Tax Law

State Net Capitol Journal – October 21, 2013; States Debate Benefit Of Red-Light Cameras

Budget & Taxes

STATES DEBATE BENEFIT OF RED-LIGHT CAMERAS: Communities in 24 states now have at least one red-light camera, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But whether those cameras have made the communities' intersections safer — or just made their respective state's and cities' coffers fuller — is a subject of debate.

A 2003 survey by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program found that the number of red-light running violations and accidents decreased in a majority of jurisdictions where red-light cameras were installed. But more recent research from Texas A&M's Transportation Institute found that when red-light cameras were installed at intersections where drivers frequently run red lights, the number of right-angle crashes declined but the number of rear-end collisions — from drivers stopping short to avoid a violation — went up. When cameras were placed at intersections where red-light violations were infrequent, the Texas A&M researchers found, the number of rear-end collisions rose while the number of other kinds of accidents remained unchanged. A seven-year study of red-light cameras in northern Virginia produced similar results.

The amount of revenue the cameras have generated for some state and local governments, meanwhile, has shot up. Florida, for instance, collected $52 million from red-light cameras installed in 76 jurisdictions across the state in fiscal year 2013. That figure is roughly three times what the state collected in 2011.

"Three years ago, these red-light cameras were pitched as safety devices," said Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes (R), who has proposed a state ban on the cameras. "Instead, they've been a backdoor tax increase."

Richard Ashton of the International Association of Chiefs of Police said much the same thing in a recent issue of Police Chief magazine.

"Redlight cameras should be implemented only to benefit public safety," he stated. "Unfortunately, too many jurisdictions have obtained red-light cameras to generate revenue."

But apparently a lot of people like the cameras. A 2011 poll conducted by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety found that two-thirds of drivers in 14 major cities with cameras supported them. And last year, voters in Longview, Washington, and Pohatcong, New Jersey rejected ballot measures seeking to remove red-light cameras.

Nevertheless, opposition to the cameras appears to be on the rise. Nine states have already banned them, and lawmakers in Ohio are considering doing the same. Colorado, Iowa and New Jersey also considered bans this year, but all of those efforts fell short.

Researchers at Virginia Tech have proposed an alternative to the cameras: longer yellow lights. They have found that increasing the length of a yellow light by as little as a half-second can reduce the number of accidents at an intersection significantly.

Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, however, suggests there's a simpler solution than that.

"There are any number of excuses individuals will use to explain why they break the law," he said. "But at the end of the day, there is no revenue generated from red-light safety cameras if drivers obey the law and stop on red." (STATELINE.ORG, FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINSTRATION SAFETY PROGRAM)

NV UPPING ANTE ON MEDICAL MARIJUANA: In 1931 the Nevada Legislature passed "The Wide Open Gambling Bill," which helped turn a nascent industry into a cornerstone of the state's economy. This past June the state passed a law that could do the same for another budding industry: medical marijuana.

"It exceeds our wildest dreams," said Sen. Tick Segerblom (D), a sponsor of the law legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries in the state.

Nevada voters amended the state Constitution to legalize medical marijuana a decade ago. But the new law authorizes the state to issue a limited number of licenses for marijuana dispensaries that will enable people to get their medicinal pot in a convenient and legal way. With medical marijuana already a multi-million dollar business in the state, the new law is sparking a lot of interest from potential investors.

"When we wrote this law, we said we wanted to make it attractive commercially so that people with money and resources will come here and fight for these licenses," said Segerblom. "They're coming here in droves."

Some big-money lawyers in the state are reportedly charging as much as $100,000 to prepare the required medical marijuana establishment application.

"People are kind of shopping for consultants," said Lisa Mayo-DeRiso, a Las Vegas-based consultant. "A guy [called and] said 'I got your number and we have half a million dollars and we're looking to get an application.'"

Back in June, Sen. Mark Hutchison (R) assured fellow lawmakers who were disinclined to support the measure: "This will not be the Dr. Feelgood hanging out in a Jerry Garcia smoking lounge with a giant pot flag hanging outside the door." The industry is actually attracting a range of investors, according to Las Vegas attorney Derek Connor, who said he used to focus on personal injury and criminal litigation but now spends three-quarters of his time working with medical marijuana clients.

"It's taken over a huge area of my practice," he said. "We've seen people who are well-established, well-connected Nevada families down to housewives interested in this as a way to make money."

It isn't easy to qualify for a dispensary license by the law's design. Applicants need to have at least $250,000 in liquid assets rather than a fixed asset like a house and have to pay licensing, background check and application fees. Preference is also given to applicants with business experience, an existing commercial or industrial facility and a record of paying taxes in the state, among other things.

