http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/dannywestneat/2010349143_danny25.html Red-light tickets veer off course If you are one of the tens of thousands of local drivers to get a ticket from a photo camera system, it might interest you or irk you to hear what the law intended you to pay. Danny Westneat Seattle Times staff columnist If you are one of the tens of thousands of local drivers to get a ticket from a photo camera system, it might interest you or irk you to hear what the law intended you to pay. Twenty bucks. Not $124, as Seattle, Bellevue, Auburn and 15 other cities charge for getting caught by red-light cameras. Not $189, typical for being photo-nabbed by a speed camera. Twenty bucks. About what you would pay for a parking ticket. "The cities have absolutely run wild with these cameras. The proof is all there, for anyone willing to look." That's Bruce Haigh, of Kirkland, who, like me, has never gotten a photo ticket. He's a reader a "troublemaker," he says who wrote me after I suggested last week the "camera cops" might be making a Seattle intersection near my office more dangerous. He also happens to be a former federal investigator for the Defense Department who's got time on his hands. So he spent some of it digging. To see just how off-track the camera cop programs have veered, go back to the beginning, Haigh said. He guided me to March 14, 2005 the day the state Senate approved the automated-traffic-safety-camera law. Some senators had been trying for years to let cities do camera enforcement. Since 2001, though, the bill had died. The chief worries were that the state might be denied a cut of money it currently gets from moving-violation tickets, and that local cities might milk the cameras as money-generating bonanzas. So in 2005, senators came up with a clever solution. Make the photo tickets equivalent to parking tickets. So legally they aren't moving violations. And financially they wouldn't be "cash cows" for the cities. Here's what the law's prime sponsor, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, said in the Senate in 2005 when she offered the key amendment to make any camera ticket, red-light or speeding, no costlier than what cities typically charge for a parking ticket. "I know that some people would perceive that a local government would use this as a cash cow," she said. "That is not our intention at all ... What this amendment does is it restricts them, so that they cannot have a fine higher than their parking violations. "Which is about the state recommends $20. The idea is to change behavior, not collect a lot of money." Got that Seattle, Tacoma, Federal Way, Lynnwood, Issaquah, Renton and every other city around here lighting up the streets like pinball machines with these automated ticketing machines (ATMs)? She said around $20. "This bill is very limited," Haugen soothed. It didn't turn out that way. Seattle's cameras have churned out more than 75,000 red-light tickets since the program began three years ago. At $124 a pop. Seattle currently charges $38 for a parking ticket. It's clear from listening to this old debate in the state Legislature, through TVW's archives, that traffic cameras never would have passed without these restrictions. None of the cities are paying heed. Despite what Haugen said and other legislators echoed, the cities say there is one $250 parking fine on the books for illegally parking in a disabled spot. So that gives them carte blanche to charge anything up to that amount. In other words, they're playing the senators for suckers. Us, too. Who is right will be decided in a federal court, probably next year. Forty-nine drivers are suing the cities and two private traffic-camera companies, arguing the excessive fines break state law. The suit also shows how the cities are using contracts that tie a portion of the private companies' proceeds to how many tickets they issue, which the state also tried to outlaw in that 2005 bill. Legally I have no idea who will win. I also respect that this mess has a worthwhile goal safer streets which some readers said I should be ashamed of for trivializing. But practically, what's going on here is obvious. It's a little thing, but the kind that can turn big and bad if people end up resenting their local government. In the name of safety, we're being nickel and dimed. I mean $124 and $189'ed. Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.