Slow Down, Mayor Gray!
The recent debate over how much the District should fine drivers for speeding certainly hits home for many of us. My family has gotten six $125 tickets this year—five of them being earned by our newest and youngest driver within his first weeks of vehicular freedom.
The fines impact our household budgets, and they also impact the District’s budget—and that’s why we need to consider both types of budgets as we make decisions as a city about whether and how to lower them. Last week, Mayor Gray announced that he would use $25 million of unexpected revenue to lower speeding fines. This means that this money cannot be used for other things. Given the fact that using this revenue for this purpose impacts all residents—lead-footed and light-footed, teenagers and irked parents, drivers and even non-drivers alike—the plan shouldn’t be implemented until it is thoroughly vetted, which should include at least a public hearing, a discussion of the fiscal impact, and DC Council approval.
I’ll admit, due process for the Lazere family on this household budget issue was a bit fast-tracked: My wife and I told our son to pay for some of the fines, we figured out how to shift expenses for a month or two to pay the rest, and then we happily drove our son to college and left him there without a car. Family budget problem solved!
Mayor Gray kind of took a similar approach, by just lowering the fines and announcing he’d use additional revenue the District is receiving to pay for it. Being chief executive and executing the District’s budget, however, is a bit different than being chief executive and executing the family budget. Despite the fact that being Mayor gives you the power to do lots of cool things, Mayor Gray still needs to follow a process in spending and redirecting the allocation of District dollars.
Every year, the mayor and DC Council pass a budget that becomes law. The FY 2013 Budget Support Act, agreed upon by the mayor and DC Council and signed by Mayor Gray, listed programs in a specific order that would receive funding if additional monies became available to the District due to unexpected additional revenue. Lowering traffic fines wasn’t on that list. Number one was homeless services. Other programs included the trust fund to build affordable housing, mental health services for children, and additional monies for literacy and adult education.
The DC Council also has a proposal to lower fines, and both should go through the proper process. The Council’s proposal would reduce fines even more and have an even larger price tag than the mayor’s — $60 million – raising more questions about its impact on other services.
There’s good reason to question whether our fines are set at the correct amount. That question should be asked at a public hearing, along with others:
- What is the appropriate level for fines to serve as a deterrent to speeding?
- To what extent are current fines paid by non-residents? If it is a lot, is this a reason to maintain them?
- Are there ways to replace the lost revenue, perhaps by adding cameras to other intersections with speeding problems?
- Can the reductions be phased in over time to limit the impact on DC’s budget?
- Can the reduction in fines be placed after other pressing priorities on the budget wish list that the mayor and Council adopted?
Reducing traffic fines may be an important issue. But because it is also a budget issue, its impact on the budget needs to be considered, and cutting traffic fines needs to be weighed against all the other important needs in the city.