Panel OKs red-light cameras, Sunday liquor sales

The state legislature’s tax-writing panel endorsed automated camera-issued motor vehicle tickets and Sunday liquor sales Monday, but the details behind both measures likely won’t be ironed out until just before the full General Assembly adjourns next month.

Both bills adopted Monday by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee now head to the House of Representatives.


Rep. Patricia Widlitz

The House chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, told members repeatedly that the so-called “red light cameras” bill, which has strong backing both from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and from Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, is “a work in progress.”

Though the bill adopted Monday would have allowed any community with a population greater than 48,000 the option of installing such cameras, Widlitz said the final version being negotiated between legislative leaders and Malloy’s office would be much more modest.

While there are 19 communities with populations above 48,000, Widlitz said she thinks the threshold will be raised to limit the number of municipalities that could opt to participate in the pilot program to “single digits.”

And tickets that would be issued by these cameras, which originally were supposed to carry a fine of $100, now would charge $50, she said.

Still, the concept sparked considerable debate among committee members, with lines between cities and suburbs appearing to dominate more than partisan affiliation.

Urban lawmakers, argued that cash-strapped cities need this pilot program to enhance safety at crucial intersections that are patrolled by local police too infrequently.

Cities face higher crimes rates “and they rarely have the resources to address traffic,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who added that using automated cameras “removes the arbitrariness of ticket-issuing” by police officers.

“The malls in my town, Manchester, are a death zone at Christmas time,” said Democratic Sen. Stephen T. Cassano, who said some motorists speed through red lights at 50-60 mph.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that those communities that did impose automated cameras could raise anywhere from $91,000 to $511,000 per year, depending on several factors, including the number of intersections scanned.

But others argued that the primary motivation behind the bill involves raising revenue, and not promoting public safety.

“We find ourselves again and again giving up liberty in pursuit of security,” said Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen, the ranking GOP senator on the committee, who urged members to remember “just how desperate the state of Connecticut and its member municipalities are for new revenue.”

“It’s simply a way to fleece people,” said Rep. Edward Moukawsher, D-Groton, who said he was uncomfortable with a computerized camera issuing, or not issuing tickets, based on potential differences in traffic behavior of “a split second.”

The red light cameras measure passed 31-19.

Liquor sales

Similarly, the measure to legalize Sunday liquor sales carries with it a great deal of uncertainty, legislators said, even though they concede a majority of lawmakers want to allow liquor sales on Sunday.

That’s because other proposals, though modified from a plan offered by Malloy, continue to raise objections both from the package story lobby as well as some legislators.

The bill, which cleared the General Law Committee last month, was approved 39-11 by the finance panel.

It would allow no one to own more than three package stores, up from the two in current law. But that is short of Malloy’s original limit of nine in a bill he proposed in January or six in a revision he released in February.

Minimum prices largely would remain intact with one notable exception: Retailers may sell one item a month for 10 percent below the cost of acquisition, while Malloy’s most recent proposal was for five items.

Mix martial arts

In other business Monday, the committee also approved a bill 46-4 legalizing mixed martial arts matches in Connecticut.

Though both advocates and opponents of the bill were critical of the extremely violent sport, the former argued that such matches effectively already exist in Connecticut, taking place at the casinos run by sovereign Native American nations in the state’s southeastern corner.

“It is unregulated at this time, so perhaps it is a step in the right direction,” Widlitz said.

“This is a very popular activity, particularly among young people,” Sen. Gary D. LeBeau, D-East Hartford, added. “It has an enormous audience, and we should regulate the activity going forward.”

But while the panel voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing these matches, the bill was opposed by the three committee members whose districts lie closest to the Indian casinos — Moukawsher and fellow Democratic Rep. Elissa Wright of Groton and Democratic Sen. Andrea Stillman of Waterford.

“I don’t feel comfortable endorsing this kind of activity,” Moukawsher said. “To me it is just brutality.”

Rather than legalizing mixed martial arts with the goal of imposing stricter regulations, state government should be investigating its legal options for curbing such activities at local casinos, Stillman said. “It’s not something that I’m interested in promoting in this state.”