The law also sets strict guidelines for the verification of cardholders, tracking of inventories and quality control, and imposes a 2 percent tax on medical marijuana sales to help offset the cost of administering and enforcing those provisions.

"The Nevada law strikes one of the most reasonable balances I have seen between ensuring safe access for patients, creating a tightly regulated model that is not open to malfeasance, and providing legitimate business and economic opportunities for business people," said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

But the current market in the state is relatively small; only about 4,500 residents currently have medical marijuana cards issued by the state's health division, although the new law will allow cardholders from other states to shop at Nevada dispensaries when they open late next year, potentially making Nevada the first medical marijuana tourist destination.

One of the main concerns of advocates and potential investors alike, the threat of federal intervention, has also largely been alleviated in recent months by comments from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"The federal government had been demonstrating and recently made it abundantly clear that it will respect state marijuana laws when marijuana is being properly regulated," said Mason Tvert, director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project.

Still, local governments aren't done debating what kind of zoning restrictions they'll impose on dispensaries and other medical marijuana establishments. And state regulators could also impose stricter rules of their own, which has some concerned that all of the potential regulations will ultimately discourage investors.

"A lot of people see this as a cash cow," said Peter Krueger, president of the Nevada Medical Marijuana Association. "I'm not so sure if it's a cash cow when government gets through with it."

But Mayo-DeRiso said crafting regulations shouldn't be a problem for her state, which has been so successful in regulating the gaming industry.

"We are the privileged license capital of the world," she said. "We know how to monitor privileged licenses, so we actually should be really good at this." (LAS VEGAS SUN, STATE NET)

KY, MI, WV WILL BENEFIT MOST FROM ACA: Residents of Kentucky, Michigan and West Virginia will benefit more from the Affordable Care Act than those of any other state, according to a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Eighty-one percent of currently uninsured residents of those three states will receive some sort of financial assistance in obtaining health insurance either via Medicaid or tax subsidies, the study found.

"This is not small news," said Brandon Merritt, a health policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "Currently, there are an estimated 270,000 West Virginians without health insurance. Based on this report, around 219,000 of them will qualify for assistance, which is a pretty big deal since cost is overwhelmingly the number one reason why the uninsured don't have health coverage."

The study found that states like West Virginia that opted to expand Medicaid will see the biggest benefit from the ACA. An estimated 159,000 of that state's uninsured will become eligible for insurance through Medicaid expansion.

Conversely, nine Southern states, from Virginia to Texas, will benefit the least from the ACA because those states chose not to expand Medicaid. Only 34 percent of Texas' currently uninsured will receive any assistance under the ACA, for instance.

"The share of the uninsured that is eligible for assistance programs is heavily dependent on a state's decision whether to expand Medicaid eligibility," the study concluded. (CHARLESTON GAZETTE)

BOON FOR SOME STATES IN SHUTDOWN/DEBT LIMIT BILL: There are goodies for a few states tucked away in the bill Congress approved last week ending the federal fiscal crisis. For instance, there's a provision raising the limit on the amount the government can spend to upgrade a lock on the Ohio River between Illinois and Kentucky from $775 million to $2.9 billion. And there's language raising the usual $100 million limit on Federal Highway Administration emergency highway aid to $450 million for Colorado.

Although the Ohio River lock straddles states represented by two of the most powerful members of the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and the chamber's No. 2 Democrat Richard Durbin (D-Illinois), the provision upping the spending limit for the lock's renovation evidently wasn't inserted into the bill to curry the favor of the two lawmakers. President Barack Obama requested the project in his budget this year and it has also been included in House and Senate water bills this year, according to aides of U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the leaders of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee with oversight of water projects.

"This is not an earmark," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who co-engineered the shutdown/debt limit deal with McConnell.

The money for Colorado, meanwhile, is intended to help the state rebuild the 200 miles of roads and 50 brides destroyed by the catastrophic floods there last month.

On the whole, though, the 35-page federal spending bill had only a handful of such narrowly targeted provisions, unlike the earmark-filled spending bills of just a few years ago. (ABC NEWS)

BUDGETS IN BRIEF: Food stamp recipients in 17 states from ALABAMA to CALIFORNIA temporarily lost the ability to use their food stamp cards this month, after a routine test of backup systems by Xerox triggered technical problems that shut down the states' electronic benefit transfer systems (ASSOCIATED PRESS, PENNLIVE.COM)

- Compiled by KOREY CLARK

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