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From one pocket into another

Tuesday, February 05, 2013 - Updated: 5:29 PM

It's one thing for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to say the state can't afford to give municipal governments more aid. It's quite another to take money away from them to balance his budget, all the while boasting that he's not raising taxes.

That shell game is clearly what's going on in the governor's proposal to tighten rules on plea bargaining of speeding tickets. The governor says this is about public safety. Maybe so. But it's also a money grab -- as much as $58 million -- that will doubtless force at least some municipalities to raise taxes.

It's a classic case of the state foisting its budget problems on local governments, and taxpayers getting stuck with the bill, one way or another.

Cuomo says he's looking to rein in a common practice in local traffic courts of allowing motorists with speeding tickets to plea bargain them down to a nonmoving violation, like illegal parking. That typically comes with a fairly hefty fine for a violation -- in the neighborhood of $100 to $150 -- but drivers avoid a mark on their records and a possible hike in their car insurance.

Oh, and one other thing: Local governments get to keep the fines for nonmoving violations and not share them with the state, as they would have to do with a moving violation. Cuomo says this is costing the state $58 million a year, and making the roads less safe.

The governor offers a multipronged approach. He wants to tighten the rules to curtail judges' latitude to reduce speeding tickets to nonmoving violations. He also wants to add an $80 state surcharge onto the violations commonly used when speeding tickets are pleaded down.

This comes in the same budget in which Cuomo is trimming more than half a billion dollars from the deficit he would otherwise face by reducing the state aid increase local governments were counting on from 3.1 percent to 2.3 percent. As disappointing as that might be to mayors and town supervisors, Cuomo can make a reasonable argument that a 2.3 percent aid increase is still pretty fair, considering that inflation was running about 1.7 percent last year. But to also say, "Hey, I need some money, so I'm going to take some of yours," is a different story.

Cuomo might argue that he's just getting back the state's fair share from local courts and governments that have been finding a way to keep it for themselves for years. But this isn't the way to do it. Anyone who has ever seen these local courts on speeding ticket night knows what a mill they are, and would realize that Cuomo's idea could bog down the courts, prosecutors and police with trials as motorists fight charges that could threaten their licenses and raise their insurance rates. All that extra court action would be expensive for local governments.

And in soaking up money local governments have long used, the governor who started out his budget presentation proudly declaring that he wasn't raising taxes this year will be responsible for the hike in local property taxes that at least some communities will levy because of this.

The governor did have one good proposal in this that would promote public safety without so much fiscal turmoil: make plea information part of a driver's record, so that drivers can't keep speeding, pleading and speeding again. There's nothing wrong with a second chance, but chronic speeders shouldn't be able to use this system to avoid serious consequences.

-- The Times Union of Albany

     

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