Plans to Hike Traffic Fine Surcharges Drawing Fire

Times Staff Writer

Get a traffic ticket, build a jail.

So might read the slogan of one recent effort to finance state and local services by boosting fines charged to California's errant motorists.

The sudden appearance here of several such proposals, in fact, is threatening to undermine San Diego County's attempt to pay for new jails and courthouses that county officials say are badly needed.

A bill by Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) that would allow San Diego and 15 other counties to double their current surcharges on fines for traffic and criminal violations is in trouble because legislators fear such surcharges may soon total more than the fines themselves.

Already, the state adds a $5 assessment to every $10 in fines, using that money to train police officers, assist witnesses, repay victims for damages and even preserve endangered fish and game.

Several counties, including San Diego, add another $2 to the state's charges and split the money between special funds for building new courtrooms and jails.

$9 for Every $10

Now Bergeson wants to allow counties to double their local surcharges for court and jail construction, which could bring the total assessment to $9 for every $10 in fines. But she's not alone.

Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) wants to add $2 to boost the state's victim restitution fund. Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) would add $1 to repay hospitals and doctors that provide emergency care for the poor. Bergeson herself has another proposal that would tack on 50 cents to pay for counties' automated fingerprint identification systems.

Together, the proposals could lift the surcharges to $12.50 for every $10 in fines. A $30 fine for speeding would cost the offender $67.50.

That prospect has prompted opposition from several quarters, including the Automobile Club of Southern California, the American Civil Liberties Union, the state Judicial Council, and several key Democrats who believe the surcharges are a Republican-inspired substitute for tax hikes.

Bergeson's bill would allow San Diego County to raise an additional $3 million annually for courthouse and jail construction. The money would go for several planned courthouse expansion projects and to help build a planned $50-million jail for defendants before they are brought to trial.

Bergeson's bill, after being approved by the Senate, was defeated in the Assembly Public Safety Committee July 13, falling one vote short of passage. But committee members agreed to reconsider the issue when they return from a four-week summer recess in August.

In the meantime, Bergeson will try to persuade at least one of the committee's four Democrats to support her measure. She has said the swing vote might be Assemblyman Mike Roos, a Los Angeles Democrat who has supported the concept in the past.

But Roos said in an interview that he is not likely to reverse his opposition to Bergeson's measure, which he described as an attempt to "squeeze blood out of a turnip."

"I've told Marian (Bergeson) that I am sympathetic," Roos said. "I'm not trying to block that at all. But penalty assessments just seem to me to be the wrong way to go."

Roos, the Assembly speaker pro tem, said he views the assessments as part of a greater scheme to increase fees, an effort he characterized as the "Republican avoidance of taxes."

"Either the taxes should be raised or the projects are not important enough to spend general fund revenues for," he said.

Traffic Violators Pay

While the assessments are levied on fines for nearly all crimes, the bulk of the money raised comes from fines on traffic violators, who are more numerous and more likely to pay, according to state analysts. For that reason, the Automobile Assn. of Southern California also opposes any increases in the penalties.

"Courthouses and jails benefit the entire community," said David Sharlach, a lobbyist for the auto club. "We think it's unfair to tax the motorist for this particular benefit."

The Judicial Council, an administrative agency under the state Supreme Court, has also opposed the penalty assessments, arguing instead for a dramatic overhaul of the court funding system that would place most of the burden on the state, rather than counties. But John Davies, the council's lobbyist in Sacramento, said the group has agreed to remain neutral on Bergeson's bill.

"Our fundamental notion is that the courts should not be cast in the role of tax collector," Davies said. "State courts are a state obligation, and there should be some state funding for those trial courts. But given the fact that we don't have state funding, we are looking at some of the realistic problems the courts face, and courtroom construction is one of those."

Approach Not Ideal

Bergeson herself concedes that her approach is not ideal. She said she agrees that the surcharges are too high. But she sees no other option.

"There is no question that there are some who are holding out and saying this should be done by raising taxes," Bergeson said. "That's not going to happen. To be realistic, to reach a pragmatic resolution to these problems, we do have to look for a source of fee revenue.

"It has gotten out of proportion to what it should be," she added. "But there is no alternative funding available to serve this purpose. In this case the good to be done simply outweighs the disadvantages."

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