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News Opinion Editorial

On speed cameras and pit bulls, the legislature lets the perfect be the enemy of the good

There had to be some drama at the end. The 2013 General Assembly session, in a marked contrast to the train wreck that was the 2012 edition, moved toward its conclusion Monday as a model of efficiency and cooperation. For once, the kids weren't waiting until the night before to do their homework, having wrapped up virtually all of the major issues by Friday.

And then came the speed camera bill. After a series of reports in The Sun about erroneous tickets given to motorists in Baltimore City (including one case of a car ticketed for speeding while stopped at a red light), lawmakers in both the House and Senate vowed a series of reforms. The version of the legislation that was moving on Monday wasn't perfect, but it made a number of important reforms, including a strengthening of the prohibition on paying camera vendors on a per-ticket basis, limiting the cameras' use to the vicinity of a K-12 school, and creating an ombudsman with the power to void tickets.

The legislation languished in the House Environmental Matters Committee until last week, in no small part because the sponsor of the bill, Del. James E. Malone, missed several days because of illness. It finally passed the House, 111-28, on Friday. The Senate took it up on Monday, and it finally arrived on the Senate floor sometime after 8 p.m.

That's a dangerous time for legislation, particularly in the Senate. The last night of a legislative session is always a crush of activity as lawmakers scramble to pass as many bills as possible before the midnight deadline for adjournment, and even the threat of a filibuster in the Senate is enough to doom a bill's chances. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has always been loath to devote too much time on the final night of the legislative session to any particular bill unless it's necessary, and not without reason. Doing so means perhaps dozens of other pieces of legislation won't get a vote.

Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin took advantage of that fact. He was angry that the Senate was being asked to approve the House version of the bill without the opportunity for lengthy debate, and he was upset that the bill did not include a provision he had pushed for: quarterly, rather than annual, calibration of the speed cameras. He spent an hour or more picking at any ambiguities or possible loopholes he could find in the bill, and eventually the Senate moved on.

It's not that Mr. Pipkin was wrong about quarterly calibration being a good idea. It is.

Nor was he wrong to wish, in general, that the legislation had been stronger. Speed cameras, when properly used, are an effective tool to improve safety. But the flaws with the city's camera program have eroded public trust, and the Rawlings-Blake administration's response has been too tepid to restore it. The House legislation, which bore the influence of lobbyists for local governments and camera vendors, didn't go far enough. It lacked some key reforms, such as a requirement that the photos taken by the cameras include sufficiently precise time stamps for motorists to verify the tickets' accuracy.

But it was, without question, better than nothing.

Something similar happened with long-debated legislation to overturn a 2012 Court of Appeals opinion holding pit bulls to be inherently dangerous. At the behest of dog advocates, lawmakers tried during the second special legislative session of 2012 to treat all breeds of dogs the same. But the House and Senate were unable to agree then about the standard of evidence needed to establish that a dog did not have a history of aggressiveness, and the same issue tripped up the legislation Monday night. It's an issue that tips the balance slightly in favor of victims or of dog owners in a court case but not one that should be worth scuttling the whole bill over.

The 2013 General Assembly session was one in which lawmakers generally showed a rare unity of purpose in enacting significant legislation — including a major gun control package, a repeal of the death penalty, a transportation funding bill, a reconstruction plan for Baltimore City's schools, and more. But as the clock struck midnight, legislators let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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