State funding cuts for cities that levy traffic camera fines

Court upholds state law cutting funding to municipalities that use red lights and speeding up photo enforcement.

Image of a traffic light with camera

Court upholds state law cutting funding to municipalities that use red lights and speeding up photo enforcement.

A law that cuts state funding to municipalities that use red lights and speed is constitutional, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that amendments to the state budget can “offset” the amount of money raised by cities and towns using red light camera programs. The Court also upheld a separate provision requiring municipalities to deposit a deposit in municipal courts when seeking to collect photo tickets.

Writing for the Court, Judge Sharon L. Kennedy rejected claims by the Village of Newburgh Heights and the City of East Cleveland that the changes impinge on their authority under the “self-government” provision of the constitution of the state. She wrote that “the Ohio Constitution does not require the General Assembly to appropriate funds to municipalities”, and legislators have “exclusive discretion to reduce the allocation of local government funds” to municipalities that levy fines based on traffic camera operations.

Laws target traffic cameras
The Local Government Fund was created with the enactment of the state sales tax in 1935, and a designated portion of state revenue is distributed to county and local governments. Beginning in July 2019, municipalities must report annually to the state commissioner of tax the total amount of fines collected for the use of traffic cameras during the previous year. Below RC 5747.502(C), the commissioner uses the information to reduce the municipality’s share of local government funds. Under “expense compensation,” a municipality’s reduced share of funds is reallocated to the transportation district in which the municipality is located for use in local transportation projects.

In recent years, lawmakers have granted municipal and county courts exclusive jurisdiction over all civil matters involving traffic violations, including citations issued by traffic cameras. Also starting in 2019, municipalities bringing civil actions to enforce unpaid traffic camera citations must make court deposits to cover the court costs of fine hearings, unless a citation relates to an offense committed in a school zone.

Newburgh Heights sought an order from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to prevent the court’s expense compensation and “deposit requirement” from taking effect. East Cleveland joined the lawsuit. The municipalities argued that the requirements violated the self-governing powers granted to them under Article XVIII, Section 3 of the Ohio Constitution.

The trial court declined to block the new laws, and local governments appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. The Eighth District overturned the trial court, finding the laws unconstitutionally penalized local governments. The state appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Constitutional provisions examined
The Court’s opinion considered the provisions of the Ohio Constitution empowering state and local governments. Justice Kennedy noted that the constitution grants the General Assembly broad authority to spend public funds and that only a few provisions restrict how taxpayers’ money can be allocated. The notice stated that Article XII, section 9, for example, requires that 50% or more of income tax collected by the state be returned to the county or local government from which the tax proceeds originated. Similarly, a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling requires that a certain percentage of casino taxes be paid to counties, school districts, municipalities, and other local governments.

Beyond specific limits, the constitution does not create a general obligation for the legislature to fund municipal operations, the opinion explained.

Ohio voters passed an amendment to the bylaws in 1912, which gives municipalities power over all matters of local self-government, including the right to levy taxes and raise revenue from other sources, such as fines imposed using traffic cameras.

Newburgh Heights and East Cleveland argued that home rule powers prohibit the General Assembly from using its spending power to “punish” local governments for choosing to enforce traffic laws with cameras.

Local governments have the power to enact laws that do not conflict with general state laws. The Court then considered whether the expense offset and deposit requirement created a conflict between the state legislature and the local legislature.

The Supreme Court finds no violation of local rights
The court said the expense offset reduces the amount of money a municipality collects using traffic cameras, but it does not prohibit local governments from enforcing traffic laws with cameras.

According to the opinion, offsetting expenses “may deter municipalities” from using traffic cameras, but it does not prohibit local governments from enacting or enforcing laws, and statutes do not invalidate those laws , according to the opinion. There is no conflict between state law implementing expense compensation and municipalities’ decision to use traffic cameras, the court wrote.

State legislators are also empowered by the Ohio Constitution to create courts and specify their jurisdiction, the opinion explained. The filing requirement guarantees that municipalities, as well as individuals, “assume the burden that their litigation creates”. The filing requirement may make it more expensive to enforce camera-generated tickets, but it does not prevent municipalities from using cameras to enforce local laws, the court said.

“Therefore, the deposit requirement does not limit or infringe any municipal authority granted by the Home Rule Amendment,” the opinion states.

The constitutional power of local self-government grants municipalities control over local affairs, but it does not require the state to pay for it, the court found.

2021-0247. Newburgh Hts. v. State, Landslide Notice No. 2022-Ohio-1642.

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