Searching for sources of revenue

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What a sweet racket it could be.

The Cedar Rapids City Council voted initially last week to turn unpaid traffic camera tickets over to a state collection program that taps scofflaws’ gambling winnings in state-licensed casinos, along with tax refunds and other sources. Just imagine if Cedar Rapids becomes a casino town and keeps its speed cameras on I-380.

Speeding gamblers, beware. Your loses may start piling up out on the highway, well before you sit down at the slots. Baby may need a new pair of shoes, but baby may have to get in line behind City Hall.

It was a curious council decision in some respects. The city’s camera program remains mired in a legal fight with state regulators. There’s a chance Cedar Rapids might have to refund fines charged and paid after the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered cameras moved or shut down. A judge has halted the issuance of I-380 tickets. It seems like an odd time to kick collections into high gear, with so much legal uncertainty clouding the program.

As Mayor Ron Corbett suggests, the move undermines the city’s repeated argument its camera program is first and foremost about safety, not about raising revenues. Using the coercive power of the state to go after $17 million in unpaid tickets shows city leaders also like the money.

Sure, I understand a camera program without some teeth doesn’t do much for safety. And I have no sympathy for folks who drive 12 mph or more over the speed limit through the center of town. But the collection bite will hit mostly Iowa residents while out-of-state deadbeats thumb their nose at Speeder Trapids.

And once word of this move reaches the Golden Dome of Wisdom, it surely will put a renewed gale in the sails of lawmakers who want to ban traffic cameras.

But, hey, it’s $17 million. That’s a lot of dough. And speaking of the Golden Dome of Wisdom, many local governments may soon be checking couch cushions, old purses and change slots for every last dime of revenue.

Reports in both The Gazette and The Des Moines Register over the weekend pointed to the possibility of a cash-strapped state backing away from its promise to backfill local revenues lost to property tax cuts. In 2013, lawmakers approved a bipartisan bill cutting commercial property taxes. Local governments now get $152 million annually to cover lost revenues.

But with the state budget veering into red ink, there’s talk of curtailing those payments. Legislators insist no decisions have been made, but there are signs. Republicans who gutted collective bargaining for public employees may point to personnel cost savings as a justification for cutting the backfill. And the GOP majority’s penchant for pre-empting local government authority on the minimum wage and other issues doesn’t suggest it’s too worried about cities and counties.

A backfill phaseout is inevitable, over time. But an abrupt reduction now would spawn layoffs, program cuts and, ironically, property tax increases.

The Register’s report suggests commercial tax cuts have yet to deliver the economic boost promised by backers. Surprise. What a racket.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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