Speed traps and small-town governments

Speed traps and small-town governments

It’s no secret that small towns across Louisiana are having increasing amounts of trouble providing basic services to their citizens.

Number of the Day

$9.13 - Net economic impact for every $1 invested in civil legal aid for low-income people. (Source: Louisiana Access to Justice Commission via Nola.com/The Times-Picayune)

It’s no secret that small towns across Louisiana are having increasing amounts of trouble providing basic services to their citizens. So much so that an increasing number of towns have turned to traffic enforcement as a way of funding their government. The Advocate’s Mark Ballard reports that nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s incorporated areas derive more money from fines and fees than they do from property taxes.

The reason is less Barney Fife passionately holding scofflaws to account for minor infractions and more small-town officers strictly enforcing traffic laws — issuing tickets costing $80 to $200 or more — that has the added benefit of bringing more money to municipalities with few other revenue-raising options. “That’s the symbol of a broken system when you have to depend on preying on people to pay your bills,” said Robert Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. PAR is a nonprofit Baton Rouge-based government policy analyst.

The mayor of Henderson – situated along Interstate 10 – says circumstances don’t leave him much choice.

“I am sure that we save lives every day, every hour,” (Sherbin) Collette said. But he acknowledges that the $1.1 million in fines — 85 percent of the town’s revenues in 2018 — is important to the town of 1,771 residents. Henderson reported raising $8,433 in property taxes and $190,386 in sales taxes for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the annual audit of the town’s finances. “We don’t have many resources,” Collette said. With only a restaurant and a pharmacy, “sales taxes in Henderson are virtually nil.”

Reality check: There is nothing inherently wrong with enforcing traffic laws. But when the primary goal of enforcement is to fund government – not keep the roads safe – it becomes another form of regressive taxation. A $200 speeding ticket is a nuisance to someone who earns a six-figure salary. But for a person making minimum wage or slightly above, that’s most of a weekly paycheck. And an inability to pay such a fine can lead to spiraling financial distress.


Be like Texas on civil defense
Louisiana is one of only three states that provides no government funding to help low-income citizens secure legal assistance with civil matters such as evictions, bankruptcies and protection orders from abusive partners. That has overburdened Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to the poor in 22 parishes with a mix of federal dollars and private donations. As Nola.com/The Times-Picayune’s Richard A. Webster reports, Louisiana used to provide funding for civil defense, but the money was eliminated by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The consequences of this can be devastating both individually and to a state’s economy, said James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corporation, a national nonprofit that provides funding for civil legal aid. If indigent people can’t effectively access the courts, they lose the ability to protect their vital interests such as housing, employment, health insurance, and parental rights, he said. “Most Americans don’t realize there is no right to a lawyer in a civil case,” Sandman said. “They don’t realize you could lose your home or your children or be a victim of abuse in need of a protective order and you have no right to a lawyer. Fortunately, the vast majority of states recognize the role of government in trying to make the system accessible to all people, regardless of their incomes.”

While Louisiana provides nothing, Texas provides $72 million a year through a mix of state appropriations and mandatory court fees and fines.


Education begins at birth
The Legislature’s decision last year to partly renew some expiring temporary taxes has stabilized the state’s financial situation and halted the deep cuts endured by Louisiana’s public colleges and universities over the past decade. But as the inimitable Jim Beam points out in the Lake Charles American-Press, there are still major gaps to fill before Louisiana can fulfill its goal of providing a quality education for everyone.

How bad has it been? The state Board of Regents is asking the governor and Legislature to appropriate a $172 million increase instead. The request comes after higher education absorbed a decade of budget cuts. The regents said charges on students increased 107 percent over the last 11 years. Tuition is also high. The Southern Regional Education Board said more than 21 percent of Louisiana families’ income is spent on attending two-year colleges. The regional average is 17 percent and the national average is 18.2 percent. … OK, we know why K-12 and higher education need more money. However, what about those youngsters from birth to age 3? The Louisiana Child Care Assistance Program assists families with early childhood education while they work or attend school. … The Early Child Care and Education Commission that was created by a 2018 law has said there would need to be $86 million in next year’s state budget to meet the education needs of children age 3 and younger.


Slow justice for battered women
Catina Curley spent more than a decade in prison for killing her husband in 2005 in self-defense while trying to protect herself from domestic violence. She was freed after the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned her conviction, and last week was found not guilty in a retrial. But as the Nola.com/The Times-Picayune editorial board writes, her case shows that the justice system often moves far too slowly for women who are victims of abusive partners.

In granting Ms. Curley a retrial, the Supreme Court said expert witnesses are needed “to help jurors and judges understand the experiences, beliefs and perceptions of women who are beaten by their intimate partners – information the common lay person usually does not possess.” Women in these cases often are more harshly treated than men who kill their spouses. Tania Tetlow, an expert in domestic violence who is now president of Loyola University, wrote about that pattern after Ms. Curley was convicted. In a May 2007 opinion piece for The Times-Picayune, she pointed out that women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years. That is three times longer than male defendants, despite the fact that many of these women acted in self-defense, she said.


Number of the Day
$9.13 – Net economic impact for every $1 invested in civil legal aid for low-income people. (Source: Louisiana Access to Justice Commission via Nola.com/The Times-Picayune)