Final vote set on bill to create privately-run RI highway surveillance system

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Rhode Island Senate has scheduled a final vote on a controversial bill that would create a privately-run surveillance system on state highways to scan license plates for out-of-state drivers who don’t have insurance.

The legislation – sponsored by Rep. Robert Jacquard, D-Cranston – passed the House earlier this year and cleared a Senate committee before falling into limbo when the General Assembly session collapsed June 30 due to a budget impasse.

State lawmakers are now set to return to Smith Hill on Tuesday to wrap up unfinished business, and Senate Democratic leaders currently have a final vote on the surveillance bill scheduled as the last item on their agenda for the day. If approved, it would go to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s desk for her signature or veto. She has expressed reservations about the legislation.

Jacquard says the bill will increase enforcement and raise money, but opponents have denounced it as an infringement on civil liberties. The cost of the system would be covered by the private company that manages it, and that firm would split the revenue from fines with the state.

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a lobbying group for insurers, is urging lawmakers to reject the bill. Frank O’Brien, the group’s vice-president of state government affairs, argued Monday it “would create an unworkable and unnecessary license plate scanning system on Rhode Island roads” and “is simply unnecessary.”

“The bill raises a host of troubling privacy, data security, and legal issues,” O’Brien said in a statement.

Under questioning before the Judiciary Committee in June, Jacquard declined to say if there is a specific company he expects to bid to manage the system. “It may not even come to fruition if there’s not a vendor out there who can do this as a reasonable program,” he said.

Sen. Donna Nesselbush, D-Pawtucket, noted that “somebody’s got to be making money off this.” Jacquard responded that more than 40 companies use data from the database involved in his proposal for purposes such as red-light cameras and toll enforcement.

Nesselbush remained skeptical. “There’s a little of a spying overtone to this,” she said, describing herself as “a little uncomfortable with it.” She noted comparisons have been made between Jacquard’s proposal and “1984,” the iconic George Orwell novel.

Jacquard replied, “I think Orwell was talking about thought control, not really whether or not people are actually violating the law.”

No other state has created the type of highway surveillance system Jacquard’s bill would authorize, though some have considered it, he told the committee.

No one other than Jacquard testified in favor of the bill in committee. In addition to the insurance industry, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Rhode Island chapter also expressed opposition at a House hearing back in February.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook