A Louisiana House panel reversed itself Wednesday to authorize a private company to catch tens of thousands of motorists who don’t have car insurance in nine parishes.

Senate Bill 54 would allow the company to install cameras that would read vehicle license plates and fine drivers who don’t have car insurance — in exchange for a generous fee.

State Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, switched from no last week to yes, and two no votes didn’t show up Wednesday as the House Administration on Criminal Justice Committee approved Senate Bill 54 on an 8-3 vote.

It was defeated a week ago, 6-5.

State Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, questioned the scheme during the hearing.

“The bottom line is it’s all about money,” said Pylant, who previously had served as Sheriff of Franklin Parish. “It’s all about revenue-based law enforcement. If it was about safety, you’d be out there stopping the vehicles.”

But Pylant, who was absent last week, then voted for it.

“It didn’t make any difference,” Pylant said afterward, in explaining why he voted for it. He said he would vote against SB54 if it advanced to the House floor. Its next stop is the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In winning passage Wednesday, the district attorneys’ association had to accept an amendment from Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, who chairs the committee, giving 10 percent of each $200 fine to the cash-strapped public defenders’ offices. Mack offered the amendment after conferring on the side with E. Pete Adams, the executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.

The amendment would slightly reduce the amount of money that the district attorneys, sheriffs and the private firm, the Louisiana Public Safety Consortium, would receive from fines paid by uninsured motorists. After the public defenders got their $20, the private company would get about $54, the DAs about $75 and the sheriffs about $51.

The private firm has said it would spend $5.3 million to install the cameras in sheriffs’ vehicles in nine parishes, establish the software program to tap into a state database of motorists to determine which ones didn’t have car insurance as required by law and hire workers to manage the program.

Under a calculation presented Wednesday by one opponent, Charles Saucier, a member of the Libertarian Party, the company would have to collect fines from at least 83,000 uninsured motorists — at $200 a pop — to break even on its $5.3 million investment.

The nine parishes are Calcasieu, Allen, Bossier, Plaquemines, Lincoln, Terrebonne, Avoyelles, Iberville and Ascension.

If approved, SB54 allows the program to expand to parishes and cities throughout the state.

If SB54 passes the House, it would have to return to the Senate because of the amendment added Wednesday in the House committee. It already passed the Senate on a 30-3 vote.

Saucier, two other Libertarian Party officials and a Republican Party official from St. John Parish expressed concern to the committee that authorizing the company to tap into the state database could lead to security breaches and would give the state information on the whereabouts of law-abiding citizens.

State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, the sponsor of SB54, said the measure contained safeguards to prevent that.

The private company has attempted to get other states to adopt a similar license plate reading system but has not succeeded.

Johns and Adams said the measure would reduce the number of uninsured motorists on the road — which is 12 percent to 15 percent of all drivers.

Even more so than on other occasions, the district attorneys presented the bill as a measure to catch criminals and improve public safety. But Mack stopped them when he asked if the real intent was going after uninsured motorists.

Rep. John Bagneris, D-New Orleans, asked why the state simply couldn’t pay for the system and cut out the middleman, the private company.

“My sheriffs can’t afford it,” said Schuyler Marvin, the district attorney for Bossier and Webster parishes. He said that each camera would cost $15,000.

Bagneris said he thought the state could find the money.

Marvin and the other DAs said the cameras would go in sheriffs’ deputies’ vehicles, but it’s also possible that they would place the cameras at fixed places along roadways.

Afterward, Carpenter said she switched her vote because the program would not impose a cost on taxpayers — since the private company would front all the costs in exchange for its cut of the fine proceeds.

State Rep. Barbara Norton, D-Shreveport, and Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, voted against the bill in the committee last week but missed the vote on Wednesday. In interviews in the House chamber later, Norton said she had been sick while Hodges said she had taken two children to the pediatrician.

Voting for SB54 (8): Reps. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; Frank Howard, R-Many; Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles; Chris Hazel, R-Pineville; Terry Landry, D-New Iberia; Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro; and Bryan Adams, R-Terrytown.

Voting against SB54 (3): Reps. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; John Bagneris, D-New Orleans; and Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge.

Absent and not voting (4): Reps. Joe Lopinto, R-Metairie; Randal Gaines, D-Laplace; Norton; and Hodges.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @TegBridges.

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