than see their insurance rates rise.
The second proposal is more troublesome. While the proposals could bring Albany an additional $16 million in the next fiscal year and another $25 million the year after that, it would also deny millions of dollars to cash-strapped municipalities, whose ability to raise other revenues is restricted by the property tax cap Cuomo signed into law two years ago.
More practically, speeders who face an automatic point-bearing violation could clog the local court system by demanding trials.
“It will impose, in my view, an additional burden on the town,” said Carl Morgan, Hamburg’s town prosecutor. “More people opting for trial … is going to increase the cost for the local courts.”
It’s already not unusual for 150 people to show up for traffic court on a Monday, he said. “That’s a problem they don’t, maybe, appreciate.”
Cuomo also wants to impose a mandatory minimum fine of $50 for a first offense of using a cellphone or texting while driving. That revenue would stay with the municipality.
The proposals are another form of raising sin taxes, such as on cigarettes and alcohol. Basically, the state is raising the tax on speeding by adding the $80 surcharge. Those who object can avoid the cost by not speeding.
But Albany should think twice about the mandatory points, given the potential for creating havoc in municipal courts. It could, instead, punish speeders by increasing the surcharge for those speeding more than 20 mph or so over the posted limit.
As to minimum fines for texting or using a cellphone while driving, why not? The risks are real and too many people are doing it.