Will Pa. lawmakers pass local police radar bill — or let it pass them by again? | Mark O’Keefe

A police officer is using a handheld RADAR gun to target a vehicle coming off a bridge. The speed is 39 MPH, in a 25 MPH zone making this driver lucky they weren’t pulled over and issued a citation (Gettty Images)

What a difference a month makes.

On March 16, the state House Transportation Committee voted 26-0 to send a bill allowing local police to use radar guns to the full chamber for action.

The bill has been debated in Harrisburg numerous times over the years. It was passed by the state Senate in 2017 by a 46-3 vote and in 2019 by a 46-3 tally.

However, both times it died in the state House of Representatives without a vote ever being taken.
Republican lawmakers, mostly from rural areas, have opposed the bill, fearing municipalities would use the radar guns to fatten their budgets by installing speed traps.

It had been supported mainly by big-city Democrats, who contended the guns could make local highways safer for both motorists and residents.

Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation that restricts local police departments from using radar.
With such widespread committee support, there was talk that the whole House could approve the bill by the end of March, going to the state Senate for a quick approval.

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But the bill never got to the full House, and the measure could die once again without a vote ever being taken.

According to Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, “conversations about the bill are continuing in the caucus, and the bill is still being vetted.”

“This is a major change in the law and we just want to be sure all concerns are addressed,” he added. “We want to do our due diligence.”

Gottesman said there’s no timetable for a decision, noting it could be “brought up anytime.”

“Unlike the budget which has to be passed by the end of June there’s no clock on this bill,” said Gottesman, adding that Legislature could take up in the fall if not sooner.

State Rep. Greg Rothman, R-Cumberland, the bill’s prime sponsor, said he remains optimistic that the bill will eventually be voted on by the full House and approved.

Rothman said GOP leaders in the House have given him no indication if it will allow a vote on the measure but said he continues trying to persuade them and other legislators about the bill’s merits.

“I think the more people know about the bill the more likely it is that they’ll support it,” said Rothman, noting he’s been working on the measure for the past five or six years.

“It’s a slow process,” he added. “The Legislature has a lot of things to deal with and you just have to be patient.

Everyone thinks their bill should get the top priority but that’s not always possible.”

Rothman said he has worked with lawmakers who have opposed the bill in the past because of their fears that municipalities would use the radar guns as cash registers to bolster their budgets.

“We looking to change drivers habits not help municipalities with their budgets,” he said

He said under his bill, and municipalities would only receive $12.50 from speeding tickets.

“It would take about half an hour for police to set up a radar gun so municipalities would probably lose money rather than make money,” Rothman said.

He added that it would be up to municipal officials to decide if they want to use the radar guns.

“There’s nothing mandatory about this bill,” he added. “If a municipality doesn’t want to use the radar guns they don’t have to.”

Rothman said he’d seen increased support for radar guns over the years among his colleagues in the House.

“I think there’s more awareness, especially in the suburbs, about what a problem speeding has become,” said Rothman. “We’re trying to act before a child is hit by a speeding car.”

Groups such as the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ Association supported the measure over the years.

The Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, the union representing members of the Pennsylvania State Police, added its support this year for the first time.

The backing came after lawmakers amended the bill to allow state police troopers to use radar devices from moving patrol cars.

Municipal police officers would be limited to using radar from a stationary point.

State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne, the ranking Democrat on the the House Transportation Committee, said most Democrats in the Legislature would back the bill. Still, he noted, it’s up to Republicans to support the measure since they’re in the majority.

“There are growing voices in the Legislature for support of the bill,” said Carroll. “I support the bill and remain hopeful that we can get enough support to pass it.”

“People are becoming more passionate about the bill, but Republicans have to support it,” he added.

In the end, while the issue of radar is a severe public health issue, it could become even more critical in the broader sense of the Legislature. Is this something that Democrats and Republicans can finally agree perhaps signaling more bipartisan support on other significant issues?

Or will it fall victim to the political games played in Harrisburg, which prevent Republicans and Democrats from agreeing on anything, even on something as basic as highway safety?

Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.